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What Is Africana Studies (Full Episode)

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Hello, and welcome to African Elements. I’m
Darius Spearman. In this episode, what is Black Studies — also referred to as Africana
Studies? We look at the origins of a relatively new academic discipline. How did Black Studies
come about and how is it distinct from other academic disciplines? Also, what are the challenges
faced by scholars, academics and students of Black Studies in higher education? All
that coming up next. 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. No matter what one may call it, 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 reframing of the world through a European lens has confronted people of African
descent and even people on the continent of Africa with an identity crisis as the continent
has been transformed by colonization and Black people have been stripped of their cultural
heritage, history, and language. Black Studies, then has become a way of reshaping and reframing the
experience of Black people as opposed to having their experience as well as their
very identities reframed and viewed through the lens of their colonial oppressors. 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. 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. What has been the impact of the
reframing of African identity through European eyes? Malcolm X explains:
Why should the Black man in America concern himself — since he’s been away from the African
continent for three or four hundred years — why should we concern ourselves? What impact
does what happens to them have upon us? Number one, first you have to realize that up until
1959 Africa was dominated by the colonial powers. And by the colonial powers of Europe
having complete control over Africa, they projected the image of Africa negatively.
They projected Africa always in a negative light: jungles, savages, cannibals, nothing
civilized. Why then naturally it was so negative [that] it was negative to you and me, and
you and I began to hate it. We didn’t want anybody telling us anything about Africa,
much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating
ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree and not
hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not end up hating yourself. You can’t
hate Africa and not hate yourself. You show me one of these people over here who have
been thoroughly brainwashed, who has a negative attitude toward Africa, and I’ll show you
one that has a negative attitude toward himself. You can’t have a positive attitude toward
yourself and a negative attitude toward Africa at the same time. To the same degree that
your understanding of and attitude toward Africa becomes positive, you’ll find that
your understanding of and your attitude toward yourself will also become positive. And this
is what the white man knows. As we can see, the critical issue here is
the power to define. Since historically the black experience has been defined through
the European lens (at least over the past four hundred years or so) Black Studies is
largely an effort to reclaim and redefine the experience of persons of African descent.
That’s exactly the reason why naming is so important. 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 Foundland 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. 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. As we
will see, 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. 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. “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 as we will see later. 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.
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. Systematic and widespread dispersal of Africans throughout the globe,
however, took place on a far more massive scale in the past 400 years as a result of the
Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent colonization of the continent of Africa. Africana
studies focuses on the Pan-African links and experiences of persons of African descent
not only on the continent of Africa and in the Americas, but in places like England,
France, Germany, Spain, Italy, as well as Russia and various other parts of Europe and
Asia. It does so, however, without the political context that you find in the “Black Power”
movement. Aside from the terminology, Black Studies, African American Studies, and Africana Studies
are similar in that they came about largely in response to a systematic misrepresentation
of the experience of persons of African descent in such a way as to popularize the notion
that they are inferior. It is in response to miseducation, which, as Malcolm X explained, has
redirected the world view of black people in such a way as to prevent them from identifying with
their true history, culture self-awareness, and well-being; and diseducation, by which
black people have been deprived of access to education altogether. As such, a core value
is an underlying social mission that requires the application of theory to methodology and
the combination of knowledge to activism toward the practical resolution of issues in the Black community.
That is the reason why Black Studies always has historically been so closely
aligned with activism and social justice. Key developments in the establishment of Black Studies
include a period of renewed hope between 1945 and 1955. During that time, legal victories
such as the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 which struck
down segregation, gave blacks a sense of optimism in terms of the direction the country was
going. Additionally, the GI Bill allowed many African Americans who were returning from
World War II as veterans to have most, if not all, of their college tuition paid by
the federal government. Within the first few years of its passage, the reality of a college
education combined with growing desegregation of public institutions led to unprecedented
growth in the number of African American students. Along with the influx of African American
students and the gradual breakdown of legal barriers, however, a number of other factors
combined that encouraged the institutionalization of Black Studies in higher education. Why
would the power structure which had been so resistant to curricular and structural change
now all of a sudden seem so much more open to change? The gains of the civil rights movement —
that is the desegregation of the armed forces and the Brown vs. Board of Education
decision among many other efforts �combined with two other forces (civil unrest and the
Cold War) brought about a shift with regard to the stance that academia in general held
toward the establishment of Black Studies as a discipline. The period of civil rights
also overlapped a period of militancy, unrest, sit-ins, and demands for acknowledgment and
justice on college campuses, which increased between 1966 and 1968. In May 1967, students at
Jackson State College in Mississippi fought with police for two nights. The National Guard
was called, and one person was killed. On March 19, 1968, a sit-in at Howard University
became the first building takeover on a college campus. By this time, the philosophy of the
Black Power movement, and Black Nationalism were about as firmly entrenched in the black
community as the civil rights movement as a response to racism and systematic oppression.
