More College Students Choosing To Major In Black Studies

In the first installment of a Tell Me More series on Black History Month, the program looks at the scholarly pursuit of African-American or Black studies. Host Michel Martin speaks with Elizabeth Alexander, chair of the African American studies department at Yale University about the evolution of this interdisciplinary major.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, filmmaker and actor Mario Van Peebles tells us what's playing in his ear. But first, today we begin a series of conversations for Black History Month, and we've decided to focus on new news about black history. Well, how is that possible you ask? Isn't history all the stuff that happened a long time ago? So, how could there be anything new? Well, our thinking is that a lot has been documented about the history of black people in America. But a great deal of scholarship has emerged in recent decades that most people know little about. So, we've decided to explore some of this work and talk about what it means for us today.

But first, we want to start with the whole question of black studies or African-American studies itself. Just about 40 years ago, colleges and universities began offering something called black studies. To find out more about this, we've called the chair of Yale University's African-American Studies Program, Elizabeth Alexander. She is also a poet. You may remember, she composed and read her original work, Praise Song for the Day, at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. And she is with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us. Happy Black History Month to you.

Professor ELIZABETH ALEXANDER (Yale University): Thank you. It is wonderful to be discussing these things with you in commemoration.

MARTIN: Of course, everybody knows - well, most people know Black History Month and many people may remember that it started as Negro History Week, began in 1926. Scholar Carter G. Woodson began promoting the study of the role of black people in history. But as I understand it, the first department was founded in response to student protest at San Francisco State College - now university -in 1968. So, what made the academy, if you want to call it that, create this kind of department? And is there a difference between the study of black history and the study of African-American studies?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Yes, what happened in the late 1960s is what we have all seen - what happened in the country. And that is to say the civil rights movement was crescendoing in so many ways and one of the ways that we saw that playing out on college campuses was with very, very activated student bodies who said not only do we want more representation amongst the students here, but we also want more representation on the faculty. And we want to have a curriculum that is diverse and that tells us something about the contributions of people of African descent in all of the other places in the curriculum where that has not been discussed.

But, you know, we're talking about this 40th anniversary of the institutionalization of African-American studies. But I think it is important -and this is where can't forget the Carter G. Woodsons, and W.E.B. DuBoises, and John Hope Franklins - to remember that there were scholars who were devoted to the study of black people for a hundred years before that. And so, what we're marking is mainstream institutions catching up. So, I just think it's important to give us a longer sense of black studies before that incredible shining moment in the late 1960s when we took root as departments and programs.

MARTIN: As I understood periodically there have been dust-ups around black studies, or African-American studies, about whether there's sufficient rigor attached to this. Some people argue that these courses are more an extension of identity politics than scholarship. Could you speak to that?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, yes. I mean, I think that that is fundamentally just completely specious, and I think results from a lingering sense that the contributions of people of African descent are not worthy of study. But if you think about what so many universities are doing, the students who take our classes are students of all colors who are learning a richer and more complex portrait of what America is. And I think to the people who question the rigor, I would even argue that an interdisciplinary major - that is to say, our majors look at literature, they look at history, they look at political science, they look at economics - they try to think about this question of the contributions of black people from a number of different disciplinary perspectives. And so we feel that they come out of the major actually with rigor that is as intense, if not more intense, than they could find anywhere else in the university.

MARTIN: Just as an aside, do you ever anymore get parents calling you up and saying, well, how can my child get a job studying that?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, yes, and I take that very seriously, actually. You've probably seen with these latest scholarly studies that show that in fact there is discrimination against people with quote-unquote "African-American sounding names," as opposed to, you know, Karen and Ann and Emily and so forth and so on. And a lot of students have responded - not necessarily our students, although I'm sure some have - feeling that they need to downplay their study of African-American studies because it will limit them in some kind of way.

And so what I say to those parents - and I have talked to some of them - is, I tell them about what we're doing and I tell them all the different things that the graduates of our major are doing, because they are excelling in every conceivable field. It also offers them a very wonderful example of the power of critical thinking, because one of the things that you learn in the long study of black people in this country is that it is a country that is not always fair, but wherein we see people responding with tremendous creativity and ingenuity to the denial of full equality.

