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Why Black Studies Matters

On African American, African and Black Diaspora Studies

“I have known many black men and women and black boys and girls who really believed that it was better to be white than black, whose lives were ruined or ended by this belief; and I, myself, carried the seeds of this destruction within me for a long time.”

James Baldwin

Damon Davis, Libations For Those We Sold, 2018

In a 2016 article for The Atlantic called, “A Dialogue on Race and Speech at Yale”, staff writer Conor Friedersdorf spoke about recent race protests on campus with Yale University student Bria Godley. In her essay, “On Shame and Moving Forward” published in the student publication The New Journal, she writes about the challenges of distancing herself from her natural hair in favor of straightening it and finding excuses to avoid attending meetings with groups like the Black Student Alliance in order to integrate into mainstream culture at Yale. But she also acknowledges that she is constantly aware that she is “other” on the outside yet hopeful that one day she can “envision a world in which I think of my blackness and I don’t have to think of all the ways in which it makes me vulnerable, and others frightened.” In her exchange with Friedersdorf, Godley identifies a looming problem at her elite, self-segregated university: most students graduate from Yale having never taken one African-American Studies course. White students, in particular, tell Godley they don’t take the course because they, ‘“don’t understand” what it’s like to be a minority” and see the course as unrelated to their experience. This example of racial apathy underscores why African American Studies matters and should be a requisite study for all students at universities.

Black students don’t get to choose to learn about their White oppressors in history class, but White students have the choice to learn about Black history. Something is wrong with this picture. Two ideas that are central in mitigating these pathological prejudices on campus exist within the framework of an African Americans Studies course: understanding the process of racialization in Western history and considering diasporic perspectives across cultures.

In an essay for The Black Scholar called “Black Studies and Black Life”, Alexander G. Weheliye questions how we understand and teach the study of African Americans in the United States. One truth that must be acknowledged is the idea that Black life appears as a roadblock in the study of American history, therefore it is often reconfigured to fit a certain Western narrative. Black Studies, he asserts, is in itself a critique of Western modernity. The process of racialization breaks down into a sociopolitical conglomeration of “humans, not quite humans and non-humans”, and it is Blackness that “designates a changing system of unequal power structures that apportion and delimit which humans can lay claim to full human status and which humans cannot”. In other words, Western metaphysical humanism has created structures that relegate blackness to being not quite human and/or non-human. Therefore, Black life is missing from how we teach Western history. The benefits of African American studies are to disentangle the belief that Blackness is non-human and to deconstruct why the Black body is absent in the study of Western man. African American Studies identifies, studies and combats these early processes of racializing and configuring Black life. Furthermore, the breadth of Black Studies as a whole expands beyond the West and pushes to examine more deeply the vestiges of Black life and cultural pathologies of race on a global scale.

“Black studies and scholars are not bound by any geographical location,” Darlene Clark Hines writes in her essay, “A Black Studies Manifesto.” Unlike many White Americans who claim heritage from various European countries, the heritage of Black Americans is often left in question within Western teaching; however, African Americans come from all over. Hines emphasizes the importance for Black Studies courses to “connect, draw parallels, and chart discontinuities between people of color in diverse locations, at disparate times or eras”. By making connections between global African diasporas, the patterns of slavery, legislative segregation, colonialism and other forms of repression, one thing is clear: freedom struggles for Black people are everywhere, not just in the United States. By comparing different cultural perspectives, a student of African American studies can better understand the particularities of the Black experience and how these challenges intersect and diverge across time in history.

James Baldwin wrote about the problem with White society: “People who imagine history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” African American Studies are invaluable to all people in that they force us to re-think racial categorization. White students who have long believed Western myths will unlearn what they’ve been taught and will hopefully confront their privilege. Black students will learn about their heritage that extends beyond the Western teaching of slavery but also learn diasporic perspectives and highlight the many scholars, activists and artists who have advanced and widened the scope of Black Studies. African American Studies should be a requisite course for every American.