The origins of African American studies, explained

Amid the social tumult of the 1960s, Black college students began to question classes that ignored or denigrated their experiences.

At high schools across the United States, students can take for the first time an Advanced Placement course in African American studies that addresses “the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.”

But the new pilot program has come under fire, and the College Board responded by revising the course to exclude modern subject matter like the Black Lives Matter movement and disparities in incarceration rates. 

The controversy reflects the embattled history of African American studies and other academic disciplines that focus on historically marginalized people. Here’s how the field emerged—and how it became an integral part of higher education today.

What is African American studies?

African American studies—also known as Black or Africana studies—explores the history of people of African descent, the legacy of slavery, and how racism pervades our social structures like economics and the law.

“Any reputable institution is going to have some sort of Black studies program or center,” says historian Stefan Bradley, a professor of Black studies at Amherst College.

Offered at over 1,200 institutions of higher learning today, the field offers courses in Black life and culture and Black intellectual thought. Students examine the past and present with an eye toward the Black experience, engaging in courses that cover everything from philosophy and social sciences to literature, theater, and political science.

It has been an academic discipline since the late 1960s, when it arose alongside other fields—such as Asian American studies, Native American studies, and gender studies— that explore the experiences of historically marginalized groups.

Why were these fields so urgently needed? They were a response to centuries of higher education that was inaccessible or downright hostile to students of color and women.

How the push for Black studies began

Most of academia was off-limits to students of color throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, Black communities relied on informal efforts like oral traditions and church and community groups to pass on information about their history and culture.

(This courageous historian fought to make Black History Month possible.)

That finally began to change in 1964, when Title VI of the Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in federally funded higher education. As a result, the numbers of students of color attending historically white colleges slowly began to rise.

But once students arrived on campus, they were presented with classes that centered on the concerns and perspectives of white people. Literature classes celebrated the works of white authors, but overlooked pioneering work by Black poets, essayists, and novelists. Art history classes overlooked or denigrated Black-produced art as “primitive” and unworthy for study. History classes distorted—or denied—racism, viewing the world through a white lens.

Fueled by the ongoing Black Power and civil rights movements, Black students began questioning why those classes didn’t feel relevant to their lives. They weren’t alone: Protests against the Vietnam War were rocking college campuses nationwide, and student activists began demanding change in a variety of facets of their own education.

The first ethnic studies program

In 1968, these forces coalesced at San Francisco State College (now University).

“Of course it started in San Francisco,” says Bradley, citing the influence of the Black Panther Party, the Black Power movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the area.

The college had begun offering some courses in what it called Black studies, but students were frustrated they couldn't earn a degree in the subject. They also felt the university didn’t go far enough to address the needs of its increasingly diverse student body. As a result, students taught their own Black studies courses—and began to demand more formal inquiry into their lives and culture.

Tensions on campus boiled over in November 1968, leading a variety of student groups to go on strike. Over five months—the longest student strike in American history—the school shut down and the police arrested hundreds of protesters in sometimes violent confrontations. It ended only when the school agreed to open a College of Ethnic Studies.

The subsequent push for ethnic studies programs at other colleges across the nation was met with backlash. Much of the opposition to them was overtly racist: For example, Henry E. Garett wrote that Black history was "meager" and attributed the desire for Black studies courses to Black students' inferior intellect.  Even some Black conservatives argued against the idea. In 1969, NAACP head Roy Wilkins threatened his organization would sue any school that created a Black studies program, calling them "racially based Jim Crow schools" that embodied new forms of segregation.

(Jim Crow laws created "slavery by another name.")

Still, by then, the dam was breaking. By 1970, writes historian Ibram Kendi, "nearly 1,000 colleges had organized Black Studies courses, programs, or departments."

This ushered in a new phase for the discipline, with the establishment of journals, the hiring of faculty, and an increase in scholarship.

African American studies today

These new fields of study revolutionized academics. “It’s an opportunity to look at Black people from a different perspective,” says Bradley. By focusing on Black people in the classroom, he says, African American studies programs challenge the status quo at historically white institutions while looking at Black life through a rigorous academic lens.

Over the years, the field has matured. “Black studies is now a real discipline with a theoretical framework,” Bradley says. Nonetheless, he says, many African American studies departments struggle to attain funding and are called upon to perform diversity and inclusion work on campus, especially in the wake of high-profile incidents of police brutality like the 2020 killing of George Floyd.

(Violent deaths reveal a brutal American legacy.)

Though Black studies is largely accepted in higher education, it’s been a battleground in K-12 education. In 2010, Arizona lawmakers banned courses that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people" or "advocate ethnic solidarity." The law led to its own backlash, however, sparking a growing movement to institute ethnic studies classes in K-12 schools nationwide.

Why does Black studies remain controversial more than 50 years after its inception?

“There’s no nice way to ask for rights,” says Bradley. “You have to demand them.” The existence of African American studies, he says, challenges the dominant, Eurocentric view of history—and dares to declare the worth of Black citizens.

Despite ongoing tussles over these programs, analysts say their value is clear. A 2020 National Education Association analysis found that K-12 and college students who participate in ethnic studies "are more academically engaged, develop a greater sense of self-efficacy and personal empowerment, perform better academically and graduate at higher rates."

More recently, a 2021 study found that ninth-graders who took an ethnic studies course were significantly more likely to graduate from high school and remain engaged in their educational experience. Despite generations of controversy, advocates say, African American and ethnic studies are here to stay.

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