May 1968. The nerves of the country were still raw from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just a month earlier. Parts of Chicago’s South Side and West Side had erupted in riots, and many neighborhoods were still simmering with anger. Even Northwestern’s idyllic campus — often an oasis from the problems of the city — would not escape the turmoil that rocked campuses across the nation.
On May 3, 1968, more than 100 African-American Northwestern students — who felt the University’s administration had ignored their demands on a number of issues ranging from housing to curriculum — marched into the Bursar’s Office at 619 Clark St. and took over the building for more than a day. The 38-hour lockdown of the modest red-brick building was Northwestern’s first sit-in.
But the students did much more than simply get their faces in the Chicago dailies and on the nightly news. They laid the groundwork for one of the most prolific academic programs on campus — the Department of African-American Studies.
Included in the discussion of 15 demands that led to the end of the sit-in was a call to add studies in African-American history, literature and art to the University’s curriculum. After a seven-hour meeting between students and administrators, Northwestern released a lengthy statement including a response to the curriculum demand.
“The administration shares your concern as to the importance of expanding studies of black history and black culture in the University. The introduction of such material through visiting lectureships, courses and research is a matter which the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences will urge upon his departmental chairmen for consideration,” the statement read.
The resulting African-American studies department was created in September 1972. In the past 33 years the department has risen from its origins of protest to become one of the highest-profile departments on campus and a model for the University’s interdisciplinary approach to education. The department is currently developing a doctoral program in African-American studies, becoming only the seventh university in the country to do so.
The scene at Northwestern was repeated at colleges and universities across the country through the mid-1970s, says associate professor Martha Biondi, who has joint appointments in the African-American studies and history departments and is studying the evolution of African-American studies from 1966 through 1977.
“From 1968 to 1975 there were 250 to 350 new [African-American studies] programs established across the country. So, it’s really an explosive emergence,” Biondi says.
But African-American studies did not win the respect of academia easily.
“Initially, when the programs started, many people looked down on them, saw them as too political, as concessions to protest that were not truly academic endeavors,” Biondi says. “By the 1980s and 90s, we were seeing a growth of high-quality, top-notch scholarship.”
Since those tense hours in the Bursar’s Office 37 years ago, not only has the interdisciplinary department earned a solid reputation on campus, but it also established a faculty that ranks among the nation’s most respected scholars. The 12 core faculty members have written or edited more than 45 books on topics including slavery, civil rights, welfare, the effect of mass incarceration and the role of black women in American history.
In many ways the Department of African-American Studies is at a crossroads — looking back carefully at the inception of the field at Northwestern and other campuses while at the same time attempting to break new ground. The addition of a doctoral component by 2006 will be the department’s next bold step.
“I think the field of African-American studies has gone through what any field of study would go through in its early evolution, and that is the field is becoming a mature discipline,” says department chair Dwight McBride, who has been instrumental in beefing up the department since he came to Northwestern from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2002.
McBride, who is on leave for the 2004-05 academic year as a visiting researcher at the University of California, Irvine, has seen the number of the department’s core professors quadruple from three to 12 since his arrival on campus. The growth of Northwestern’s program is another sign that African-American studies has developed from a fledgling field of study established out of protest to a respected academic discipline, McBride says.
“It is now impossible to do anything you would consider cutting-edge research and scholarship without thinking seriously about the impact and difference that race makes,” says McBride, who has written extensively in the area of race theory and cultural studies, including sexuality. “You can hardly come into any intellectual discussion when people are not talking race, gender, sexuality and class.”
But after nearly 40 years of establishing a solid reputation at universities across the country, African-American studies programs face one of their biggest challenges.
“Now we are at a period where the discipline itself is coming of age,” McBride says. “I think we’re finally in a position to ask some more difficult questions about where we are as a community that we couldn’t ask before for political reasons. Part of the discipline’s coming of age is that we can’t simply comfort ourselves with talk about the heroes and heroines of our tradition.”
For McBride, many of those difficult questions have centered around questions of sexuality. In writing his latest book, Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality in America (New York University Press, 2005), he addressed the realities of African-American gay life. For too long questions about sexuality and homosexuality “have been silent in African-American discourse. The idea was that we couldn’t talk about homosexuality in any way.”