Uprisings in the Los Angeles community of Watts in 1965 and in Newark New Jersey in
1967 as well as uprisings in cities nationwide in the wake of the assassinations of Malcolm
X and Martin Luther King and 1965 and 1968 respectively had the effect of reframing Black
Studies as a national security issue. Perhaps some systematic change would be necessary
in order prevent widespread unrest in what were formerly exclusively white institutions
that were increasingly becoming desegregated. Another national security threat also loomed
that forced or at least encouraged academic institutions to consider implementing Black
Studies into their curricula. The period immediately following World War II through the 1980s ushered in
the era of the Cold War. As most of Europe and much of Asia lay in shambles, the United
States and the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as the world’s two emerging superpowers —
and as bitter rivals to one another. As the two superpowers competed on a global scale for
strategic and economic dominance, the United States became increasingly concerned
about supporting regimes friendly to its capitalistic interests in order to undercut its communist
rival. At home, the United States became increasingly concerned — some might say paranoid — over
the threat of communist infiltration within the country. As a result efforts of US Government
agencies to systematically root out the communist threat from within took the form of the infamous
McCarthy hearings of 1954 and FBI counterintelligence programs intended to disrupt and destroy organizations
it saw as subversive such as the Black Panther Party. At the same time, implementing programs of
Black Studies in higher education was seen as a necessary concession in order to keep
black students from “going communist.” It is within that context that Merritt Community
College in Oakland, California established the first organized Black Studies curriculum
in the 1965-1966 academic year. San Francisco State University approved the nation’s first
four year curriculum in Black Studies in the 1967-1968 academic year. As a relatively new
and still developing discipline, Black Studies faces many challenges, dilemmas and
paradoxes that scholars, students and academics must grapple with. Among them: Given that
Black Studies is both a response to and a means of addressing social inequality how
we get around the fact that social inequality is largely a barrier between black studies
those whose needs it is intended to address? How do we achieve and educational impact on
a critical mass of people in the face of disproportionate access to higher education? What is or should
be the relationship between black people inside the universities and those who may never make it that far? How is it possible for Black Studies departments to
remain institutionalized in higher education and still preserve their own set of core values?
What is the cost of integration — being seen as “legitimate” in the eyes of the
establishment? Does institutionalization and mainstreaming of Black Studies compromise
a Black Studies agenda especially given that black studies places an emphasis on solutions to
group problems in the context of a social climate that values individual success as
opposed to group liberation? What about gender? If Black Studies was established
as a means to address to the disservice of Euro-Centric, male dominated thought and social practice,
patriarchal male dominance within Black Studies must also be addressed if Black
Studies is not to fall victim to this same type of disservice. Patriarchal male dominance
is part of problem that I’ve referenced earlier in terms of the political vision of
Black Studies and the Black Power movement. If Black Studies and Black Power are response
and remedy to Euro-Centric notions of power, then how do we respond without simply becoming a mirror
image of the oppressor? If the goal is to be equal with whites, does that mean
adopting the same notions of power? Top down? Male dominated? Or can we develop notions
of power that are independent of Euro-Centric and oppressive colonial models of power?
What is a responsible Black Studies research agenda? Who has the power to decide? Who sets the priorities
and determines the means to carry them out? Lastly, Black Studies programs were developed as a challenge to what remains a western dominated
Euro-Centric vision of higher education, yet it is these very institutions where Black
Studies resides. A problem with Black nationalism in general, is that given that it was established
as a means to develop autonomy and self- determination, how was that possible given that Black Studies
in higher education relies exclusively on allocations from established institutional
budgets? Consider the case in 2008 of Karen Salazar.
The Los Angeles School teacher who was fired for being too Afro-Centric:
AG: Protests in support of dismissed Los Angeles School District high school teacher Karen
Salazar have increased this week. She is a second-year English teacher at Jordan High
School in Watts. Last month, she was told her contract would not be renewed, because
she was presenting a biased view of the curriculum and indoctrinating her students
with Afrocentrism. Her course material included board-approved texts like the writings
of Malcolm X and Langston Hughes. Last week, a student took issue with the negative
characterization of Salazar’s teaching. STUDENT: She encourages her students to continue on.
