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Goodbye Black Studies!

I met this girl, when I was 10 years old

And what I loved most, she had so much soul

She was old school, when I was just a shorty

Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me

On the regular, not a church girl, she was secular

Not about the money, no studs was mic checkin her

But I respected her, she hit me in the heart

–Common,

I Used To Love H.E.R.

“What do you have planned for February 1?”

I was sitting across from the very attractive new African-American chair at UC Berkeley, the recently installed replacement for Charles Henry, who retired last July, after some thirty years as professor and chair.

She repeated it. “What do we have planned for February 1?

She didn’t know what I was talking about, yet she surmised that it was an important event coming from an African American male over the age of 60.

Why is February 1, 1960 important? From her smirking and eye-cutting, I can tell she senses that it was significant for African-Americans,(something that you are supposed to know) but she is not sure.

The fact that Feb 1, 1960 is vague to her, and still vivid to me, indicates an important generation gap. Why is this date so significant to Blacks who are over forty and so negligible to those under forty?

I grew up under segregation and she did not. (How soon we forget!). This historical amnesia is symptomatic of a crisis in black education.

With the continuing decline of African American enrollment at U C Berkeley, and from other UC campuses, particularly UCLA, African American departments have made a shaky shift from black-centered departments to post-racial-centered ones.  In this shift, a white professor has more opportunity and respect than a Black professor from  the sixties – as I was about to discover.

At U C Berkeley, where the non-black population is about 35,899, the black  students  were only 2.9% in the fall of 2011 and only 3.4% in the fall of 2012 — 130 and 143, students respectively.) Before the passing of Prop. 209 (that forbade race as a consideration for admissions) black enrollment had been as high as 20%. At one point in its turbulent history, the African American studies actually attracted Black students, but with the decline of the students being admitted, came the declined of the department’s enrollment.

In today’s post-racial climate, the Feb 1, 1960s date, is for the  new chair of the African American department just any other day.

But when you come from my generation–the one that was segregated–that day is significant.

It’s significant to me and my generation because on that day, Feb 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T students(David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and Jibreel Khazan) walked down Market street in Greensboro and quietly took places on the stools in the “White Only” section of the Woolworth department store.  They walked into the lunch counter to disrupt the segregation all blacks suffered since 1863.

The New York Times encapsulated the event this way, “Negro Sit-Downs Stir Fear of Unrest in South.”

Other students from A&T joined them.  I was among the second wave. I remember clearly the angry faces of the white high school students yelling “nigger” at us. I remember the spitting, jostling, shoving elbows, and the sprinkling itching powder and splattering eggs. Sometimes, the whites managed to knock you off your stool. You would hear their hissing as you passed, Go back to Africa!

The sit-in sparked new leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and inspired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC).  Student activism spread from North Carolina to fifteen cities in Virginia, Florida,  South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama , Mississippi, and Texas.

Eventually the revolution crested in the Bay Area.  Not long after the student revolt at San Francisco State University in 1969, Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Pantherparty began to question the curriculum at Merritt College where he and Huey P. Newton were students.

Seale wanted to know why there were no classes that dealt with the books written by African-Americans for African-Americans about African-Americans. He took the idea to a French professor at Merritt College. The French professor would pretend to be the actual professor of the class,  but he  would allow Blacks to teach the classes.   This was the birth of Black Studies.

African American Studies Departments no longer have a hold on African American subjects as in the past. Now you can take African American fiction and poetry in the English departments. If you like to read about slave narratives, you can take a course in the History department or American Studies. But today African-American Studies have virtually cut its ties to the racial past. Black studies is part of the social sciences under the Social Sciences.

Professor Walter Ong (the late Professor of Humanities at St. Louis University,)  suggested that placing Black Studies in the social sciences was not such a good idea.

Ong wrote in “Crisis in the Humanities,” that  ”Black art and culture are treated as a special phenomenon, interesting because it is a variant, just as the social sciences see blacks not as regular people, but as special problems, handled under ‘race relations.’”

Since the Black Studies departments do not need to fight the effects of Jim Crow, their preoccupation is now with race relations. In fact, race relations and skin color are very important to Black Studies these days.  In order to appear to be nonracial, however, to teach black subjects, the black studies departments hire more white professors than they do Black ones. Black professors in Black Studies have to worry about their positions being taken by whites in the Black Studies departments. The test of whether a Black Studies department will survive depends on how many white teachers and students they have.

The reason I was meeting with the Chair was to talk about being rehired to teach my class entitled African American Studies 159, Digital Culture and Orality.” I have taught this class several times with full attendance. The students’ interest and level of involvement have been high.

The students included many athletes who made names for themselves at Cal: Covaughn Deboskie, Lowbaye Dasarte Yarnway, Marvin L. Jones, Jr, Maurice Harris, Marc Anthony, Brandon Bigelow, Cecil Whitehead, Ted Agu, and Isi Sofele;  and in basketball,  Allen Crabbe, the leading guard for Cal; and six members of the women’s basketball team.  All of these students attended my classes on time and wrote excellent college papers.

The class was successful because the oral tradition speaks to African American students, especially combining their oral literacy with digital arts.  When students understand why they were kept out of the technology of writing, they begin to write better.

In order to teach game-making I had invited two young high school students to help me teach game technology. They were African American students, Elijah and Spencer Butterfield (15 and 17), who were both incredibly knowledgeable and helpful in giving students individual support with the game and proto-type making.

The Information Age has changed every segment of modern life. Yet our African American departments reek of an outdated mouldy-fig, odor.  They seem to have a square, mind-set that is still stuck in the segregated sand that is fifty years behind the times. We are in an information age.  As members of the information age,  we cannot solve new problems with old tools from the fifties.

“These are different times,” Marshall McLuhan, the media analyst,  wrote “because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic changes between two great technologies [writing and digital].”

As Blacks, we are caught in the middle of these two great clashes. Fifty years ago, it was difficult for Blacks to get books. Today, Blacks can get all the books they want. What they can’t get is digital technology and jobs in Silicone Valley.

What is missing today in Black Studies is the sense of inner confidence and  respect that the collective struggle of the sit-in  movement  gave us.

Franklin McCain–who was one of the four freshmen– remembers it this way: “..fifteen seconds, after we sat down [at the lunch counter]  I had the most wonderful feeling,”  he recalled later.

“I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, I was just sitting on the dumb stool – and not had asked for Service yet.”

Even before he was served, before he acted,  this idea of resisting segregation had such a symbolic act of  “liberation”  through collective action. This sense of “liberation” has been lost on the present generation of African-Americans.

Today, Black Studies have lost the self-respect and the respect for other blacks – values that were accrued from having to struggle.

Since there is no longer a Jim Crow fight, they have to look for their inner confidence and self-respect elsewhere.  They have to look to the brave-new world of digital culture and technologies. If we are looking to the African American departments to lead us, we can expect to be fumbling for a long time to come.

Until we get there, let us remember Feb 1, 1960! That way, even if we don’t know where we are going, at least we will know where we have been.

If anybody would like to see what games my students made, go to YouTube (African-American Studies 159.)

Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? His new book is a memoir, Pryor Lives! Kiss My Rich, Happy, Black Ass!  How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor (2013).

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