The parlor in Harris Hall, a dormitory, isnt the first setting
that comes to mind for panel discussion, particularly one as high
profile as the kickoff of a two-day symposium celebrating the 30th
anniversary of Emorys African American Studies program.
But the cozy atmosphere, with faculty and students of all races
seated in easy chairs, on sofas and on a handful of folding chairs,
and the panelists beneath an opulent crystal chandelier, made for
an intimate and informative afternoon.
The Feb. 21 panel, Founders of African American Studies,
brought together five scholars with more than 100 combined years
of experience in black studies. Moderating the panel was Emorys
own Delores Aldridge, Grace T. Hamilton Professor of Sociology and
African American Studies. Aldridge, in 1971, was hired as the first
African American professor in Emory College, and she led Emorys
African American studies program from its inception that year to
For 2030 minutes apiece, each panelist frankly discussed
his or her own often personal struggles in establishing a field
of study in atmospheres that rarely were conducive to change.
Black studies was the intellectual arm of the civil rights
movement that transformed America, Aldridge said.
Carlene Young, emeritus professor of African American studies at
San Jose State University, led off and called for a renewed activism
in young blacks, and questioned whether modern programs have the
same values as those that grew out of the civil rights movement.
There are things on TV black people are doing that we wouldve
marched about, she said. If you degrade yourself, what
do you leave for other people to do?
William Nelson, professor of black studies and political science
at Ohio State, spoke of how the program could be used as a tool.
We need to use African American studies as a lever for power,
James Turner, sociology and Africana studies professor at Cornell,
discussed black studies struggle against the entrenched culture
and power structure of what he called white institutions.
One of his most interesting vignettes was a story about when he
was a student at Northwestern and inquired about starting an African
American literature course. He was rebuffed.
It wasnt about the facts; it was about the perception
that we were without culture, he said.
James Stewart, economics professor at Penn State, defended the
legitimacy of black studies. We are on the cutting edge,
he said. The way we approach knowledge is the same way as
The fight for legitimacy was discussed by every panelist but perhaps
none better than Nelson: There are some people who think that
all we need on campus is a coffee shop where we can debate the revolution,
Nelsons comment served as a theme of the entire afternoon:
sharp and defiant.
Given half a chance and with little expectation of survival,
we were able to survive and thrive, even under the most arduous
of circumstances, Young said.
The discussion was followed by a book signing of Out of the
Revolution: The Development of African Studies, which was coedited
by Aldridge and Young.