When the Dust Settles

In the wake of the Summers-West clash, Afro-American studies’ departure from its activist beginnings comes into focus

On December 12, 1972, two giants in the early history of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department, Ewart Guinier ’33 and Martin L. Kilson, debated the role of Afro-American studies in higher education.

On a local New York City television program called “Positively Black,” the two held a heated debate in which Kilson argued the “interdisciplinary” view that students should get a grounding in a discipline before beginning an education in Afro-American studies, while Guinier stressed the “organic” or “Afrocentric” view, which stresses the importance of studying the black experience “from the point of view of the people who have lived that experience.”

The debate boiled down to whether this nascent field would be better served by a traditional academic structure or one designed in a more innovative manner.

Last fall, two modern academic giants—Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 and University President Lawrence H. Summers held a heated debate of their own—this time substituting a New York City television studio with Summers’ Mass. Hall office.

In that meeting, West alleges, Summers chastised him for focusing too much time and energy on political campaigns and recording spoken word albums—and not enough on the traditional modes of scholarship.


But the exact words that were spoken between the two are less important than the underlying theme of the conflict—the same theme underlying the Kilson-Guinier debate—the clash between the dynamic, activist character of Afro-American studies and the static, conservative approach to learning of the academy.

Born in a Burst of Activism

African-American studies was born out of the activism of the late 1960s.

In light of student demands, a Faculty committee was formed in May 1968 to look at ways of increasing the availability of courses in African and Afro-American studies and to consider the creation of an undergraduate concentration in the field.

This committee issued its recommendations in January 1969, proposing the creation of a committee to supervise a combined major in this field, but not the establishment of a department. This report was accepted by the Faculty, to become effective for the class of 1972.

But the student occupation of University Hall on April 9, 1969 put the creation of a department on the front burner.

While those who took over the building didn’t include the creation of the Afro-American studies department on their list of demands—which focused instead of Harvard’s dealings with the military—the takeover created an atmosphere of radicalism on campus.

Two days after the occupation, the Association of African and Afro-American Students joined its voice to the chorus calling for the creation of an actual Afro-American studies department.

At a Faculty meeting on April 22, 1969, a plurality of the Faculty approved the creation of an Afro-American studies department—overturning the report they had approved just three months earlier.

Six students were placed on the committee to design the department, three of whom would be elected by members of the Association of African and Afro-American Students.