of Black studies & Black study: the function of futurity in Africana Studies
“Black Studies is a dehiscence at the heart of the institution and on its edge; its broken, coded documents sanction walking in another world while passing through this one, graphically disordering the administrated scarcity from which black studies flows as wealth. The cultivated nature of this situated volatility, this emergent poetic of the emergency in which the poor trouble the proper, is our open secret. This open secret is the aim of black studies — a weight, a comportment, where what it is to carry converges with what it is to arrive, always more and less than completely. The critique of the structures and tendencies whose delimitation and denial of that aim appear integral to their own foundation has rightly been understood to be indispensable to black studies: “the critique of Western Civilization” is black studies, according to Cedric Robinson, which is to say that what is called Western civilization is the object of black studies.”
Fred Moten, Black Op
If you listen to Africa World Now Project, regularly or occasionally, you will notice a consistent line in our thinking … an intentionality in programming that attempts to push the parameters of [y]our imagination; to invoke a radical imagination to see a world beyond the limits of now.
We are intent to develop a form of #ThinkingBlackOutLoud that contributes to the long tradition of Africana disruptive praxis, not simply as intellectual posturing or elitist academic musings, but as an evolutionary project — a practice — to solicit ancestral approval and situate every word, every thought, every conversation in the traditions of resistance that Africana peoples have engaged in throughout history [paying attention to the before moments — the before slavery, the before colonialism, the before the various attempts to dehumanize Africana peoples].
Put another way, we are constantly occupied with mapping an African ancient past through an intentional commitment to move toward an African future — to see through and beyond struggle. To see the materiality of freedom as birthed from non-material substance: African spiritual technologies and radical creative thought.
This practice is not new, Africana peoples have engaged in a particular form and function of knowledge production — active knowledge production — in, around, outside and in spite of … academia for centuries. Always together. Always in community. In commons — often and always creating, intentionally and unintentionally a maroon space, an undercommons.
Where are we now? The professionalization of Black thought, that is, an Africana praxis, has been thoroughly colonized through a series of intentional processes to depoliticize Black Studies, thereby delinking Africa from any formations and incorporation into the praxis of Africana Studies in the academy [note: Black Studies will be used interchangeably throughout].
And where it is incorporated, what is being produced and reproduced is a limited framing of the Black experience through ambiguous claims related to the Black body/ies or white supremacy with no structural or economic analysis. Africana life, and lived experiences, are continually understood within in a non-generative feedback loop, where critical thinking is sacrificed for soundbite scholars/ship cited with fire emojis and carefully curated, out of context, quotes. There is no political project and those who are attempting to link to a deeper tradition of radicalism face potential marginalization through a continued application of false consciousness.
Africana ways of knowing can be more defined as systems, than institutions.[i] Especially institutions as conceptualized by Western European ways of knowing. Nevertheless, Africana forms of knowledge and ways of being cannot fit into such limited conceptualizations of institutions. This is not to say institutions are not important, as institutions are often the product of systems.
Nevertheless, this is why tradition, or more exactly traditions, often serve as the appropriate descriptor of Black/Africana experiences … the propensity to use such a descriptor indicates the present of an identifiable genealogy, while leaving room for evolution.
Africana forms of knowledge are rooted in a holistic episteme of evolutionary practices that create and recreate the conditions within which Africana peoples find themselves, as needed, always impacting, at a molecular level, anything it interacts with — literally and figuratively.
Accordingly, it was the vibrations of the assertion of an African/a humanity that pulsated in the activities of students and academic allies to push universities to teach the histories, cultures, and intellectual strivings of Africa and people of African descent who were occupying those spaces.
Essential to keep in mind is that these vibrations were reverberations of larger struggles — and symbiotically related to the assertion of an African/a humanity that was being asserted apart from the university, ultimately being articulated in the on/off campus efforts to build a Black University.
There are many sources that explore this push into the academy, Professor Abdul Alkalimat has just published two, from my perspective interdependent treatments of this history, one titled, The History of Black Studies and the other Dialectics of Liberation: The African Liberation Support Movement.[ii]
Nevertheless, we are at a point in our historical epoch, yet again [see the discourses around the Black University], that the forms and functions of Black Studies are being assessed, with one level being rooted in institutional framework. While the other is a self-critique inherent in its disruptive epistemological origins.
On one level of assessment, its institutional expression as interjected in the Western academy has produced a feedback loop that is part and parcel of a blind allegiance to disciplinarity [it cannot be lost that this is on purpose].
While on another more subtle level, the assessment it is rooted in the ancestral and historical mandate at the center of Black Studies, an assessment of its role in and responsibility to recreating the world around us.
Further exploring the latter level of assessment of the praxis of Black Studies, in particular, radical Black thought — the unspoken impetus is what many are beginning to recognize as Black study.
The logical conclusions produced from such an assessment is determined to evolve the focus of the cyclical [limited] questions, which ask: Do we still need Black Studies/Africana Studies?
Black Study is a clear and intentional disruption of this question. In many ways, Black Study asks: why are these questions of need and legitimacy still being engaged?
“Why do we need Black studies? … the answer is found in the need to Black study”
Black Study is an articulation of Du Bois’s potent reflection when he wrote: “To the real question, how does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”[iii]
It is also important to note that for Du Bois and the long tradition of radical thinkers whom he influenced and were influenced by, understood this “problem” as “but a local phase of a world problem”.[iv]
Do we need Africana Studies? or What is Black Studies? or What was Black Studies? highlight two important glaring observations: First, that all critiques of its form and function must be assessed and measured against Western European practices [HBCUs are not immune from such a contradiction. In fact, represent the contradiction with flare].
