What Is Black Studies? The Shaping of an Academic Discipline

Black Studies is a relatively new academic field. It spans across disciplines encompassing the social sciences such as history, sociology, psychology, and political science as well as the humanities, including music, art, literature, and religious studies. Different academic institutions may use different terms to describe it depending on their particular focus, but, whether it goes by the name Black Studies, African-American Studies, or Africana Studies, the discipline is generally rooted in a radical movement for fundamental education reform.

The discipline of Black Studies is a direct challenge to the European centered framework and its justification of the subjugation, enslavement, and colonization of African people and their descendants throughout the world. The comments of well-known 18th century philosopher David Hume are fairly typical as an example of how Africa and its people were framed in the eyes of the European colonizers. As a footnote in his Essay and Treatises written in 1768, he writes:

I am apt to suspect the negroes… to be naturally inferior to the white. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences. (Harris 1987, 19)

The need to reclaim one’s heritage in the face of such a disparaging mainstream narrative is at the very core of the development of black studies as an academic discipline. As such, self-definition becomes critical. The different departments that have of sprung up throughout the country do vary in the terms they use to describe themselves. Whether they go by the name Black Studies, Africana Studies, or African-American Studies, the process of naming is very deliberate and carries a particular meaning for the individuals who undertook to establish the various academic departments. The different focus that each of these departments may have makes naming a matter of political control, which is a critical principle of self-determination and self-definition.

“African American Studies” focuses on persons of African descent throughout the Americas, including North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, as well as northern countries like New Newfoundland and Greenland. So, the term, “African American” makes “African American Studies” a more historically specific branch of the discipline that describes the experience of Africans in the western hemisphere with a relatively narrow lens. (Colon 2003) While there tends to be some focus on the continent of Africa there is no specific focus on persons of African descent in Europe or Asia.

The term, “Black Studies” represents a more politicized vision of the discipline. The institutionalization of Black Studies – that is, the formal establishment of Black Studies within academic settings – came about largely as a result of what was known in the 1960s as the “Black Power” movement. (Colon 2003) Malcolm X and The Nation of Islam, in an attempt to reclaim their sense of self-definition urged the “so called Negro” to become “Black.” Black became redefined as a popular, a positive affirmation of self.

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“Black Studies” reflects the politicization of the discipline in that it is largely aimed at the discovery and dissemination of information pertaining to what Black people have undergone and achieved, and the use of education and knowledge to defend and vindicate the race against its detractors. This reframing was a symbolic victory for the masses of Black people, but it also carries with it certain problems and challenges.

Like Black Studies, Africana Studies is not limited to the experience of persons of African descent on the continent of Africa or the western hemisphere, but is much broader and focuses on the African Diaspora as a whole. (Colon 2003) The African Diaspora of refers to the disbursement of persons of African descent throughout the globe. It is well known that persons of African descent had a presence in ancient Greece and Rome as well as widespread contact between Africans and Asians via the Indian Ocean. There is some evidence to suggest that there was a pre-Columbian disbursement of Africans across the Atlantic well before 1492.

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