December 8, 2016
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Princeton's Center For African American Studies Poised To Lead At Critical Time

 


*Setting the path as model for the study of race*

Princeton's Center for African American Studies is launching an aggressive
effort to become the leading resource for the public's understanding of race
in America, coming at a time when the center's scholars say they are seeing
an upward trend in racial issues igniting the country in a series of "brush fires."

Working with a new chair, scholars will build on growth and strategies
developed in the center's first three years to take advantage of fresh
avenues to broaden discussions of race with the public, to engage in
research that could be of use to policymakers, and to harness a unique
interdisciplinary approach to reach the next generation of leaders.

"When we begin to think about the direction of the field, we believe that
what we're doing here at Princeton, right here in this moment, will set the
path for the field of African American studies in the next century," said new
center chair Eddie Glaude, Princeton's William S. Tod Professor of Religion and
African American Studies. "We have an enormous task ahead of us, so we're
very excited about it."

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Black Studies in the United States,
and scholars at the center noted that the issues at the heart of the field are
seeing a resurgence. When black children were banned from a pool at a
Philadelphia swim club in June, there was a clamor for voices to dissect the
social and political meaning of the incident. There was a similar call when a
black Harvard University professor was arrested outside his home by white
officers in July; when a debate between leading academics in this country
and abroad devolved into a discussion of whether the Felix the Cat cartoon
character is black; and also when debates erupted about the racial overtones
of the "birther" movement questioning President Barack Obama's citizenship
and the "tea parties" to protest so-called government intrusion.

What was missing for most people, according to Glaude, were the tools to
help people think through these moments that reflect a "transition in
discussion about race in the United States."

"I see the center's role as a place to generate languages to help us talk
about race in light of the moment in which we find ourselves, when we have
these occasions for brush fire," Glaude said. "We can help to put them out,
but that does nothing to sustain a needed dialogue; so we want to do more
than that.

"When the conditions are arid enough that one spark can lead to a wholesale
fire," he added, "we want to have some folks around who have read about
our work -- who have paid attention to what we do -- who can say, 'Well,
wait a minute; there's another way in which we can think about these
issues,' to get us out of this kind of simplistic and somewhat melodramatic
framework."

A new era of leading scholars in the center have joined pioneers in the field
to help the country have results-oriented discussions about race at what the
scholars say is a critical time that is testing the nation's commitment to
democratic ideals.

"We can have the symbolism of the Obama presidency, but we need to
understand it beyond the level of being post-racial," said Noliwe Rooks, the
center's associate director. She explained that some people think that the
election of Obama has moved America to a "post-racial era" that comes after
the conclusion of an era of considerations of race.

"There are still too few places where someone is taking responsibility for
sharing accurate information about America and race," Rooks said. "Someone
needs to tell people about the America that has gotten us to this point, so
that we know enough to move forward. That's what we're doing here (at the
center)."

The center is beginning a multi-semester examination of the past, present
and future of the field of Black Studies with a public conversation Dec. 10
between chairs and other administrators in Black Studies from Ivy League
institutions. It is one of many ways that leaders of Princeton's center said
they are setting out, not only to celebrate 40 years of "insurgent and
creative scholarship," but also to chart a path for Black Studies in the 21st
century.

GROWTH AND INITIATIVES

The center was established in September 2006, after existing as an academic
certificate program at Princeton for 37 years. A task force appointed by
Princeton's President Shirley M. Tilghman recommended an expanded
curriculum after determining that reflections on race and the experiences of
black people should be diffused throughout a liberal arts education as
an "indispensable element in a preparation for life in this country."

Under the leadership of its first director, Woodrow Wilson Professor of
Literature Valerie Smith, the center moved to its home at Stanhope Hall in
2007, and built the number of core faculty positions allocated to the center
from two members to today's 17. Associated and affiliated faculty members in
other departments now contribute an additional 18 faculty.

The center has increased courses by more than 40 percent, offering 36
courses this year, compared to the estimated 25 courses typically offered a
few years ago. And while some other institutions providing African American
studies focus either on the specific experiences of black people in America or
research of the African diaspora, Princeton encourages students of varying
backgrounds to encounter and reflect on the history of race in the nation
through a unique interdisciplinary approach.

Students in the course "Chinatown USA," for example, explore issues of
American integration and nationalism through the construction of Chinatown.
The course "Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational
Childhoods" asks students to question conventional understandings of identity
by reading authors who spent their childhood crossing national boundaries; a
course titled "The Nation of Islam in America" addresses how the group's
ideological structure has allowed the NOI to function both as a "black
nationalist" and religious body; and the anthropology course "The Post
Colonial Subject" teaches students how contemporary cultural studies
challenge conventional understandings of social and political power.

