Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora: An Introduction

By November 15, 2019 Commentaries/Opinions
Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota

By Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten, Black Perspectives

Part I: Studying the Black Diaspora, Then and Now

From May 22-24, 2019, a group of scholars from liberal arts colleges throughout the country gathered at Carleton College for a workshop titled, “Teaching, Researching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora at Elite Liberal Arts Colleges.” Organized by Drs. Crystal Moten, Chipo Dendere, and Charisse Burden-Stelly, this workshop aimed to interrogate a host of issues that permeate Black study, Black Studies, and the Black diaspora in the context of the United States academy generally, and elite liberal arts colleges particularly.

In an era constituted by color-blind discourse and post-racialism on the one hand, and racial terrorism and resurgent white nationalism on the other, it is more important than ever to research, study, and teach about the Black diaspora. As the demands of student activists on liberal arts college campuses throughout the country suggest, the presence of Africana students, faculty, and curricula are currently lacking, but are desperately desired. The need for such content — and those who can teach it — goes beyond often-hollow rhetoric about “diversity” and “inclusion”; students are deeply concerned about the gap in their education regarding the racial implications of phenomena including structural dispossession, the global maldistribution of resources, political disenfranchisement, and cultural imposition and appropriation. In addition, they are keenly interested in the ways that the latter have been contested, challenged, and rejected by those racialized as Black wherever they are located. In short, as a heuristic, the Black diaspora reveals power relations nationally and globally; pressing social, political, and economic issues; the manifold manifestations of anti-Blackness; and current and historic struggles for empowerment, equality, and self-determination.

However, this content is not unanimously supported. Professors who engage in this sort of research, especially when it is linked to struggles for social transformation beyond the academy, have been targeted by white supremacists, right-wing media outlets, and even by some college and university administrators. Less hostile faculty and students have nonetheless suggested that such content is too controversial, divisive, or irrelevant to an ostensibly equal society. A dearth of Black faculty, institutional support, and resources present other barriers to teaching, researching, and studying the Black Diaspora at elite liberal arts colleges.

Thus, through a combination of panel discussions, facilitated sessions, and open dialogue, the workshop engaged questions including the following: what does it mean to teach about the Black diaspora at predominantly white, elite liberal arts colleges that tend to have a very low percentage of Black students and faculty? What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of non-Black persons teaching about the Black diaspora in these spaces? Are there pedagogical and epistemological approaches that should be used when teaching this content to white, often affluent, students? How can liberal arts administrators strive to recruit and retain Africana faculty to ensure that this content is represented on their campuses? And finally, what are the resources and relationships available that can help to support and sustain research on and the study of the Black Diaspora?

The year 2019 marks fifty years since uprisings to establish Black Studies in US colleges and universities reached their zenith. Likewise, in 1969, organizations like the Institute for the Black World were founded in an effort to expand and democratize the quest for knowledge about the Africana experience. People of African descent, and their “Third World” comrades, struggled and risked their lives for what they called a “more relevant education” — that is, education germane to their historical, material, and cultural realities. Such education was necessarily anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, diametrically opposed to white supremacy, critical of capitalist exploitation, and very often against sexism and patriarchy. Likewise, it emphasized Black self-determination and combatted cultural dislocation. Moreover, those demanding a relevant education looked beyond the United States and found resonance with struggles being waged throughout the Black diaspora, from Southern Africa to Trinidad & Tobago, and throughout the “Third World” more broadly, from Palestine to Vietnam.

Of course, these insurgencies, which rocked campuses across the nation and threatened to destabilize the society as a whole, invited extraordinary violence from US authorities. This included the targeting of Black organizations on and off campus by COINTELPRO, the 1970 Orangeburg massacre, and the release of the Scranton Report that sought to discipline militant student activism that challenged the very foundations of US education.

Thus, we gathered at Carleton College as part of our responsibility to those who agitated, fought, and died for autonomous and community-oriented spaces to study, organize for, and enact change in the Black diaspora. Indeed, elite liberal arts colleges embody the problematics and possibilities of Black diaspora studies: abundant resources but ambivalence about the importance of the field; pervasive discourse about diversity and inclusion but uneven commitment to recruiting and retaining Black students and faculty; students interested in the subjects we teach but reluctant to major; and constant protests to maintain our field but always having to legitimate our existence. We hoped that these contradictions, these dialectics, would form the basis of generative and engaging discussions.

Our opening panel, sessions, and keynote address centered the fundamental relationship between ethics, epistemology, and politics as they relate to studying the Black diaspora. We took advantage of the profound opportunity to interrogate our shared values and commitment, our knowledge production, and our ability and willingness to persistently struggle for resources and hold our institutions accountable.

In his famous speech “The Weapon of Theory” given at the Tricontinental Conference convened in Havana, Cuba in January 1966, Amilcar Cabral enjoined: “We are not going to use this platform to rail against imperialism. An African saying very common in our country says: ‘When your house is burning, it’s no use beating the tom-toms.’ On a Tricontinental level, this means that we are not going to eliminate imperialism by shouting insults against it. For us, the best or worst shout against imperialism, whatever its form, is to take up arms and fight.” Likewise, while we shared our experiences of racism, bad faith, benign neglect, and outright hostility born out of our role as practitioners of Black diaspora studies, broadly conceived, we seized the opportunity to build strategy, think tactically, and work collaboratively and collectively. The workshop allowed us to not only reflect on the current state of the field, but also to employ “our dogged strength alone,” to quote our dear W.E.B. Du Bois, to shape the future of Black study, of Black Studies, and of the Black diaspora. This, after all, is our historical task.