Secondly, and I would argue more importantly, these questions highlight, in this moment, the limits that have been inculcated in the processes of knowledge production from what became a singular focus of housing Black thought — Africana praxis — in White institutions. In short, Africana forms of knowing and ways of being are incompatible with the epistemic parameters of European institutions, as these structures were not established to adequately engage Black phenomena, only to control it.
“How does it feel to be a problem, I answer seldom a word?”
Nevertheless, institutionally, Black Studies must be assessed against its origins within the praxis of Africana radical struggle outside of European constructed institutions.
To engage do we need Black studies, is essentially affirming how does it feel to be a problem.
Even in its most watered-down expressions, Black Studies, have always pushed against Western European institutional practices and its insistence to narrowly construct and restrict knowledge production. We can see this in discourses around what is probably a clear expression of liberal and neoliberal thought, such as intersectionality or Critical Race Theory. These expressions are not inherently radical, yet still push through the boundaries of Western European thought/praxis.
Those who claim to be of and in the tradition of Africana/Black Studies who are promoted because of their abilities, in the words of Adolph L. Reed Jr., to interpret the “opaquely black heart of darkness for whites”, distort but cannot stop the evolutions of Black Studies.[v]
The seeds of evolution — the evolution of Black Studies to Black Study — were planted in Africa’s ancient future.
Futurity — specifically a Black futurity, a conceptualization of a world that needs to be created, a world that is to come through and beyond struggle — is innate to Africana praxis. Futurity is inseparable from the past and present.
The seeds are, indeed, in the very Africana being … the very practices, conscious and unconscious behavior captured in the process of moving toward freedom — a process that Black Study is aware of, and some are pouring their energy into expanding — exploring these spaces in between spaces. The extraordinary and not so extraordinary quotidian praxis of African/a peoples.
With this, I would like to present as a point of reflection, a pivot away from the binary nature and limited form of knowing that continually question the legitimacy of Black Studies/Africana Studies.
The very questions of legitimacy, even with the discipline being firmly established in “elite” institutions are caused by an intentional and often forced divorce of the political nature of Black Studies. Black Studies/Africana Studies departments and programs were stripped of faculty and projects that included politics, political education, and the insistence to build a sustainable bridge between the academy with the community.
This process led to the theoretical and epistemic removal of the ‘Africa’ from the Africa/na.
Questions around what Africana Studies is are dominated by what Africana Studies is not.
Dr. Greg Carr’s meditation on this important point can be found in his article, What Black Studies is Not? Moving from Crisis to Liberation in Intellectual Work.
Not to mention, Michael Thelwell argued that “any attempt to discuss the question of what has come to be called “Black Studies,” or “ethnic studies” as it has come to be known in specific geographical regions, that incubator of meaningless pop jargon, outside of a political perspective is futile. The demands on the part of Black students and their activist mentors were a response to political realities in the Black community.”
Questions on the legitimacy of Black Studies no matter where they are being asked, are all rooted in a hermeneutic cyclical feedback loop that could be best explained, in many ways, through the contradictions produced and concretized from its insistence on finding legitimacy in the ‘White’ imagination, an imagination that fuel the dominant ways we think about the world and its meaning, codified in its educational, political, economic, cultural institutions and systems.
More than this, the problematic in these questions is, in itself, rooted in a Western European time construct that is alien to Africana forms of knowing … ways of being that were produced, at various periods, freely and through force across time and space, despite conditions … often in spite of the conditions.
To understand the complexities [and simplicities] in the open secret as Fred Moten presented in the epigraph that opens this reflection, to quote Saul Williams & Anisia Uzeyman from Neptune Frost … “my truth is encrypted and yours is easy to read.”
To measure progress in such a limited notion of the infinite … to attempt to build an understanding of the eternal is like counting the drops of water in the oceans by starting with counting the grains of sand on its beaches.
Josh Myers suggests the same sentiment as he begins his meditation on the questions and considerations around Black Studies when he states that for him, the question “do we still need Africana Studies? is akin to asking do we still need air?”.
Tapping in via the link below, or clicking here, will take you to a program where Josh Myers provides a few important thoughts and many critical considerations around what is outlined above, a mapping of an evolution, a meditation on Black Study.
In addition to being a member of the Africa World Now Project collective, Josh Myers is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.
He is the author of We Are Worth Fighting For: A History of the Howard University Student Protest of 1989 (NYU Press, 2019) and, the recently released, Cedric Robinson: The Time of the Black Radical Tradition (Polity, 2021), as well as the editor of A Gathering Together Literary Journal.
His research interests include Africana intellectual histories and traditions, Africana philosophy, musics, and foodways as well as critical university studies, and disciplinarity.
His work has been published in Critical Ethnic Studies Journal, The Journal of African American Studies, The Journal of Pan African Studies, The African Journal of Rhetoric, The Human Rights and Globalization Law Review, Liberator Magazine, Global African Worker, Pambazuka, and Burning House Press, among other literary spaces.
His current book project, Of Black Study, has been submitted and will soon be published with Pluto Press (2022).
This program was produced, and presented to you, in solidarity with the Native/Indigenous, African, and Afro Descendant communities at Standing Rock; Venezuela; Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi; Brazil; the Avalon Village in Detroit; Colombia; Kenya; Palestine; South Africa; Ghana, Ayiti, and other places who are fighting for the protection of our land for the benefit of all peoples!
[also available on all podcast platforms]
[i] See Delores P. Aldridge, Toward a New Role and Function of Black Studies in White and Historically Black Institutions
[ii] Please note that these two recent publications from Prof. Alkalimat are only a fraction of his work in Black Studies.
[iv] Robin D.G. Kelley, “But a Local Phase of a World Problem”: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883–1950, 1999
[v] Adolph L. Reed Jr., What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?” The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual