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On the Brink: Afro-American Studies At Harvard

By Peter Hardie and Bruce Jacobs

Afro-Americans have known little understanding in the educational institutions of this country. In fact, what they have faced is the opposition of the white ruling class to any inclusion of black people on their own terms. This was the case in slavery, when the law punished those who would teach the slaves to read or write. This was the case after slavery when blacks were restricted from the white schools. The Brown decision of 1954 removed segregation from the legal texts and left it in the streets. Now, in 1977, the forces of white supremacy are fighting viciously to maintain segregation in the public school system.

Ideological discrimination has been no less violent. The tenets of racism have beer developed and continue to be taught at no less than this country's most esteemed universities. The characterizations of blacks as animal, barbarian, infantile, pre-scientific, intellectually inferior, psychologically disadvantaged, and morally unsound continue to buttress the intellectual foundations of social relations in this country. How perfectly consistent that no attempt would be made on the part of universities to study thoroughly the history and civilizations of the African continent without the pressure of vocal militants. How perfectly consistent that American colonizers would ignore all the history of a continent before their own rape of that continent. How indeed could a place like Harvard recognize the legitimacy of African studies when it refused to admit any serious proportions of blacks until relatively recently?

Black students had no light task when they set out to bring black studies to Harvard in the school year 1967-68. The result of the work of the ad hoc committee formed that year was the addition of a course taught by Frank Friedel in the spring of 1968, Soc Sci 5, "The Afro-American Experience." One could speculate on the level of absurdity reached in the attempt to teach about black people in one semester, but the student protests of that course register the most acute awareness of the University's failure. Several students had nicknamed that course "Famous Negroes I Have Known". Though some members of this University at that point wished to discredit the students' criticisms as being of the white professor instead of the course, saner members of the population acknowledged the fact that no professor, black or white, could succeed where Friedel failed.

Black student demand effected a more logical response in the form of a Faculty Committee on African and Afro-American Studies; logical in the sense that it was more than a hasty reaction to black demands for a relevant curriculum. In retrospect, the logic of that committee is questionable. How Martin Kilson, one of the most outspoken critics of black studies, came to sit on that committee causes one to wonder. Even more cause for wonder is how Henry Rosovsky, then professor, now dean, became the chairman. To Rosovsky, this came as no surprise. He was later to say that he felt as knowledgeable in Afro-American studies as most. Which gives more cause for wonder!

Then Dean Ford charged the committee with the task of developing the curriculum of the University with regard to Afro-American studies. One of the tasks (a "detailed charge") he assigned the committee was the investigation of "a possible field of undergraduate concentration, held together by the centrality of concern for African and Afro-American subject matter." A self-styled "expert" in the field, Rosovsky chose to both admit this "detailed charge", and then sabotage it by dividing the committee into two subcommittees, one to explore African studies and the other to explore Afro-American studies. This was Rosovsky's first failure to act as a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and represented his strong tendency to substitute his own wishes for the mandates of the FAS and the demands of students.

The committee issued a report in January of 1969, usually referred to as the Rosovsky report. The report had good and bad points. On its bad side, the separation between African and Afro-American studies was blatant. The report also favored a committee to oversee an undergraduate degree program, though it offered no reason why a department would be unsatisfactory. Many departments have been born out of less student interest and just as limited faculty resources. A final criticism of the report was that it glorified Harvard's history of African studies, maintaining that "African studies has had the advantage of satisfactory and congenial growth within established disciplines." Rosovsky makes a tremendous effort to detail all the research and curricular offerings of the school in African studies, but all his efforts fail to conceal several facts. No African languages were taught at Harvard at that time, despite all their reputable African anthropologists (did they use interpreters?). There were few courses dealing specifically with Africa; those few were offered primarily in Anthropology, some in Government, and a few in Education and Social Relations. No courses were offered in the History Department on Africa. There was no institute of African research, no department, no committee, no center for African studies. Certainly the Peabody Museum had distinguished itself with regard to its collection of African art and artifact, but then again, anthropology never had any qualms about the study of African "primitives".

