Weekly Bulletin
March 20, 2000
Vol. 89, No. 20
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Thirty years after

African-American Studies: An intellectual undertaking with "a gigantic literature"

By Marilyn Marks

It has been three decades since Princeton created a program in African-American Studies, and history professor Nell Painter is reflecting on what has been accomplished. She gets up from her desk and walks toward a row of books -- required reading for a course called Recent Scholarship in the African-American Intellectual Tradition. The row stretches for several feet.

Students involved in the newly established Afro-American Studies Program (and one administrator, Roberto Barragan of the Office of Student Aid), c. 1970 

The books -- and the course -- span a wide range of disciplines and topics. How have issues related to slavery affected other American institutions, such as the law and the family? How diverse is religious expression among black Americans? How do issues of gender and sexuality interact with issues of race? Much of the course material on Painter's shelf was published in the 1990s, attesting to the wealth of scholarship being conducted in a field that was once controversial and that Painter still sometimes finds necessary to explain.

"Some people just don't realize that this field is 30 years old and that it has grown tremendously in that time," says Painter, who is Edwards Professor of American History and has been director of the program for the last three years. "African-American studies is an intellectual undertaking. We have a field that has a gigantic literature. This is not just something that you do in your spare time."

Julian Bond to lecture

To mark its anniversary, Princeton's African-American Studies Program will present a lecture by Julian Bond, civil rights activist and chair of the NAACP. Titled "2000: A Race Odyssey," the lecture will begin at 8:00 pm on March 22 in Helm Auditorium, McCosh 50. Open to the public, it is cosponsored by African-American Studies, the President's Fund, the Public Lecture Series and the Woodrow Wilson School.

Bond's lecture comes at a crucial time for the program, which has had to deal with the loss of high-profile faculty members such as Cornel West *80 to Harvard University and Arnold Rampersad to Stanford. The program awarded 17 undergraduate certificates last year and draws about 100 students each semester -- far less than when West taught at Princeton -- but faculty members say the quality of students and the vitality of scholarship are undiminished. US News and World Report ranks Princeton third among the nation's graduate programs for African-American history and fourth for African-American literature.

Strengthening program

Faculty members and administrators say they are committed to making the program even stronger, and they have begun a series of initiatives to accomplish that. Within the last year, the program has expanded its offering of conferences, drawn new scholars and worked to expand its presence on campus. Meanwhile, the University is in the midst of an intensive faculty recruitment process for both junior and senior faculty members.

"I think there is no University initiative underway now that is more important than recruiting efforts for the Program in African-American Studies," said Provost Jeremiah Ostriker. The trustees, he added, are extremely supportive of the effort.

Said Toni Morrison, Goheen Professor in the Humanities, "I feel very optimistic and very excited about reinvigorating the faculty at large with scholars who can contribute to various fields in which African-American scholarship is so vital."

Morrison serves on the interdisciplinary committee that governs African-American Studies and is involved in the recruitment effort. The program now has four faculty members, and other professors teach related courses and support the program's initiatives.

Morrison noted that the recruitment process has garnered a list of top candidates in the "widest possible range" of disciplines, finding people of "unimpeachable scholarship and leadership."

New initiatives

While faculty recruiting is the focus of the effort, Ostriker's office also is providing a two-year grant for a series of new initiatives, including conferences on Everyday Challenges: A Symposium on Race and Beauty, which was held this past December, and Perspectives and Approaches: A Symposium on Race, Health and Citizenship, scheduled for May 5.

The grant has also paid for a new film series on Rethinking Black Sexuality and for graduate and undergraduate student research, as well as support for one dissertation fellow and eight scholars known as PAAS Fellows, who receive full access to University resources.

Among recent initiatives in African-American Studies was a conference on the topic of Race and Beauty, held on campus in December 1999.



Princeton is also a center of discussion for other scholars. Throughout the year, the program brings scholars from across the country to speak on their research. The Mid-Atlantic African-American Studies Group, an organization of faculty members and graduate students at universities throughout the region, meets twice a year on campus.

"It's true that we have lost some gifted faculty in the last four years, but we have added others and kept some very strong people such as Nell Painter herself," said Sociology Professor Howard Taylor, a faculty member in the African-American Studies Program.

Real-world issues

Princeton's African-American Studies Program was one of dozens of black studies programs created in 1969, most of them under pressure from black students enrolling on predominantly white campuses in small but growing numbers. A faculty-student steering committee at Princeton hoped to create a program that would be relevant to the lives and real-world issues of some 170 black students on campus.

"Though the program will be open to all students, one of its advantages will be to make this campus more hospitable for the black students who are arriving in increasing numbers," the committee's report noted.

The committee designed an interdisciplinary program that built upon courses already offered by existing academic departments and created new courses and seminars. With the interdepartmental approach, the committee hoped to avoid the academic and social segregation that had become an issue in programs on other campuses.

Three decades later, the question of whether African-American studies should be an interdisciplinary program or a department itself remains open. As a program, African-American Studies grants undergraduate certificates but does not grant degrees. Its faculty members are jointly hired by departments and split their time with African-American Studies.

Seeking departmental status

Painter, among others, believes the program could achieve more with departmental status. In her view, departmental status would make it easier to recruit top faculty members and graduate students who specialize in African-American or interdisciplinary studies. She also feels that departmental status would provide a more stable core of faculty members, which would fill gaps among course offerings.

But others feel that the issue is not clearcut. Some candidates for faculty positions view themselves primarily as scholars of history, religion or English and might be reluctant to accept a post solely in an African-American studies department, Ostriker said.

At most universities African-American studies have program status, as at Princeton. However, according to a report to be published this spring in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, seven of the 28 universities ranked highest by US News and World Report now have African-American Studies departments. That includes Harvard and Yale universities (Yale announced the switch from program to department this past February).

While the question of departmental status remains under discussion, the University will continue to build the program with financial support and new faculty members, Ostriker said.

Princeton's commitment to African-American studies is "relentless," said Morrison. "It will go on until we've done what we've started out to do."