While McBride has strived to push himself outside of previously drawn parameters in his scholarly work, he expects no less from the department he leads. He and his colleagues have already headed in that direction by adding more breadth to the department.
“The curriculum challenges us as teachers to come out of our comfort zone and helps further the goals of ‘interdisciplinarity,'” McBride says.
In layman’s language that means much more cross-pollination with other academic departments on campus. “We think that having people who are strong affiliates with other departments not only strengthens our relationships with other departments but also brings in a variety of perspectives,” McBride says.
The department’s inclusion of interdisciplinary philosophy in its curriculum is at the core of Northwestern’s culture as stated in the recently released “Highest Order of Excellence II,” the University’s five-year planning framework.
Following the University’s philosophy, the Department of African-American Studies draws on 16 affiliated faculty members from 10 departments. The African-American studies department prides itself on building academic bridges.
For example, Biondi recently taught a graduate seminar for the history department, and the history department’s Nancy MacLean, who specializes in race, gender and labor issues, taught a course on affirmative action for the African-American studies department.
Biondi points to the Center for African-American History, a joint project between the African-American studies and history departments, as a working example of the interdisciplinary spirit between two departments. Funded by the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the center plans to sponsor three lectures a year as well as other programs and events. The two departments will also share research and work together to disseminate their scholarship to the larger community, according to Darlene Clark Hine, the center’s inaugural director.
The center will highlight the Northwestern faculty’s strength in areas of African-American history as well as in the field of the African diaspora in the Americas by bringing together scholars from the United States, South America, West Africa and the Caribbean.
“It’s a way to draw attention to this rich pool of talent and a way to attract top-notch students,” Biondi says.
One of McBride’s first hires was Hine, who came to Northwestern in September 2004 from Michigan State University, where she had been instrumental in helping to establish a doctoral program in African-American studies. McBride wants Hine to work similar magic at Northwestern, putting it on the map with six other schools across the country with graduate programs. (See “Forgotten Leaders — Scholar Reveals Historic Role of African-American Women”.)
“I was persuaded by Dwight’s articulation of a vision for African-American studies at Northwestern that included the development of a PhD program and by his own energy and intellectual engagement. I also was delighted to come back to Chicago,” says Hine, who grew up on the city’s West Side.
McBride and his colleagues say there is no better place to create a doctoral program in African-American studies.
“Actually, I believe that the more PhD programs in the country, the better, and Northwestern is an ideal place to have such a program when you consider the laboratory of Chicago at our doorstep,” Hine says.
Still, she faces a tremendous challenge.
“First you have to develop your own curriculum,” Hine says, laying out the task before her. “We want to create something new and something dynamic, something fresh and necessary, something coherent that will attract the very best students out there.
“And because by definition African-American studies is interdisciplinary, it means that you have to develop close working relationships with other departments in the arts and humanities. That takes time because you want your students to be able to take courses in English, history, anthropology and sociology, and you want them to have a welcoming environment [in those departments].
“We draw from all of these disciplines,” says Hine. “So students getting out of here with a PhD should be able to teach in an African-American studies department, but also, depending on their concentration, they can teach in a history department or an English department or in music or art departments.
“Knowledge is not something that you can compartmentalize,” Hine says. “I know that there are territorial imperatives that drive some of my colleagues in the academy, but African-American studies has always been about transgressing boundaries and drawing insight from diverse disciplines and perspectives.”
Other faculty members in the department have no doubt that the doctoral program will be successful and say it is long overdue.
Richard Iton is among the African-American studies professors who had to forge their own way with one foot in a traditional field — political science in his case — and one foot in an emerging field.
“All of us really had to do our traditional doctorate studies plus the additional work to get where we are,” says Iton. “It makes sense, I think, to have a program where you don’t have to mix and match. The discipline is way beyond that point now.
“We should be the last generation of Frankensteins,” Iton says. “One of the exciting things is that the students we’re training will receive an education that we didn’t have, and it will seem natural to them.”
Now, with the creation of the graduate program come new discussions.
“The graduate program in a lot of ways is a reflection and expression of some of the debates about African-American studies as a whole,” Iton says. “When you produce African-American studies PhDs, what do they do? Who employs them? What kind of students do you attract?”