Aside from these, the Rosovsky report was praised in general by students and faculty, because it represented the first attempt to rectify Harvard's mistakes with respect to black people. The report did acknowledge the inadequacy of the curriculum in Afro-American studies and recommended that the University commit itself to the goals of increased research, faculty, and funds in Black studies. It proposed graduate and undergraduate degree programs as well as an institute for Afro-American research. It indicated a need to make special efforts to bring to Harvard experts in Afro-American studies who lacked the "normal academic credentials". The report emphasizes the need to include students in the selection of faculty as well as the development of the new program, in light of "the students' high degree of interest, knowledge and competence in this emerging, and in some ways, unique field of study". Rosovsky was correct when he said in American Scholar in the fall of 1969 that his report was widely acclaimed and widely accepted throughout the University. In his article entitled "Black Studies at Harvard", he continued by expressing disbelief that events made the reversal they did soon after his report. But he ignored in that article an important action of his committee several months after his report, an action which did awaken students to the real nature of Harvard's commitment to them.

In April of 1969, the committee issued an outline of a proposed degree program in Afro for undergraduates. The proposed plan was that students would take all the requirements for an established major, as well as some colloquia and/or seminars in black studies for credit. In order to study Afro-American studies, students would have to take another concentration, and take on more work in addition. One can understand the outrage which black students felt when they strenuously rejected this proposal as a violation of the spirit of the Rosovsky report. One can not understand why Rosovsky did not see this as a contradiction to the statement in his report that the "study of black men in America is a legitimate and urgent academic endeavor." What this proposal implied was there was no legitimate autonomy necessary for Afro studies; rather, Afro should be made a "focus" within another discipline. Clearly this was a violation of the spirit of the Rosovsky report.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences agreed with students, and on April 22, adopted a proposal developed by the ad hoc committee of Black students a few weeks before. Several things were resolved: that the new program would be a department, governed by an executive committee of students and faculty; that the standing committee would exist until there were two tenured members of the department; that the department would have a "radical" orientation, concerning itself with the issues of the black community and having a component of field work for credit. Students and progressive faculty had won a great victory; black people had been able to determine for themselves what their education would look like.

Although Rosovsky recognized no relation between the study of Africa and the study of black Americans, students and faculty did. This was borne out early in the history of the department. Dean Ford, when he defined the undergraduate program as having a "centrality of concern for African and Afro-American subject matter", noted that this was what "interested parties were pressing for". This reinforces the statements of old members of the Association of African and Afro-American Students that the organization was heavily pan-Africanist in its political outlook. When the standing committee began its search for faculty to teach in the new department, Ephraim Isaac was one of the first asked. He was doubtful at that time, he says, about whether the department's perspective included his background of expertise; Richard Musgrave, the chairman of the standing committee, indicated to Isaac that his knowledge and skills would be invaluable to the department. In the report it published in the fall of 1969, the standing committee affirmed the need for the department to consider "not only the. . . black community in the United States, but also its relation, past and present, to the experiences of black people in other parts of the world, especially in Africa". Andrea Rushing, an instructor in the department, commented in 1972: "There is no serious way to discuss the experience of Afro-American without discussing Africa. Afro-Americans did not--like Topsy--just grow on the shores of the New World. The question of emphasis can be argued, but with the dearth of other courses on Africa at Harvard, the department has no choice but to make sure that its students have the foundation laid and the links pointed out within the Afro-American Studies department."

This is what the department undertook to do in its first years. Ephraim Isaac taught courses in African languages, religions, history and civilizations. Three of the four full-time instructors in the first year taught courses outside the realm of the United States, and in the later years more faculty with expertise in African and the Caribbean came into the department. This occurred through the close interaction of the standing committee and the department, which meant the involvement of students and faculty inside and outside the department. It was no accident that the department had a strong African and Third World component; this was a reflection of the founding sentiments of the black students as well as the wisdom of the faculty in the early years of the department.