"There is no other field that has a bibliography that has explored all the issues
in the totality of what the country is facing," Rooks said. "Some of the
initiatives we're putting into place are to give people who need to talk about
race the tools to do it."

The center in November announced two internship programs that will support
research and data collection to confront issues of disparity in urban
education, Rooks pointed out. Readings of works by such well-known scholars
as faculty member Cornel West allow the public to share in intimate
experiences of race, and a series of conferences hosting political leaders,
scholars and artists will provide opportunities for local and national audiences
to focus on issues of race and democracy. These include the "Black Studies
at 40: The Ivy League" public conversation about Black Studies, and also the
James Baldwin Lecture, named after the author and cultural critic, which will
be delivered this year by Tilghman and broadcast to larger audiences through
a radio partnership with WNYC.

The Black Studies at 40 event will be 4:30 Dec. 10 at Betts Auditorium in the
University's Architecture School, while the Baldwin Lecture will be March 9,
and a "Race & American Politics" conference will be held April 13, among other
events scheduled throughout the year. They not only provide a sustained
forum for scholars and policymakers, but also raise awareness on campus
among students who will become the next generation of national leaders.

According to the center's leaders, the proof that it's working is the growth in
numbers of students deciding to pursue a certificate in African American
studies. Last year, the center had its largest number of certificate students
in the history of the program -- 41 compared to the average of 20 per year in
the era before the center was established -- and has become one of the top
five of 42 established certificate programs chosen by Princeton
undergraduates.

One draw, according to the center, is that the faculty members teach and
conduct research in a wide range of fields that include psychology, sociology,
economics, history, English, religion, philosophy, art and archaeology, and
engineering. They focus on three subfields in the center's curriculum: African
American culture and life; comparative race and ethnicity; and race and
public policy.

Professors who call the center home say they find it unique in envisioning the
field of African American studies as a universe of theoretical approaches,
rather than as a minor subdiscipline on the margins.

"Committed to fighting racial discrimination, the center does so partly by
leading into a future where the content of African diasporic traditions
dominates scholarly and popular discussions, not narrow ideas of color," said
Wendy Belcher, assistant professor of comparative literature and African
American studies.

"In such a space, someone like me, a white American who became fascinated
with the richness of African intellectual traditions while growing up in Ethiopia
and Ghana, is welcomed, and I can work to expand Americans' notions of the
contributions of people of color to global history and culture," she added.

Building the faculty infrastructure is one part of a multifaceted approach to
bring together leading minds to help solve evolving race issues, Glaude said.

The faculty members range from Professor Anne Cheng, who uses Freudian
analysis to explore how racial identity is perceived and promulgated in
American culture, to Assistant Professor Alexandra Vazquez, who explores
through Latina/o American musical cultures the voices of lost migratory and
other peoples that may not appear in written texts, and also the work of
Assistant Professor Angel Harris, who is seeking to debunk theories that
attribute the achievement gap to a supposed resistance of black students to
schooling and intentionally sabotaging their educations in fear of "acting
white," which Harris has found to be implausible.

"What we're seeing here is a cohort of faculty whose work in some significant
way is trailblazing in their own unique fields," Glaude said. "Part of our mission
is to build the kinds of platforms for research that can impact the nation, not
only in terms of the specific fields of our faculty, but also impact public
policy."

NEW APPROACH FOR A NEW ERA

The center's leadership asserted that a key element in the realization of their
goals is a recognition that public thought and policies throughout the country
are being shaped by the ever-expanding framework of cable news and new
media.

"If you look at the public context of the quality of discussion about race, the
quality has declined," said West, the Class of 1943 University Professor in the
Center for African American Studies. "When it comes to television, radio and
the Internet, the quality of discussion is pretty poor, so you get this
juxtaposition between the academy making breakthroughs and the larger
public not only not cognizant of the breakthroughs, but retreating into vulgar
discussions about race."

West, one of the nation's most widely known and quoted public intellectuals
on the topics of American society, race, politics and class issues, said the
increasingly dominant role of news media -- and the proliferation of news
outlets -- requires race studies to take advantage of new vehicles to reach
broader audiences.

Traditionally, exploration of strategies to tackle homelessness, disparities in
education, lack of health care and other conditions that disproportionately
affect minority communities has not crossed the bridge from academic
journals to mainstream consumption.

