Whites Break New Ground by Teaching Black Studies

Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune, March 5, 2009

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Around the country this year, college campuses are celebrating the 40th anniversary of African-American studies programs. Although black scholars make up the majority of the faculty, white scholars increasingly are making their mark, including two teaching at Northwestern University.

It may be the ultimate in inclusion as well as irony in a discipline that emerged out of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s to challenge “the man” and the white status quo. If African-American history looks back at the black experience, African-American studies tries to examine it from the inside out and from every angle.

White scholars have pursued doctorates in African-American history in relatively large numbers; but whites with doctorates in black studies as well as those who teach in the field remain fairly rare.

Martha Biondi, an associate professor of African-American studies and history at Northwestern University, said she believes her racially mixed group of students places far more stock in her passion for her craft than the fact that she’s white.

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From the beginning, the goal of African-American studies–with its immersion in black culture, literature, history, politics and religion–was to critique and strengthen social justice policies for people of African descent worldwide.

Scholars of African-American studies often share a desire to immerse themselves in black culture but also come from a background that leans toward social justice and changing the world.

Biondi was raised in a predominantly white, small town in Connecticut. She remembers being anti-Nixon in the 3rd grade, watching black news affairs programs on television and reading her baby-sitter’s copies of The Nation. As a teen, she aspired to become a civil rights lawyer.

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African-American studies programs emerged in the 1960s from the racial transformation taking place on college campuses across the country. More black students were arriving and facing racism, and they believed universities could help by adding more black professors along with courses that reflected their experiences and sensibilities.

The first black studies program began in 1969 at San Francisco State University. Nathan Hare, a black professor hired the year before to head the department, said its mission was to create a new approach to scholarship that would lead to changes on campus and in the community.

“We were uniting the academy with the street,” said Hare, who holds doctorates in sociology and clinical psychology. “We wanted to elevate black scholarship, but it wasn’t like no white person could touch it. Just like it wasn’t like black students should only take black studies courses.”

He said that whites, Asians and Hispanics joined black students in the 5-month-long campus uprising–considered the most violent chapter in campus history–that began at the end of 1968.

By 1973 nearly all of the country’s major universities had a black studies program, but the transition was less than smooth. When Mark Naison began teaching at Fordham University in 1970, he didn’t just encounter skepticism about a Jewish guy from Crown Heights teaching in the discipline.

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At the time, Naison said, he was living with a black woman, was doing community organizing and had been kicked out of the white community. “I stared back because I had no where else to go,” he joked.

Naison has used rap music to teach history (he goes by the name “Notorious PhD”) and has appeared on comedian Dave Chappelle’s old show flaunting his knowledge of black history. {snip}

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Naison is old school. At Northwestern, Tom Edge is part of the newest generation of white professors entering the field. Edge, 33, received his doctorate in African-American studies last May from the University of Massachusetts.

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“Almost always it’s my white students who ask me how I became interested in the field,” said Edge. “Many of them have learned history the way I did, and when they see how black history fits in, they begin to understand its richness.”

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