In 1972, after three successful years of the department, Chairman Ewart Guinier had this to say about the situation:

Over three years have passed since the Rosovsky report was issued in January, 1969. It is clear that crucial gaps still exist in the fulfillment of the recommended goals in the report which were accepted in principle by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Harvard must now move to turn these recommendations into reality by initiating a capital fund drive to establish graduate degree programs in Afro-American studies, to develop the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, and to create at least four additional chairs in Afro-American Studies. Harvard's failure to fulfill these recommendations could only be construed by the black community as compelling evidence that Harvard is not serious about Afro-American Studies and continues to throw its weight on the negative side of black aspirations. (emphasis ours)

While the department had managed to carry out fairly well the task of bringing Afro-American studies to the Harvard community, in 1972 the University and the department were at odds. The University chose to ignore the tasks it had assigned itself in 1969, and abandoned all commitment to the young department. The DuBois Institute was no closer to establishment than when it was first conceived. The standing committee had made no recommendations for tenure positions in the department. There was no graduate program in Afro-American studies. When the three-year Review Committee met in the year 1971-72, they had little positive to say. The situation was not one of growth for the department, the department had to focus its energy against the forces in the University who were now attempting to isolate and undermine the department. Suddenly, Afro-American Studies was the step-child no one cared for any longer. It was not a discipline, it should not be a single concentration, it should not be a department, it was not even that great an idea for Black students to study Black people. If the criticisms had been isolated, it might have been easier to ignore them. But when the review committee demanded that the department's isolation within the University be ended, it was trying to shout back the tide. Nothing the department could do would reverse the unspoken verdict that the department had been a mistake.

One has to marvel at the cunning with which the University has undertaken to destroy the department. Five years after the Rosovsky report, President Bok decided to establish the DuBois Institute. Not to carry out the original directives for such an institute, but to establish an institute. He delegated to his special assistant, Walter Leonard, the responsibility for developing a prospectus for the institute, and, heedless to the clamor of students and Afro faculty for the original prospectus, the powers in Mass Hall set up the DuBois Institute. Second-class status is the mark of the Afro Department which is not consulted or notified about the establishment of a research center in Black studies. Benign neglect is the mark of a university which isolates its Black studies department from its complementary research center.

Even more clever has been the "logic" the administration has used to explain discrimination against the Afro-American Studies department. One tenured person would not be enough to make recommendations for additional tenured positions; therefore, special sub-committees of the FAS would usurp the responsibility of the department in making such recommendations. In the early years, the standing committee was responsible for the selection and appointment of two tenured faculty in the department. After three years, the standing committee was abolished, and there was only one tenured member of the department, the chairman, Professor Guinier. Next came the sub-committee created by the new dean, Henry Rosovsky, in 1973-74, upon which he and Guinier both sat. That they found no peace together is no surprise: one knew the needs and aims of Black studies, and the other claimed to know. They could not agree on the second nomination. Rosovsky then issued a University-wide decree vesting in all the departments the authority to search for nominees for tenure in Afro. Thus it came to be that all the departments, in pure ignorance of the field, got to decide the direction of Black studies at Harvard.

Meanwhile, the nomination of Ephraim Isaac had been yellowing with age. First proposed in 1971, his nomination passed through all the committees before being acted upon in 1975. Rejected by a committee of scholars alien to his field of expertise, Isaac had been deceived into believing that tenure was a possibility. The assorted rationale offered as an excuse for his rejection underlined the fallacy in his thinking. The committee which judged him said they were not supposed to be considering appointments solely within the Afro department; Rosovsky said that the decision was not necessarily a judgment of scholarship, but of the needs of the department. Either way, the administration was controlling the development of the department. It would either be joint faculty, or a department whose needs were dictated by the administration. Never let it be said at Harvard that a Black man or woman presumed to make a decision about their education. Whites have always known best for blacks. And if Rosovsky cannot have his way entirely, he is determined to keep Black students from having their way. He hasn't been able to remove the department, but his hands are deep in its governance. Which brings us to the present.