MARTIN: What drew you to the field? I mentioned earlier that you are a poet of some renown. And your core discipline, I think, is English. What drew you to this area of study?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, when I was coming along you could not earn a PhD in African-American studies. And I'm not sure I would have at the time. I was interested in the study of literature. And within that I was interested in African-American literature. When I went to college in the 1980s, it was a tremendously exciting time in the scholarship of African-American literature, black women's literature in particular. And also there were tremendous archival discoveries that were going on. We were finding - and Henry Louis Gates was very instrumental in a lot of this work - 19th century work by black women that have been out of print for over a hundred years, lost manuscripts that were now being given scholarly attention and shown to be the important works they were. So as far as, also being a field where there was a whole lot of original research to be done, it seemed to me that rather than write another dissertation on Milton or Shakespeare, it would be much more interesting to do research on the relatively open field of African-American literature.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having the first in a series of conversations for Black History Month. We're visiting with Elizabeth Alexander. She is chair of Yale University's African-American Studies Program. We're talking about new news about black history. What are the stories that are not as well known about black history that should be better known? And so I want to take the conversation in that direction. What are some of the stories that date from this theory of scholarship that you hope people get to know more about in the present day?

For example, this week we're commemorating the 50th anniversary of the four young North Carolina A&T students who sat in on a segregated Woolworth lunch counter for a cup of coffee, kind of starting that whole student movement. And - so what are some of the stories that you think people should - you would like people to know?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, I think one of the things that's really exciting about this particular time period and the robustness of the field of African-American studies is that we often benefit from a little bit of time with which to look back on time periods or works of literature or culture, other kinds of phenomena with a bit of distance to say, okay, this is why this is significant, this is how we would historicize and talk about what's important about this particular moment. And so the civil rights movement is a great example. We are far enough past it that there is a full body of literature.

And when I say literature, I mean not only scholarly works but also first person accounts, documentary material, material has been gathered so that, for example, my colleague, Glenda Gilmore, offers a course on African-American freedom movements in the 20th century that lets us look back on what many of us lived through but can now look at with a sharp and scholarly eye. Similarly, I mostly teach African-American poetry. And I'm at the moment teaching a 1965-to-the-present seminar on contemporary African-American poetry because we are, I contend, presently in an unprecedented renaissance for African-American poetry. So I'm very excited about teaching that as well.

MARTIN: Really, why do you think that is?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, I think part of - and I'll give this all of the social movements, actually, of the 1960s - the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian liberation movement - all of those movements had literary corollaries. And so what that meant for American poetry is that whereas it was much more segregated and much more narrow in its aesthetic range, as far as what was really considered poetry that was worthy of study before that time period - now we see that American voices that would have had a hard time even making it into print, all of that has changed. So we can now hear and read and study what is a more accurate on-the-ground picture of what's really happening.

MARTIN: And finally, the - during Black History Month students are often asked to study key figures and often they will study people like Carter G. Woodson or W.E.B. DuBois or Ida B. Wells, and often even more contemporary figures like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. Are there a couple of figures whom you would highlight that perhaps are not as well known? Can I nominate one to start?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Yes.

MARTIN: Can I nominate one?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Who's your person?

MARTIN: Harriet Jacobs.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: I was amazed, you know, I was a grown woman before I heard about this figure and we did a piece about her last year. So I think one of reasons I'm still fascinated by her - an escaped enslaved American, an abolitionist speaker and reformer, author of her work, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," published in 1861 under a pseudonym. She lived in the attic of her grandmother's house for seven years to avoid being sold away from her children and to sort of keep an eye on them at the same time. I am amazed by the story. Is there another...

Prof. ALEXANDER: She is amazing. I would add Audre Lorde to the list. Audre Lorde died in the late 1980s, a very, very brilliant poet, essayist, political theorist and activist, black lesbian thinker who put forth a theory of intersectionality. She talked about the importance of thinking about all aspects of your identity at the same time. She says, you know, I can't let anyone take away any piece of who I am. I'm simultaneously black, mother, teacher, lesbian, New Yorker, West Indian - all of these things are true at once.

I refuse to allow these potentially worrying identities to be at war with each other, and that is, it is in fact by embracing the diversity within us that we can embrace the diversity in our communities in order to be more politically powerful.

MARTIN: Anybody else?

Prof. ALEXANDER: I would also have us think about the poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. And I'm naming another poet here, but I'm going to make some grand claims for her. I think that Gwendolyn Brooks is the most significant American poet of the entire 20th century. There are a lot of people in that century. But I think that Gwendolyn Brooks - and again, what I think is interesting about her life is that she's someone who was very much out of place. She wrote from the South Side of Chicago. She lived in the same 10-block area for her entire life. But as she said, all I had to do is look out the window and there was a poem.

And I think that the singularity of her voice, her understanding that the smallest particulars of black urban lives in fact gave us profound universal truths, I think there is no poet who exemplifies that better than Gwendolyn Brooks. She doesn't sound like anyone else.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Alexander is chair of the African-American studies department at Yale University. She is also the poet who composed and read the poem "Praise Song for the Day" at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. And she was kind enough to join us from the studios at Yale University at New Haven. I thank you so much for contributing to our Black History Month series and for starting us off on such a fine note.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, thank you for what you're doing with the series. It's wonderful to have these serious conversations.

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