Black studies and how to critique 101 for the CHE

So, here’s a rough recap of what went on at the Chronicle of Higher Education, in bullet form:

1. The Chronicle published one of their puff pieces on the Young Guns of Black Studies. It’s behind a paywall, but the teaser tells you quite a bit: it’s one of their little anointing articles, but in this case, it’s about a group of young scholars from a new PhD program in Black Studies. I hate these CHE featurettes in general because there’s way too damn much fame-seeking and celeb culture in the academy already, yours truly included, but black scholars should, in general, get as many props as possible just for putting up with the rest of us.

Now, in reality, these dissertations all sound interesting enough, particularly that first one about Chisolm and Jordan. Barbara Jordan was one of my first role models.

2. This was followed up by this swaggering attempt at a takedown by Naomi Schaefer Riley, who, after sniffing that the dissertations were all irrelevant and useless and unworthy of attention, said that these dissertations were proof these programs were, basically, worthless:

The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations. – Brainstorm – The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments. If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.


3. And then, when called on her controversial piece, said:

Black Studies, Part 2: A Response to Critics – Brainstorm – The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.


4. This little revelation has caused her to get fired, which has thus made her some kind of darling among some commenters on the academy. I mean, she has freedom of speech, right? This is all just political correctness, right?
Um, no.

First of all, my dissertation had to do with national effing security , people, and I’d bet you $100 that 20 people in the whole world haven’t read my dissertation, either. They read the papers that came out of it. Or at least I desperately hope.

Second of all, the Chronicle is journalism about the academy. And journalists are supposed to to look at evidence. Like reading things, even things you think are boring or beneath you because it has to do with black people.

But more importantly, since when did the argument that your writing is about the academy rather than journalism excuse you from reading the material before you open your big fat gob? Isn’t reading, reflecting, and THEN critiquing kind of what we do? Aren’t there enough sources of uninformed yammer on the internet without scholars adding to it?

Here’s my favorite discussion of this problem, from Timothy Burke, a professor of History at Swarthmore. I quote at length, but his suggestions are so good I can’t stop myself, and I’ll give the excuse that I’m encouraging you to start reading him if you don’t:

Crashing the Pity Party:

If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work a bit, I think you’ll find that there are important criticisms of Black Studies as field within the field and outside of it, by white authors and black authors alike.

Some suggestions for the person who is genuinely seeking well-considered, ambitious criticisms:

Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity.
Michaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home

Challenging critiques of identity politics and the academic study of identity from a broadly leftward direction–but that should be as interesting and useful a resource for conservatives as anyone else.

Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa
Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism

I would definitely get some flack from colleagues for suggesting the former book, but as long as you understand that Lefkowitz is primarily criticizing a specific branch of thought within Black Studies (Afrocentrism, and specifically forms of Afrocentric scholarship from the 1980s and early 1990s), I think it’s an interesting and important critique. Howe’s critically-focused intellectual history of Afrocentrism will help put the sharp exchanges between Lefkowitz and her critics in a longer and wider perspective.

Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House
Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity
Paul Gilroy, Against Race
Hazel Carby, Race Men
Henry Louis Gates Jr., Colored People: A Memoir

I think these authors would not describe these works as rejecting the political project of Black Studies–indeed, they’re all taught and read as part of the canon in the field. But I think it’s possible to read these books as criticizing some prominent aspects of or ideas about identity and blackness, including how the study of those topics has been institutionalized in academic institutions. (Appiah’s dialogue with Amy Gutman in Color Conscious may also be of interest in this vein.)

Stanley Crouch, pretty much all of his non-fiction that isn’t about jazz, but especially The All-American Skin Game
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Race Experts
John McWhorter, Losing the Race

Sharp, contrarian critiques of the institutionalization of identity politics, among other things.

Scott Malcolmsen, One Drop of Blood
Leon Wynter, American Skin
Jacob Dlamini, Native Nostalgia
Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together
Clarence Walker, Mongrel Nation

All indirectly or directly raising big questions about whether the black or African (or other fixedly racial) subject is the wrong thing to be studying.

More? I can supply it. The point is, you don’t need a shallow, proudly uninformed rejection of Black Studies to participate in a critical evaluation of the field or of scholars within it. 

(Via Easily Distracted)

5. I’m sure Riley will go on to much more lucrative gigs as some money-flush part of the media world picks her up. Read: Palin, Sarah. No need to worry about her.

But sheesh. Why is commenting without reading now seen as a *right* instead the scholarly equivalent of breaking wind in public? Reading and reflecting is central to our g-d jobs, people! If we give up on those tasks, who in the sam hill is going to embody those scholarly tasks in democratic deliberation if not us?