As the king goes, so goes the country. With the forced retirement of the chairman, a new phase of the department began. In January of 1975, Eileen Southern replaced Ewart Guinier as the chairperson of the department. Southern was the "logical" choice, since she was the only other person in the department with tenure. Tenure has been a key issue in the development of the department, and a major tool in the University's attempt to shape the department. The creation of a situation where Eileen Southern, jointly tenured in Music and Afro, would be the sole candidate for the chair was hardly accidental. Whether a conscious or willing accomplice, Southern has carried out what is, in fact, the administration's design for the department; several significant changes that have recently taken place in the department illustrate this.

In contrast to the prominent roles which they once played in the department, Africa and the Third World have been de-emphasized in the "new" department. The status of Africa and the Third World has been reduced in terms of both the number and scope of courses, and the general outlook of the department. In her proposals for concentration requirements, Southern has indicated that she does not view these areas as integral in the Afro-American world-view; provisions for African and Third World studies have been retained only in spite of her opposition. The result of this has been an "Americo-centered" perspective on Black studies which ignores Black links between Africa, the Third World, and the Americas. This perspective falls easy prey to the misconception that Black history began on American shores in 1607 in the chains of slavery. Do Afro-Americans have no frame of reference other than North America and the European heritage? Hasn't this "Americo-centered" approach been the same scholastic argument that has been used to stifle Blacks' awareness of their place in the world?

Closely related to this development has been the de-emphasis of the economic and political perspective in the department, and the over-strengthening of the humanities. A glance through the course-book will reveal the relative dearth of political/economic-oriented courses, and the abundance of courses dealing with the arts and the humanities. Certainly the study of Black literature and the arts, is not, in and of itself, open to criticism; these areas constitute an important aspect of the Black experience. However, the Black scholar, in studying the humanities, must view them in the context of the political and economic situation of Black people. The arts are not "separate" from or "above" society--they derive their content not from some cosmic source, but from the society in which they operate. The scholar who does not recognize this merely renders him/herself less able to understand and deal with the social significance of art.

This is what is presently taking place in the Afro Department. The humanities are being presented in a political vacuum; they are offered ostensibly for some type of "pure" enlightenment, while the political and economic issues which have shaped those humanities are ignored, or pushed into the background. Black singers, dancers, and musicians, playwrights and authors receive abundant attention, but what of South Africa, of the civil rights movement, of institutional racism and its ramifications in modern society? Black people, some would have us believe, make great entertainers, but are not seriously engaged in the economic and political struggle of the world. Shades of Amos 'n' Andy!

An issue that has had implications for both the department's scope as well as its political perspective has been the removal of several Africanists and Pan-Africanists, chiefly Ephraim Isaac and Pierre-Michel Fontaine. Isaac's case has been described; Fontaine's contract was due to be renewed when Dr. Southern became head of the department. She denied her support to either, despite the fact that they were both eminently qualified, and that they together taught most of the students enrolled in the department. She gave no explanation for her actions, even when pressed for one. The result is that Isaac, though still at Harvard, cannot teach, and will soon be forced to leave, and Fontaine was told curtly that his contract would not be renewed, and was also forced to leave.

Because of Dr. Southern's silence on this issue, one can only speculate as to what her reasons were for turning her back on Isaac, and firing Fontaine. Perhaps they were too "radical" for her; perhaps she was merely trying to avoid controversy by allowing the University to dispose of faculty members it did not want. In either case, their opposition to her policies would have been a burden to her sooner or later, and for Southern, it is not tension which develops a department, but rather, the sober acquiescence of the faculty and students to the policies of the chair. With the departure of Isaac and Fontaine, the department suffered a loss, and the administration gained a partial victory in its attempt to restrict and re-define the perspective of the department.