She gives them the push. She doesn’t give up on her students. She says, “OK,
you’re struggling in my class. I will take time off. I will help you after school.”
Most teachers don’t even do that. And the fact that she’s teaching us about our culture
and things that are relevant to us, that’s what they’re afraid of. They’re scared
of a teacher who does that, because that involves critical thinking. They don’t like students
who question or to think critically. They just want students to absorb everything and
then to regurgitate back to them. AG: Jordan High School officials refused to
comment when we contacted them and said the issue was an internal matter relating to personnel.
But the case of Karen Salazar is not unique. … We turn now to another story that could
have a chilling effect on education in Arizona public schools. A legislative panel in Arizona
endorsed a proposal in April that would cut state funding for public schools whose courses
“denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization.” The measure would
also prohibit students of state-funded universities and community colleges from forming groups
based in whole or in part on the race of their members. Critics say the bill would essentially
destroy the state’s Mexican American or Chicano studies programs, as well as student
groups such as the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA. … Karen Salazar,
tell us the latest. KS: Hi. I guess the latest, as you said, yes,
my contract has been denied for renewal, so effective June 30th, I will be out of a contract
from LAUSD. The latest would be that about three to four weeks ago, I received my official
evaluation from the school, and it was actually a satisfactory evaluation. It was a positive
evaluation. Unfortunately, they never gave me a copy of that evaluation, even though
I signed it. So after, you know, pressing the administration to give me a copy of that
evaluation for weeks, and I had the union press them, as well, this week I was given
an evaluation. Unfortunately, it was not the evaluation that I signed. It was not the evaluation
that I signed. It was actually a different evaluation, a completely different form. My
evaluative marks of satisfactory had now been turned into unsatisfactory.
AG: And their major beef with you? KS: The major beef — originally, they told me
that the reason for not renewing my contract was that I was presenting a biased view of
the curriculum. They later told district officials that I was indoctrinating students with Afrocentrism.
Later, they said that it was due to an over-teached position, too many English teachers at my
school. Now, the latest is they’re saying that I’m not teaching state standards.
AG: Karen Salazar, can you talk about the charge that your teachings were too Afrocentric?
Talk about what you taught. KS: Sure. There was actually one lesson in particular
that’s been extremely controversial. I used a three-page excerpt from The Autobiography
of Malcolm X, which is an LAUSD-approved text. It’s widely used around the country, in
other countries, as well. I used a three-page excerpt, standards-based. They never denied
that it was standards-based. But the administrator who observed my class…
AG: When you say “standards-based” and “LAUSD,”
Los Angeles United School District, but, “standards-based?”
KS: Standards-based for the California Content
Standards for English Language Arts.
AG: Go ahead. KS: So it was a standards-based lesson. The
administrator who came and observed my class later wrote in an evaluation — this is a written
evaluation that goes into my file — that I was brainwashing students and imposing extremist views
on them, based on this lesson. So that’s one of the controversial lessons, I guess,
that I am being accused of indoctrinating students with Afrocentrism with. I did have
a mentor teacher observe the same exact lesson that same day, just coincidentally, because
she is my mentor teacher. She comes in periodically to observe my lesson. And she took away something
completely different from that lesson than what the administrator did.
AG: How many times were you evaluated compared to other teachers? KS: Well, this year alone, I’ve been evaluated
at least fifteen times. Comparatively, the average evaluations for teachers is between
one and three times, so, you know, it’s substantially more.
AG: Do you have any recourse to reverse your dismissal?
KS: At this point, we are working — students are organizing with
the union. We’re working with the Association of Raza Educators. We’re working to pressure
the district to review this decision both at the school board level and district official level.
AG: Today is graduation? KS: Today is graduation, yes.
AG: Will you be there?
KS: Yes, I will. Is it possible to challenge a western style curriculum with its emphasis on tests, quizzes,
and individual achievement with alternative African centered approaches that favor group
discussion and peer to peer mentoring? Is it possible to put forward that challenge
from within the very westernized institutional setting in which Blacks Studies resides?
These are the challenges that Black Studies and this program, African Elements, will be addressing.
That does it for this show. Thank you for joining me and be sure to check in with me
next time for a look at the significance of Black Studies. Is Black Studies only relevant
to Black Students? What does Black Studies have to add to academia as a whole? Why should Asian,
Latino, or White students engage Black Studies? We’ll address that next time on
African Elements.

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