Part II: Reflections from the “Teaching, Researching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora” Workshop

The workshop was organized into an opening panel and four sessions, with a keynote address given by Dr. Christopher Tinson, Associate Professor of History, and Director of African American Studies at Saint Louis University. The workshop format provided ample opportunity for participants to grapple with the questions and ideas posed above. What follows are brief summaries of the workshop sessions, as well as descriptions of the blog posts participants have written reflecting on these sessions and the workshop as a whole.

“Administering the Study of the Black Diaspora” opened the workshop and included remarks from Drs. John Drabinski (Amherst College), Jennifer Bloomquist (Gettysburg College), and Donna Maeda (Macalester College). Each of the panelists spoke about the role of administrators (and also department chairs) in making the study of the Black Diaspora possible at small liberal arts institutions. They also shared their professional experiences, as well as the challenges and successes they faced as they engage in this work. In his blog post, “Ultimate Stakes and Realities: Program Building and Future of Black Studies,” Dr. John Drabinski reflects on his time as chair of the Black Studies Department at Amherst College. During his tenure, the department engaged in reflective practices as they contended with the college’s changing demographics, the constraints and possibilities of doing this work at a small liberal arts college, and the implications of “advocating for the study of Black life across the disciplines.”

After the opening panel, a series of four sessions delved deeply into teaching and garnering resources for Black Studies and Black study in traditional disciplines. Prior to each session, participants read common texts that served to ground the ensuing discussion. Drs. Bryana French and Todd Lawrence, both from the University of Saint Thomas, led a session entitled, “Teaching the Black Diaspora at Elite, Predominantly White Institutions: Pedagogy, Epistemology and Praxis.” Drs. Andy Flory and Jeff Snyder from Carleton College facilitated the session, “Between Ethics and Education: Non-Black Educators Teaching the Black Diaspora.” In conversation with Professors Flory and Snyder, Dr. Alice Reagan from Barnard College shares the pedagogical strategies she has developed in her blog post, “Teaching While White.”

Carleton College faculty member Dr. Thabiti Willis and Dr. Marlon Bailey, the Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Africana Studies program at Carleton, led a third session, “On Knowledge and Narrative: Teaching Africa Beyond Abjection,” which asked participants to rethink the role of African Studies, the diaspora, and gender in Black Studies. In his blog post, “Gender, Sexuality, and the Oppression Olympics,” Dr. Jesus Smith from Lawrence University reflects on a new course he created, The Sociology of Black Americans, as well as the impact of Drs. Bailey and Willis’ session on his thinking and teaching. A fourth session on resources and funding, led by Dr. Rose Brewer from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, rounded out the workshop. Dr. Brewer’s analysis regarding securing resources for Black Study can be found in her blog post, “Politics and Power: Securing Resources for Black Study.”

On the subject of resources for Black Study, workshop participants Drs. Charles McKinney from Rhodes College and Kantara Souffrant from Illinois State University offer important reflections on the non-financial resources that are needed to sustain Black Studies and its practitioners. Dr. McKinney’s post, “The Power of Mapping,” proposes a practical tool Black Studies scholars can employ to analyze their institutional landscapes: power mapping. According to Dr. McKinney, power mapping “is a process where you lay out the terrain of your campus to determine who are the people who support your initiative, the people who don’t, and the ones who are undecided.” Also concerned with power and space, Dr. Souffrant’s blog post, “Putting Ego Aside: Strategies for Building Inclusive Black Academic Spaces,” provides “suggestions for building inclusive Black academic spaces for healing, listening, and supporting each other within and beyond the academy.”

Riffing off Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Dr. Christopher Tinson’s provocative keynote, “Faces at the Bottom of Ivory Tower’s Well: Past, Present, and Contested Futures of Black Studies and the Liberal Arts,” explored the histories and tensions of a half-century of teaching Black Studies at predominantly white colleges and universities in the United States. Dr. Tinson asked participants to consider the following: What ground has been gained and lost? What new opportunities for growth exist? What supports are necessary for its preservation and expansion into the next half-century? How can scholars and administrators establish the bonds necessary for the preservation of this transformative, interdisciplinary field in a rapidly changing academic environment characterized by rising costs of tuition, increasing student debt, competition for dwindling resources, and institutional inertia? In dialogue with Dr. Tinson, Dr. Andrea Stone from Smith College reflects on his keynote in her blogpost, “Ancestors and the Ivory Tower: A Reflection on ‘Faces at the Bottom of the Ivory Tower’s Well.’”

When we came together to organize this workshop, generously funded by the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges (AALAC), we saw this as an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and possibilities we saw as scholars committed to Black Studies and Black study at small, predominantly white liberal arts institutions. As we left the workshop, we came away with more questions, as well as with renewed focus and energy on the necessity of the field of Black Studies, its role in the continued transformation of the academy and broader society, and our responsibilities within it. We offer these blog posts not only as record of the workshop, but also as an opportunity for dialogue about the past, present, and future of the field.


This article was originally published by Black Perspectives.

This post is part of African American Intellectual History Society’s blog Black Perspectives online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”.

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IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.