When the Dust Settles

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

“In some respects, I think Professor Gates basically scoffed at that [Afrocentrist] idea and tried to take the department at Harvard in a different direction which, while making it more ‘respectable’ to his white colleagues, basically disconnected the department from its community,” Little adds.

But Gates defends his department’s approach by citing the role scholarship can play in correcting injustices.

“The field of African-American studies enjoys a diversity of approaches, but to me the most sophisticated departments combine the principles of traditional scholarship with the commitment to expanding the world’s knowledge about the African-American community,” he says.

Not only do some say Harvard’s African-American studies scholars fail to get their hands dirty in real-life struggles of the black community, but scholars at other universities also say the cadre of Harvard professors fail to collaborate with their peers in the field outside of Cambridge.

According to Molefi K. Asante, an African-American studies professor at Temple, Harvard’s department members don’t go to conferences or publish in scholarly journals devoted strictly to the field of African-American studies, opting instead to participate more frequently in mainstream academic events centered around their primary disciplines.


And with West’s departure, some scholars in the field argue, Harvard’s department loses its only public activist. Just days before Princeton announced that West would join its ranks next year, the professor was arrested in front of the State Department in Washington as part of a protest of Ariel Sharon’s policies against the Palestinians. West also heads up the exploratory committee for minority activist Al Sharpton’s 2004 presidential bid.

Gates says he’s perfectly content with members of his department focusing their time on traditional scholarly pursuits, rather than activism.

“I don’t want to see [Harvard University Professor] Bill Wilson on the street with a picket in his hand—I want to see him analyzing what people are doing,” he says. “We can’t all be blessed in as many arenas as Professor West.”

However, Harvard’s Afro-American studies scholars note that Cambridge is not without its degree of institutional activism, though this activism now more commonly takes the form of community service.

The department sponsors after-school programs at the Baker House in Dorchester run by the Rev. Eugene Rivers. In one program, at-risk teenagers learn critically important computer skills alongside lessons in black history and culture. Another program provides high school students with the opportunity to be both taught and mentored by Harvard undergraduates and faculty.

‘Our President’

Last June, just a week before Gates was to first meet Summers, he said he was optimistic about the level of support the new president would offer his department.

“By all indications, they all have told me he is deeply committed to continuing the growth of the Afro-American studies department and the DuBois Institute,” Gates said.

In that interview, the hopeful Gates said he expected Summers to “make public stands about diversity and affirmative action.”

Roughly six months later, Gates got that public statement of support, but only after Summers’ support for diversity and for the department itself was called into question during the media brouhaha that surrounded the public revelation of the conflict between Summers and West.