The essential common denominator in these shifts in the policy of the department has been the de-politicization of Afro studies, both in its relation to the University, and in its philosophy. A better word might be "repoliticization", for the department has not become politically neutral in the least--one set of political principles has merely been replaced with another. Out with Pan-Africanism, out with Black liberation, out with relevant Black education, in with academic "objectivity", and in with political non-partisanship. Approaching a problem with a definite perspective is "unscholarly", we are told. Partisanship, some say, is the enemy of true research. If this is true, then there has been no "true" scholarship in all the history of mankind. All problems of all times have been approached by all people from one perspective or another. This deification of objectivity brings us no closer to the truth, and serves only to disguise bias and pass it off as fact.

Nowhere is the absurdity of the myth of academic objectivity more apparent than in the development of Black studies at Harvard. Black studies as a discipline not only explores the realities of oppression and liberation, inherently political realities, but also owes its very existence on campuses to political struggle. Prior to 1969, Harvard felt no compulsion to seriously explore the Black experience; where was objectivity then? The University's denial of tenure to Isaac, its emphasis on joint appointments to Afro, and its vigorous criticism of the department all reek of the battle of political perspectives. To divorce Afro studies from politics is the height of absurdity, yet this is what is presently happening at Harvard under Southern's supervision.

Dean Rosovsky, who never wanted the department in the first place, could not but have been pleased to see his old enemies gone(or half-gone), and to see the department affirming the old lies that American Blacks have no past and have no relationship to the rest of the world, and that the Black experience can be evaluated primarily in terms of its cultural contributions. Surely, the direction the department has taken pays tribute to the very political outlook which guided Harvard and the other bastions of American academia to provide academic support for racial oppression. The administration's unceasing battle with the radical and Pan-Africanist faculty of the department has subsided, and it has gained valuable ground. Indeed, the administration is now able to determine policy through a set of "advisors" whom Southern admits help her design departmental policy. The only thing left for Rosovsky to do is assume the chair of the department himself.

Despite strong disagreements with her perspective, concentrators have attempted to work with Southern, but those efforts have met with more frustration than success. After initially refusing to meet with concentrators, she finally did agree, and initial contact was made. Whatever relationship could have developed, however, was eroded by repeated displays of bad faith on Southern's part. Meetings with students were cancelled at the last minute without explanation or notification. Proposals rejected by faculty and students were re-introduced by Southern time after time until they were passed. Agreements reached between students and Southern were conveniently "forgotten" or "misunderstood" by Southern, and were sometimes even retracted for no apparent reason. Students have had to remain vigilant in order to retain the "privilege" (as Southern calls it) of participation in faculty meetings, a right concentrators in the department have had since its inception. Not surprisingly, a general distrust of Southern has developed among concentrators; now, this distrust is openly acknowledged among the students. Southern's paternalistic and condescending attitude towards students has exacerbated tensions; even students in her classes complain about being treated like sixth graders. Many concentrators have been alienated to the point where they no longer wish to be involved in the running of the department. Those who have remained active have not been able to accomplish much of anything productive through dealing with Southern. She rules the department autocratically, and does not take kindly to any questioning of her decisions.

Who, then, will resist the current trend in Afro-American studies at Harvard? The University, throughout its 400-year history of racist scholarship, and its six-year history of abusing the Afro Department, has made its position clear. Southern, after a year as head of the department, has made her position clear. The department's faculty, weeded of "troublemakers," and consisting largely of people newly-hired by Southern, has not chosen to take a side, and is seemingly ignoring the controversy. The one remaining element is the students who are concerned about the future of Afro-American studies. As the department moves backward ideologically, repudiating the world-view and the political principles upon which it was built, one fact stands apparent: it was students who brought Afro-American studies to life at Harvard, and it must ultimately be students who prevent its demise

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