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The Future of Afro-American Studies

By Wesley E. Profit

SOME PEOPLE LIKE to watch shackled men run. It is, I suppose, the hoped-for fall that anchors their attention. In any case, their anticipation breeds anxiety, and soon everyone is upset. Over what? Rumors, innuendo, presumed personality conflicts, uninformed speculation circulating as fact and interest masquerading as expertise. Apathy has apparently come to be determined by whether or not you have a position on Afro-American Studies.

To be quite honest, most of us are probably waiting for the "Review Committee" to deliver its now long overdue report: The bell that signals another round in this water torture not so uniquely Chinese. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to have an opportunity between the issuance of the Departmental report. The First Three Years of Afro-American Studies, and the "other report," as yet untitled, to comment upon a few things in the quiet calm before debate begins again.

It is difficult to evaluate the effect of atmosphere but political turmoil has a way of lingering that is quite unique. People seem to think that when the Faculty stopped meeting in emergency session over the creation of the Department of Afro-American Studies during the month of April 1969, the political turmoil and fighting surrounding the birth of the department ended. For most Faculty members it probably did. After the decisive vote to create the Department, they confidently expected that the University administration would proceed to lend it the necessary support that it needed to implement the Faculty decision. But for some Faculty members, the vote simply signalled a shift in arenas. After all, they feel, what are administrations for if not to find ways to circumvent a Faculty decision. Anyone who spent time trying to get the Faculty to action on the idea of the Department knows that inertia is on the side of those who have access to the Administration. The drop by drop wearing away of support for the Department and the "squandering of the creative drive" within the Department in its "dogged" survival efforts is essentially a bureaucratic phenomenon. On the whole it has not been successful, but it has had an effect in trying to generate a "crowd psychology" against Afro-American Studies. Some would call it a "Iynching." In this atmosphere, no one bothers to ask anymore how he can support the Department's effort to build a program of Afro-American Studies at Harvard.

The issuance of the Departmental report. The First Three Years of Afro-American Studies, signals the end of the defensive posture forced upon it by the hostility generated at its inception. To be sure, a few will always fight on after the time for such hostility is over. There is a little of that dedication to the dominant ethos despite its inappropriateness in all of us: it is similar to the Japanese soldier who fought on 26 years after the end of W.W. II. But most people, happily, come to live with change. The question now is: What of the Future?

Before that question is answered, let's briefly assess what the Department has done. LiVaughn Chapman, head of special admissions at the University of Massachusetts. Boston, said in an interview in the Boston Globe last month that Harvard has the best Black Studies Department in the area and that "other universities are attempting to match Harvard's program." Another article in the Boston Evening Globe was headlined "Afro-American Studies Program at Harvard Brings Results." A similar article appeared just recently in the Detroit Free Press, citing the substantial progress that the Department had made at Harvard. Finally, in this respect, at the recent convention of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization founded by Carter Woodson, himself a Ph.D. graduate in history from Harvard, the program from Harvard was given wide recognition. Delegate after delegate, many, themselves, from black studies programs, testified to the guidance they had received to battle their own obstructionists from reading the Department's report. The Department at Harvard represents the historical efforts of black men and women to gain recognition within the academic community. As such, it has brought additional recognition to Harvard and to the University's commitment to excellence. This commitment will be nothing but "benign neglect" unless the University starts a capital fund drive to honor its remaining commitments to the Department.

A very critical way in which the Department, has been hampered over the last three years has been in its inability to feel permanent, to feel that it can begin to build on its own foundation, to look to the future without the future being obscured by the hostility of the present day. Hopefully, the "Review Committee" in its report, will lay this problem to rest once and for all. But there is another problem which the University has failed to act upon and this failure is harder to explain away. If Afro-American Studies is ever going to be an area of academic enterprise similar to other such areas within the University, then it needs the resources to train graduate students who are dedicated to uncovering the rich resources of this relatively unexplored area. It also needs the ability to attract scholars to this University who are committed to the exploration and elaboration of the Afro-American experience. It needs in short, the DuBoin Institute.

I for one, primarily will judge the "Review Committee" report, by the attention it pays to this issue and the suggestions it makes to the University as to how its commitment in this area might finally be filled. If the "Review Committee" report says nothing about this, then I think the Review has to be termed political. If it is inappropriate to ask the one question that reviews the issue of the University's commitment to the Department, then it is certainly political to ask the ten questions that review the Department's response to the University's lack of commitment.

Now is the time for the University to honor its commitment to the Department of Afro-American Studies. The Administration should announce the creation of a capital fund drive to create at least four additional chairs in Afro-American Studies, guarantee the operation of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, and develop graduate degree programs in Afro-American Studies. Such an announcement would serve to reverse the University's continued opposition to the legitimate concerns of black men and women. It would be most welcomed. After the Farber report on Angola, it could only help. But then, of course, there are some men who like to watch shackled men run.

WESLEY PROFIT '69, is a teaching fellow in Afro-American Studies.

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