African-American Studies–As They Should Be

Editor’s note: John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, and the author of several books on language and on race issues.

“If I couldn’t study something that’s about myself then I wouldn’t want to be here,” the black sophomore once told me, explaining how crucial it was for him to major in African-American studies.

That always stuck with me.

Concentrating on the story of black people on our shores can be a journey of intellectual substance, teaching students how to think about the world around them using the subject of race as a springboard. But that student had something different in mind.

His African-American studies department was one of about 300 nationwide. This year is, in fact, the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the first one at San Francisco State University in 1969.

I have never had a problem with such departments in themselves. Although saying it has become a cliché, the story of black people is to a considerable extent the story of America. Slavery helped drive the colonial economy and sparked the Civil War. The civil rights revolution was a moral advance unprecedented in history. Today American popular culture is deeply stamped brown and has taken over the world, from hip-hop through the superstar status of actors like Will Smith. The swelling numbers of African immigrants are giving the African diaspora to the New World a whole new meaning. The campaign and election of Barack Obama distilled all of this so profoundly that courses could be taught on it alone—and surely will be this fall.

But the student who spoke to me was wary of whites and on a mission to “reclaim” a black history that he assumed was “hidden” or disregarded by whites. He seemed interested less in expanding his mind than in advocacy. Or healing—for him, this African-American studies department was about score-settling. Therapy, as it were.

I hope that the department did not give him what he wanted.

If the main goal is to teach African-American studies majors how oppressed they are, even if they weren’t previously aware of it, and that this oppression is so deeply coded into how America functions that only a revolution can change it, then it strikes a blow against liberal arts education.

An African-American studies program ought to be shut down if it is still stuck in the original mission of the first one, at San Francisco State—still opposed to the “liberal-fascist” ideology purportedly rampant on campus as well as capitalism and “white supremacy.” Times have changed; black America has moved ahead.

It is common to hear “black studies departments” dismissed as deaf to that reality. However, no one to date has provided a survey of all, or even some, of them. What I do know is that an African-American studies department should be a place of learning, not a 12-step-program masquerading as one.

There are three ways you know if an African-American studies department is a good one.

A good department does not allow majors to graduate without reading several black authors considered un-P.C.

Many suppose that “conservative” black writing is inherently antithetical to education; in their view, learning to be a leftist is the same as learning how to think. As various syllabi and course descriptions collected in David Horowitz’s book One-Party Classroom show, some professors in African-American studies courses claim that they stress “critical thinking”—but they assume that critical thinking comes from the left alone.

A university, however, teaches a student to form arguments and opinions based on a full range of evidence, and race issues are not an exception. One might, for example, test the claim that “conservative” black thought is so lacking in coherence, morality, and feasibility that it doesn’t impart anything useful to young minds.

Testing that claim would require young black people to know that welfare reform in 1996 sharply reduced black poverty rates. Or that before racial preferences were banned in admissions at the University of California at San Diego only one in 3268 black students made freshman honors, while the year after the ban, one in five did (just like the white students).

It’s not enough to assign a reading by Booker T. Washington—dead for nearly a hundred years and addressing an America vastly different from ours. Students need to read living writers addressing America as we know it, writers such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Stanley Crouch, and Debra Dickerson (not to mention, of course, myself). In fact, one sign that African-American studies departments are not uniformly politicized is that my book Losing the Race and some of my articles are assigned in more than a few black courses.

A good department does not teach its students origin myths.

One school I passed through showed a documentary featuring the idea that the Greeks stole their intellectual heritage from a “black” Egypt. The message was that this idea was promising, something to talk up.

No professor in the ensuing discussion was aware that it had been soundly criticized long before by works such as Mary Lefkowitz’ Not Out of Africa. None of the professors was a hotheaded “radical,” but the discussion took place as if such claims by people like Martin Bernal and Molefi Kete Asante were 1970s-fresh and as yet undisputed.

It is the height of miseducation for a student to leave a session like this under the impression that the Greeks stole her ancestors’ heritage—not to mention thinking that the residents of ancient Egypt were her ancestors. Black Americans’ history is in West Africa, among people who did not speak Swahili (learning Swahili as an ancestral tongue is like Irish-Americans picking up some Czech as a “European” language). Those uncomfortable with the idea that seventeenth-century Ghanaians did not have writing and guns should be referred to books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, not fables about ancient Egypt.

One graduate student at that session, seeing that even the documentary presented the premise as controversial, broke in to say, “If we’re not sure yet, then let’s just find out.” He thought that history is written by reading old documents and reporting what they contain, when to a large extent it comes from wrangling possible interpretations from fragmentary data. For him, the “Black Athena” debate was a mere matter of scholars not having done their homework yet, rather than an example of debate over evidence interpretable in many ways, a standard situation in academic inquiry,

Even as a graduate student, then, he was being taught that his job was to reclaim a “hidden” history rather than to pursue academic inquiry—despite the fact that whites quite commonly write signature works of black history, such as Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice, Allan Keiler’s Marian Anderson, and Thomas Sugrue’s new Sweet Land of Liberty.

A good department teaches its students not “Watch out!” but “Here’s how.”

I have seen departments where students were made aware of the horrors of the past and the obstacles today, but with an eye toward moving forward. My impression is that this kind of message is more likely to come from professors at the best schools.

However, I have also seen departments where students carried away an indignant sense of oppression, convinced that the fabric of American society makes meaningful black advancement impossible. This is a narrowing, not broadening, of their minds. They have been taught a politics that will never bear fruit and will instead form the basis for endless, unfocused cynicism and frustration. It is a message understandable from talk radio and blog sites, but irresponsible from an institution of higher learning.

The experience of an African-American studies student should indeed start with himself, as the sophomore I opened with wanted to do. But he should be ushered outside of himself into new ways of thinking and possibly new ways of being. To reanimate the tribalist, professionally indignant spirit of black activists of the 1960s should be the antithesis of an African-American studies department’s mission.