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Last week's announcement that William Julius Wilson would join the faculty of the Kennedy School of Government solidified Harvard's position at the pinnacle of Afro-American academia. Wilson will also be a member of the Department of Afro-American studies, along with serving on the Advisory Board of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. One of the most distinguished and insightful sociologists in the country, Wilson is another outstanding addition to Harvard's intellectual Afro-American Studies all-star team, which already includes prominent scholars such as Cornel West '74, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Orlando Patterson, Judge A. Leon and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Jamaica Kincaid.
Even in the era when Harvard would only admit a few token black students, the University nurtured some of the greatest African-American scholars, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Charles Hamilton Houston. However, Harvard has certainly come a long way from the day when Du Bois (the first black student to earn a Harvard Ph.D.) was forced to live off campus. Today, black academics not only study at Harvard--they also hold tenure. Harvard's Du Bois Institute is the nation's premier institution for research in Afro-American studies.
William Julius Wilson, whose 1987 book The Truly Disadvantagedis a staple in almost any course which attempts to address issues of race, class and poverty, decided to leave the University of Chicago primarily because of the lure of Harvard's academic community. He said that Harvard had achieved a "critical mass of outstanding scholars who are engaged in national debates."
If, as Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," then some of the best responses to this problem will be developed at Harvard. Most of Harvard's black scholars are public intellectuals; instead of hiding in the ivory tower, devising fantastic theories, they are informing some of the most controversial contemporary debates. They bring understanding and reason to some of the most bitter and hysterical contentions which threaten to divide our society.
The very existence of Afro-American studies as a discipline is often misconstrued as a narrow "politics of identity." Yet Harvard's academics in this field address political and cultural issues that often resonate across racial lines. The broad significance of their work refutes the critics who claim that Afro-American studies is an unfortunate product of the trend towards political correctness.
Harvard's black scholars, whom Henry Louis Gates Jr. Once referred to as a "dream team," are devoted to more than pursuing research and engaging in public debates. Some of the bigger names might not be quite as accessible as most other professors (hint: make an appointment, don't just show up to their office hours). However, all Harvard students have the opportunity to benefit from the Afro-American "dream team" that the university has assembled. Not only are their classes fascinating, but they are often available to speak at Harvard functions or comment on campus issues.
However, while we praise the University's efforts to create such a strong Department of Afro-American Studies, and although we urge students to take advantage of its resources, we must offer one caution. This department will be able to wield much influence--Professor Gates said that "the Du Bois Institute [is] in an ideal position to assume a central role in shaping public policy issues of race and class." While Harvard's scholars should continue to be vocal and influential, they should not use their power in academia to silence other voices or completely dominate intellectual discussions. For example, in the past, Booker T. Washington attempted to dictate the terms for black progress, and even Du Bois sought to undermine Marcus Garvey. Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies should not attempt to institute any form of rigid ideological orthodoxy.
This caveat aside, we remain enthusiastic about Professor Wilson's decision to come to the Kennedy School and join the "critical mass" of scholars at Harvard. In a university that is already flooded with intellectual luminaries, the Afro-American studies department may be the jewel in Harvard's academic crown.
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