Fortunately, the groundwork for some of those discussions has been laid in the undergraduate program.
Michael Chanin is a 21-year-old Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences junior from Macon, Ga., majoring in American studies and history with a minor in African-American studies. He’s beginning to grapple with questions about how to use the unique set of skills he will have when he leaves Northwestern (see “Exploring Inequality“).
While the uniqueness of the program leaves students without some of the neat boundaries and directions provided by other majors, it also offers a lot of possibilities.
“Professor McBride is really adamant that the benefit of an African-American studies major or minor is that it is really not limiting but allows you the opportunity to go wherever you want to go,” Chanin said on his way to his Swahili class during fall quarter. He plans to travel to Africa and work on finding solutions to the AIDS pandemic on that continent. “I’m really interested in global poverty and how we’ve got these giant gaps in living conditions throughout the world,” he says.
With a track record spanning three decades, the African-American studies department has the advantage of drawing from the experience of its alumni.
Calvin Holmes (WCAS87), executive director of the Chicago Community Loan Fund, says he thinks the need for an African-American studies program is “more relevant today than ever.”
Holmes, who grew up near East St. Louis, says that African-American literature and history were nonexistent in his high school. He started in psychology at Northwestern but switched majors after taking a couple of courses in African-American studies.
“It was the clearest intellectual turning point for me,” says Holmes, who recalled reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in his dorm room with the sounds of Lake Michigan waves hitting the beach in the background.
Holmes also was influenced greatly by Leon Forrest, the late former chair of the African-American studies department.
“He would say, ‘Holmes, come to my office,'” Holmes recalls, remembering his fear that he was in trouble. “He really just wanted to pull me under his wing.”
Forrest cautioned Holmes that the young man would be moved to anger by some of the slave narratives and other literature he would study. But Forrest told his student to use his newfound knowledge to “celebrate life and build bridges with people,” Holmes says.
In Iton’s Black Diaspora and Transnationality fall quarter class, a racially mixed group of students recently met on one of those bridges Forrest may have been referring to. In one class, Iton walked the class through the 1960s — reviewing symbols of the era such as Angela Davis’ Afro, the revolutionary rhythms and lyrics of James Brown and the comedy and commentary of Richard Pryor.
“There’s a lot of information, a lot of research that falls between the cracks — between the existing disciplines,” Iton says. “There are a lot of narratives that you wouldn’t be aware of if you were a political scientist or sociologist or an English major.”
One of the English majors Iton speaks of was sitting in his class. Weinberg first-year student Monica Harris sought out the African-American studies program because it was something that was missing from her education at the Milwaukee high school she attended.
“One of the first things I wanted to do when I got here was to take African-American studies classes so I could learn more about my culture,” says Harris, who plans on becoming a lawyer. She also sought the class out because she thought it would provide an environment where she could look at her life as an African-American in an environment where she was not the minority. African-Americans often make up one-third to one-half of the students taking classes in the department.
And in many cases her African-American studies professors are African-Americans, something Harris thinks is important to students of all races, but especially important to her as an African-American.
“I never had friends who had parents who were college graduates,” Harris says. She was pleasantly surprised to take one of her first Northwestern classes with Iton, who has a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.
Regardless of race, Harris says everyone takes African-American studies seriously as an important part of their education. “A lot of people want to take [African-American studies classes] because they are curious about racial issues. There are a lot of people in this class who aren’t black. I don’t think they are here because they’re just throwing this into their schedules. I think they’re here because they want to discuss the issues and they have an interest.”
Harris was asked to look back at the protest movement that sparked the African-American studies program 37 years ago. Was it worth the effort?
“Definitely,” Harris says. “In fighting for our own department, it shows that we’re making the rest of the world listen, stand up and pay attention.”
Curtis Lawrence (GJ82) is a freelance writer and member of the Journalism Department faculty at Columbia College Chicago. He worked at the Chicago Sun-Times for the past seven years covering urban affairs.
When thank you couldn’t possibly be enough… The sacrifices you made have made lives at NU, careers and untold success possible. You made it possible for us to exist, continue to fight and in some instances believe we no longer need to fight. Salute to those who stepped up and sat down 47 years ago, many years before and ever since. We serve in your honor. #bursarstakeover #proudlypurple #nubaanation