CHICAGO–The challenges confronting Black Studies programs at colleges across the country appropriately was the main topic of discussion at this year’s Black Studies forum at Olive-Harvey Community College here. Appropriate because this year’s gathering, its 31st, was the last to be convened under Professor Armstead Allen, who has held one of the longest running and highly recognized campus-held Black Studies conferences in the nation.
Even in this last gathering, the clouds of change were obvious. Instead of the usual three-to-four day confab of workshops, speeches and dinner programs, the one-day forum was composed of three panel discussions. Instead of the gathering of dozens of Black Studies intellectuals and activists from across the country as presenters, this year’s forum was overwhelmingly composed of local scholars.
“This has been the strongest gathering of the Black Studies community in the country,” said Dr. Adam Green, a history professor at the University of Chicago and a panelist. “So many different points of view and meaningful debates have taken place here. To lose it would be a great loss. This is a moment to take stock of the fact that this institution couldn’t be protected the way we want. But it also could be an opportunity.”
Changes desired by the administration in the content, speakers and focus of the program were reasons for the demise of the conference, according to Prof. Allen, who was recipient of the Presidential Award for outstanding service at the National Black Studies Conference last month in Atlanta. He said his planning committee already was in the process of reassessing the conference and making changes. Calls to the administration were not returned at Final Call press time, but a letter to Prof. Allen from Olive-Harvey President Valerie Roberson also cited a reluctance to spend university funds and a need for the conference to generate its own costs.
“Some things we must do better,” said Terrence Thomas, a former student and member of the planning committee. “But in order for this program to come back we need a strong community to fight so we can have the academic freedom to present who we want. The problem is the city college wants to use the conference as a money making venue, we see it as an academic venue.”
The forum also was an occasion to observe the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Black Studies programs. Other challenges confronting these programs are changes in names—from Black Studies to Africana Studies to Multicultural Studies and Ethnic Studies, presenters said. Such programs also are being headed by non-Blacks and classes increasingly are being populated by other ethnic groups. Even when Africans from the continent head these programs the focus becomes less about the Black struggle in America, presenters said.
“The question for the future becomes who will be the interpreters and preservers of this field? Who will be responsible for the paradigms?” Prof. Allen said. “A lot of this has to do with how universities see these programs and what they’re willing to support.”
Prof. Allen said the historical mission of Black Studies was to assess Black life in America, examine the forces and trends impacting Blacks, and to provide a framework for ideas, models and strategies as a way of coping with the dynamics of American oppression.
Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach and founder of Kwanzaa put it this way: “The important role of Black Studies is to resist (White representation of) history and produce our own. What does it mean to be the elders of humanity, to serve as the model for people around the world who struggle for liberation?” he said.
Robert Rhodes, 75, a former professor at Ohio University who established Black Studies programs on several campuses, said there has been a concerted effort to weaken Black Studies programs, not only in name change but by “bringing other programs under the same umbrella but with the same budget.”
“This was the most progressive Black Studies conference in the country,” he said. “It had a lot of progressive and militant presenters who had more of a commitment to the Black movement.”
Other topics discussed were “America’s Democratic Racial Malaise and Presidential Politics 2008,” and “Mass Media, Race, Politics and the Silencing of Moral Leadership.”