Cultural Exchange

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a blog post by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”

Schaefer Riley argued that there are “no legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community…happening in black-studies departments” and that Black Studies has outlived its usefulness. The post’s publication set off a minor firestorm, and Schaefer Riley was ultimately fired. But the entire episode served as a reminder of Black Studies’ tenuous place in academia and the broader culture.

Historian Martha Biondi’s new book, The Black Revolution on Campus, provides important insights into what’s at stake in these frustratingly recurrent conversations about the field’s legitimacy. The monograph maps the origin story of Black Studies, excavating a powerful piece of late-’60s and early-’70s social-movement history. It documents black students’ struggles at both majority-white universities and historically black colleges and universities to create a more demographically and intellectually multicultural campus, and to make universities more responsive to the communities around them.

Although student-activists generally found their efforts to bridge campus and community frustrated or abbreviated, Biondi convincingly argues that this “revolution” did succeed in fundamentally changing American higher education. From South Carolina to San Francisco and Baton Rouge to Brooklyn, through campus occupations, strikes, and demonstrations, student-activists hammered away at the overwhelming physical and intellectual whiteness of the American university. After students began securing Black Studies programs in the late ’60s, long debates ensued over what would be the methodological, pedagogical, and intellectual frameworks of this new, amorphous subject. What emerged on the other side “ushered in a transformation of graduate training and knowledge production in the United States, putting categories of race and, ultimately, gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity at the center of intellectual analysis.”

Though Black Studies scholars continued to battle skepticism about their legitimacy, higher education would never be the same. The field provided a host of analytical frameworks that scholars in multiple disciplines now take for granted. Most critically, the rise of Black Studies directly assaulted the supremacy of what activists called “white studies,” which contoured the university through an assumption of the superiority of white scholarship.

Campus activists saw these struggles over the means and aims of knowledge production as a constitutive feature of the long black freedom struggle. Overlapping chronologically and ideologically with Black Power and growing out of the Civil Rights movement, participants in the black student movement sought to dismantle racial inequality and privilege in the academy in much the same way other activists waged war against injustice. Students put their academic careers, future prospects, and literal lives on the line. In so doing, they democratized the American university, forcing open what had previously been frustratingly sturdy racial, curricular, and intellectual barriers.

Thus, while Black Revolution is an important book for historians of education, African America, and social movements generally, it’s also indispensable in arming us with a better sense of why writers like Schaefer Riley are so wrong about Black (and other ethnic) Studies. Most people know by now that Black Studies isn’t all about “blame the white man,” in Schaefer Riley’s words. But what Biondi’s book does is to also demonstrate just how instrumental the field, and the movement that birthed it, have been in reshaping American education and culture for the better. In addition to being thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and a fascinating piece of history, that alone makes Black Revolution an exceptional piece of scholarship, and a book greatly worth reading.

Simon Balto is a Ph.D. candidate in History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.