The Department of Africana Studies: A Case of Unintended Consequences

Was Africana Studies part of the "table of brotherhood"?

Every Brown student is familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King’s words: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  Unfortunately, Dr. King’s vision falls short of reality at Brown’s academic department entrusted with the education of his work: Africana Studies.

The department has a noble and worthwhile goal – “the critical examination of the theoretical, historical, literary, and artistic developments of the various cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora.” The approach, however, produces the opposite of the intent. The department is organized around a race. This places the focus of study on the concept of race itself instead of on the “historical, literary, and artistic” content of people of that race. The race-driven approach to content ingrains the practice of reasoning by racial classifications. Even today we face this mindset repudiated almost half a century ago by Dr. King.

The department fosters race-based reasoning in students and faculty by treating history, literature, and art as racial issues rather than broad disciplines that only occasionally warrant discussion of race. For instance, consider the recent course offerings of the department. “Afro Latin Americans and Blackness in the Americas” instructs students in a “critical discussion of national images and realities about blackness…” Courses such as this teach students that the study of as broad a topic as a nation’s history should be understood by artificial race labels such as “blackness.” Students emerge with a view of Latin America distorted by an overemphasis on race, which, unlike other topics such as economics or law, has hardly a controlling influence on nations or their people. The regularly offered course on Brazil exclusively focuses on the “theorization of race, racial identity and race relations in contemporary Brazil,” giving the same impression that an understanding of a culture is not much more than a matter of pigmentation. “Race, Gender, and Urban Politics” too can’t escape characterizing the Africana urban experience as anything but an amalgamation of “race, gender, class, and sexuality.”

These courses and practically all the others make it nearly impossible to read through the department’s course descriptions and find a course that studies the history, literature, and art of people of African descent as history, literature, and art. Instead, each course fixates on superficial notions of race to the detriment of the actual substance of Africana history, literature, and art. Under race-driven reasoning, Students learn that determining the relevance of race is the ultimate goal.

Additionally, the department’s emphasis on race functions as a platform for the advocacy of political views. For instance, the department offers courses such as “Black Radical Tradition” and “20th Century Black Feminist Thought and Practice in the US.” These courses cover the topics “Africana feminism/womanism, black nationalism, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, Pan-Africanism, and radical democracy.” Required readings include: “Black Marxism: The Making of Black Radical Tradition”, “How Europe Undeveloped Africa”, and “Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones.” The education of leftist political philosophy wouldn’t be objectionable if the department undertook a commitment to a comprehensive study of political philosophy in the black community. However, in no place will you find courses or required reading on say the ideas of Walter Williams or Thomas Sowell, two prominent African American economists, on the African American family. You will not encounter the views of Shelby Steele, a distinguished African American scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, on affirmative action. Why? For the simple reason that these views are right-wing. The department’s refusal to address these voices in the black community, or any conservative views in general, indicates a clear bias toward the left wing ideology emphasized ad nauseam. Advocacy and bias enter the academic world enough already. Race should not be used as a vehicle to further undermine academic integrity.

The department’s ideological stance produces stubborn and dogmatic students. Without opposing views, students readily absorb the viewpoints of courses such as “Race, Rights, and Rebellion” and “The Ethics of Black Power” as fact. They convince themselves that racial injustice of the past is a permanent state of society requiring a continual racial “blame game.” The production of students of a particular opinion should not be the aim of any university or academic department, not least one whose code of student conduct purports to protect “the free exchange of ideas.”

The shortcomings of the department of Africana Studies stem from its existence as a separate department. Imagine extending the Africana Studies model of dividing the study of other subjects by race. Why not create a department for Latino Studies, or Caucasian Studies, or Pacific Islander Studies? We would be told that this would give us a greater perspective and remove social norms and stereotypes attached to these cultures. Though there is no need to stop there. Clearly Caucasian Studies obscures crucial cultural subdivisions and should therefore be divided into a limitless number of new departments such as Anglo-Saxon Studies, Mediterranean Studies, etc. One can see how this mindset taken to its logical conclusion would submerge all important ideas of history, literature, and art behind the veneer of race. Students would learn that figuring out how race applies – for surely is must apply – they say, is the standard of study. This is unadvisable in the extreme across all departments, and no less so in the individual case of Africana Studies.

Africana Studies undoubtedly holds rich material worthy of academic analysis. Therefore, courses on the history, literature, and art of Africana Studies should be housed in the history, literature, and art departments respectively. The focus would change. There, content would be studied as literature, history, and art with deservedly little attention to race except when essential to the material at hand.

It is a sad situation when those most concerned with discarding the vestiges of backward “race-oriented” thinking have become its staunch defenders. I firmly believe that departments dedicated to particular groups of persons, racial or otherwise, only hinder an objective study of important content and inculcate discriminatory attitudes. Parading such practices under platitudes of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” might be in accordance with in vogue political correctness, but the consequences remain the same.

 

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About the author

Oliver Hudson is editor emeritus of the Spectator and a graduate of Brown university in Applied Math-Computer Science.

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