Among the new ways that faculty in the center are reaching audiences are:
blogs and social media websites; partnerships with broadcast channels to
distribute public debates and events to wider audiences; agreements for
regular appearances on TV and radio news shows; and scheduled
appearances on talk shows to speak directly to the public and people of
influence.

"The media are concerned about sensationalizing polarization in order to keep
up their profits, and it's devastating, I think, for the public life of the nation,"
West said. "I think you've got to target citizens who are themselves critical
of the media like Stephen Colbert, Tavis Smiley and Amy Goodman."

In referring to Colbert, the satirist of TV's "Comedy Central," and Smiley, the
television and radio talk show host, as well as Goodman, co-host of
the "DemocracyNow!" daily radio news program, West said that there has
been among scholars in the past a mindset against using such media vehicles
to spread a specific message to reach mass audiences. This is despite the
effectiveness of the same mechanisms to squelch public discussion.

"That's why I like Eddie Glaude," West said. "He has these connections with
Tavis Smiley, Gwen Ifill (of public television) and others. The movement of
quality discourse in the academy into the general public is very important for
the vitality of our future and our nation."

The work being done by the Center for African American Studies reflects that
the current generation is experiencing race in a different way than in the era
of civil rights, leaders said. Some of the center's faculty are part of a new
generation of black intellectuals talking about race in the "era of Obama."

"In 2008 the United States elected our first African American president, a
landmark historical event, and yet in 2009, African Americans are hugely
overrepresented in the criminal justice system, among the homeless, among
those on public assistance, and are the American ethnic group hardest hit by
the current economic crisis," said Imani Perry, a professor in the center
appointed this past June.

Labor statistics in September reflected a 9.7 percent national unemployment
rate, but 15.5 percent unemployment among blacks, the center's leaders
noted. Also, a disproportionate number of the 45 million uninsured who are at
the center of the current national health care reform debate are African
Americans and Latinos.

Perry's focus of research is to identify how individuals sustain racial inequality
in their daily practices. Along with West, she represents the center's first
members solely appointed to African American studies, whereas the program
previously relied exclusively on half-time faculty assigned through joint
appointments from other departments.

Perry noted that there are marked gaps between blacks and whites, even as
the country approaches 150 years since the abolition of slavery, and 50
years since the Jim Crow laws sanctioning racist and segregationist practices
were dismantled.

"African American faces, voices and cultures are constantly on our airwaves
and in our digital media, and yet African Americans are underrepresented in
decision-making positions and ownership in corporate and new media," Perry
said. "What explains all of these counterintuitive pairings of the realization of
the 'American dream' and exclusions from 'America's promise?' Why is it that
we aspire to a post-racial or color-blind America, and yet continue to see
that race has a significant impact on our lives and experiences?

"The field of African American studies allows us to investigate and provide
potential answers to these and other important questions," Perry
explained. "More than that, African American studies is a lens through which
to understand how societies categorize themselves, how we make meaning,
how we produce culture."

Glaude echoed that the election of President Obama "doesn't erase the
structural legacies of white supremacy and how they continue to over-
determine the life chances of many of our fellow citizens."

"Part of what African American studies brings to the table is a kind of skill set
to help us talk about the realities of race," Glaude said. "Not simply just black
and white, but the realities of race in relation to this American experiment
that aren't predicated upon making people feel guilty about some racist past,
but rather helping us understand how racism and race oftentimes impede the
actualization of our ideals as a nation."

The center's work plays a pivotal role in delivering the message that while
people champion the progress in race relations, some of those same people
today are struggling with health care, unemployment, underemployment,
education and other life issues, the scholars said.

"If we don't have a quality of discussion, it's going to spill over into violence,"
West said, "and if that happens, then American democracy is in grave danger,
to say the least. So in that regard I would say that the discussion of race in
America is critical -- and yes, I use that word critical."

African American studies is more important than ever because Obama's
election has led some people to think that continued talk of anything racial is
racist, the scholars said.

Debates are proliferating over the notion that America has "overcome," in
terms of fulfilling the goals of the civil rights era.

"At this moment more than anything, the accomplishment of President Obama
as president cannot represent a job well done; there is too much work left to
do," Glaude said. "African American studies can help us understand the
subtleties of race and racism, even in this moment. In fact, because of this
moment, we need African American studies even more."

###

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MEDIA CONTACT: Cass Cliatt, (609) 258-6108, ccliatt@princeton.edu



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