Africana Studies and Community

            Africana Studies creates a place for African and African Diaspora culture, history, art, and language to be studied from an interdisciplinary and inherently political perspective. Stemming from its creation in the 60s during the Black Power and Civil Rights movement [1], Africana Studies has been a discipline that does not simply study Black people but actively works against the racist structures within society. On the surface, academics created Africana Studies to study Black people and their experiences throughout history. However, Africana Studies as a discipline has much loftier goals than simply researching and publishing. Africana Studies has a unique positionality where white scholars have not tried to reduce it to purely “unbiased” and “objective” thought as many older disciplines have. By rejecting this notion that it is possible to not apply opinions to academia, Africana Studies allows itself to work towards deconstructing systemic racism by rooting itself in community. 

Africana Studies is greater than the sum of the Black-focused subgroups within each discipline it comprises because it is contrived through Afrocentric rather than Western thought [2]. By presenting knowledge in an Afrocentric manner, Africana Studies inherently comes from a place of sympathy rather than reducing Black struggle throughout the span of time to a few quantifiable values. It starts with the narratives of those currently living under oppressive racist systems, rather than having the people as an afterthought. This means including the stories from people who went through experiences like sharecropping rather than just theorizing on the practice itself and trying to ignore the emotional harm it did. Western thought has viewed knowledge production as an extractive process rather than a relationship for hundreds of years. That is why there are still stolen artifacts [3] in every major museum and how the Tuskegee Project went on for forty years [4]. It does not matter if the practices steal possessions or life from people of color as long as they are accepted by the wider white systems that dictate ethics. Systems like the medical community who established the Center for Disease Control, who did not recommend the Tuskegee Project to be shut down until 1972 [4]. Western thought, and therefore the system of Western academia, comes from the perspective of the colonizer [5]. Africana thought is structured around those who had their generations ripped apart by colonization. Therefore, Africana knowledge production works specifically to counter that mode of research. To take knowledge from a community, the community must receive something of value in return. This is how Africana Studies stayed in line with one of its founding goals: giving back to the communities it researches. Communities are a foundation of Africana Studies in part because they are the emotional ties between people [2]. Prioritizing these is another form of rejecting Western thought. This community-focused mindset can be clearly traced back to the Black Power movement [1], where the Black Panthers kept their communities safe, well-fed, and educated [6]. Those same people created the principals of Africana Studies, so they would not forget about their focus of helping each other [1]. Giving back to a community may not be as obvious as outright activism, which is why some other Black-focused disciplines, like Black Religious Studies, criticize Africana Studies for being too theoretical [7]. The professors within Africana Studies’ research may lead to activism, but perhaps one reason why Africana Studies’ goal of community involvement does not necessitate the stereotypical view of activism (protesting, boycotts, etc.) is that community involvement is not recognized as an act of activism in itself. If studying the systemic racism within evictions, giving the people going through eviction the resources they need to obtain housing and aiding them with filling out legal documents is still resisting systemic racism, and is therefore activism. Each person has their own skills that can dismantle or defy racist systems, no matter how small or large the impact.  

Before Black intellectuals created Africana Studies, scholars studied its components as subfields within other disciplines. This not only made it much easier to ignore the Afrocentric perspective of each field but left people studying them on the outskirts of their field [2]. This not only happened to Carter G. Woodson but a variety of other academics [8]. Their work was too radical for the academy, so white scholars ostracized them from their field [2]. Therefore, the founding of Africana Studies had to include the goal of simply creating a space to study Black people without the limitations set by Western academia. Since the discipline is inherently radical, those with radical views can still produce work that can have an impact on academia. An entire discipline is much harder to ignore than a few papers in each department. This had the side effect of not only creating a space for works about Black people but also created a community on campuses for people of color who wanted a break from contending with the racism inherent in every discipline. In classics, students had to learn languages, such as Greek or Latin, in expensive private schools before university, creating yet another barrier for Black students [9]. In history, there was a constant focus on white people while deliberately ignoring people of color to make them seem inferior [10]. Africana Studies did the opposite because that is Black scholars designed it to do. It created a network of Black intellectuals that were unified under a single discipline and therefore have more productive conversations with each other.  

Although creating and supporting communities is an important goal within Africana Studies, it is incomplete to portray it as the only goal of Africana Studies. Africana Studies also serves to legitimize Black experiences within the academic space, teach students how to examine all-encompassing racist systems, and be the academic research behind Black-focused social justice movements.  Until people across the globe are ready to contend with racism against Black people and admit its existence in every facet of modern life, Africana Studies still has material to study and systems to deconstruct. 

Citations

[1] Harris, L. Robert, “The Intellectual and Institutional Development in Africana Studies” in Bobo, Jacqueline, Hudley, Cynthia, and Michel, Claudine, eds. 2004. The Black Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

[2] Furusa, Munashe. “Spelling Our Proper Name: Reconceptualizing the Order of Africana/Black Studies.” Journal of Black Studies40, no. 1 (2009): 24-44. 

[3] Alice Procter, “UK Museums Should Be Honest about Being Stuffed with Stolen Goods | Alice Procter,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, February 20, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/20/uk-museums-honest-stolen-goods-imperialism-theft-repatriation.

[4] “Tuskegee Study – Timeline – CDC – NCHHSTP,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), accessed October 4, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm.

[5]Sandra Kouritzin and Satoru Nakagawa, “Toward a Non-Extractive Research Ethics for Transcultural, Translingual Research: Perspectives from the Coloniser and the Colonised,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 39, no. 8 (2018): pp. 675-687, https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2018.1427755.

[6] Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, “The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers,” National Geographic, January 23, 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/food/the-plate/2015/11/04/the-black-panthers-revolutionaries-free-breakfast-pioneers/.

[7] Andre Willis, “Africana Religious Thought.” Brown University, September 26, 2019.

[8] Françoise Hamlin. “Creating a Field of Knowledge.” Brown University, 19 September 2019.

[9] Sasha-Mar Eccleston, “Africana in the Classics.” Brown University, 17 September 2019.

[10] Brown, Anthony L. “Counter-memory and Race: An Examination of African American Scholars’ Challenges to Early Twentieth Century K-12 Historical Discourses.” The Journal of Negro Education79, no. 1 (2010): 54-65. 

One thought on “Africana Studies and Community”

  1. I really like how this post focuses on the uniqueness of Africana Studies as a whole by examining how it differs from traditional means of research. The initial point about how Africana Studies rejects the need to be purely “unbiased” or “objective” is not one that I had considered, but certainly allows for more freedom of historical analysis. Through this post, you cite specific examples of when Western thought left more to be desired due to its limits in understanding the black perspective, but you also emphasized the importance of the various forms of community that Africana Studies continues to support. I enjoyed this read very much, will continue thinking about the various meanings of the word community.

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