40 years of educational excellence, 12 years of intellectual inquiry, praxis & transformation: PAS graduate programs at the University of Louisville.

Author:Rajack-Talley, Theresa


The intellectual history of a people or nation constitutes to a great degree the very heart of its life. - Gertrude Bustill Mossell (1894).

Over the years, as Director of the Graduate Program and then as Chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies, I have explained that Black Studies/Pan-African Studies was a response to political exigencies and part of a social movement that saw the need to fill an academic gap in North American colleges and universities. Black Studies is now a legitimate academic phenomenon with courses, programs and units. Nevertheless, many within and external to the institution, including friends and family do not understand "why I would want to study 'Black People' and constantly questioned my decision to seek a Black Studies degree" (Former PAS Graduate Student, 2014). Others are still confused whether or not Black Studies is a product of "affirmative type action" and therefore "not as academic" as the traditional degree programs. Martha Biondi, director of graduate studies and an associate professor of African-American Studies and History at Northwestern, shares a similar experience, and was quoted in a 2012 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education saying that she too has to consistently explain that "Black studies is not a social-service agency aiming to ameliorate racial discontent. It is an area of rigorous intellectual inquiry that is here to stay" (p. 1). As the Department of Pan-African Studies (PAS) celebrates its 40th anniversary, it serves as a testimony that not only have we withstood the litmus test of an academic department but we also stand out within our university and in the South, as well as nationally and internationally.

Brief History of Black Studies

In the United States, Black Studies is known by different names usually representative of a specific geographical scope and focus. The variation in nomenclature reflects the volcanic birth of the discipline which resulted in structural and organizational diversity in the colleges and universities where it was established. No two programs are alike as they vary in size, composition, degrees offered, spatial resources, special programs, and nature of community outreach (Hines, 1997). Black Studies is used as a generic reference to the discipline but the many labels can be grouped into one of two main categories: those with a national range are called African-American, Afro-American, and Black, while those that are more diasporic are named Pan African, Africana, African and African American (Alkalimat et al., 2013; Hine, 1997). These various names are also preferred because they offset the stereotypical belief that Black Studies is only for Black faculty and students.

Most programs are multidisciplinary and center on one or more of the following: history, politics, culture, literature and linguistics, religion, sociology, anthropology, music, art and other disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. Regardless of the focus or name, Black Studies as a discipline is rooted in the desegregation of schools and universities, and the influx of Black students and faculty in the education system, previously dominated by Whites only. The Brown decision in 1954 followed by the Supreme Court decision in 1969 in the Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (Walton & Smith, 2000: 224) changed the demographic landscape of educational institutions all over the US. A decade later, students of color were in the education system and those attending colleges and universities quickly realized that there was an absence of Black and/or minority group experiences in their curriculum. The lack of Black faculty members at the institutions was also of grave concern. As such, along with the other demands of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), students and communities advocated for Black Studies and Black faculty to be included in colleges and universities throughout the country.

Okakfor (2013), Rojas (2007) and others point out that the reason for developing Black Studies as an academic discipline was centered on two main issues: (1) the exclusion of self in the knowledge base, and (2) the need to intellectually address the socioeconomic and political inequities of the larger society from the standpoint of Blacks and other people of color. Within this broad framework, not only has the organizational structure, nomenclature and programs varied but also the objectives of the different Black Studies programs. For example, in the first 10 years Ford (1973) identified 200 programs, each with a different set of objectives. Nevertheless, Conyers (1995, 1997) in a detailed descriptive and evaluative account of the evolution of African American Studies sees the institutionalization of Black Studies as a revolution in American higher education.

Because this new, exciting, and colorful discipline appeared within the walls of the Ivory Tower during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, Black scholarship is often mistaken as having its beginnings during this period. What most do not know is that Black scholarship started long before Black Studies was formally accepted in the traditional White-dominated academic institutions. According to Rojas (2007), prior to this period Black intellectuals had already developed numerous historical, literary, sociological and other types of scholarship that were not being taught in colleges and universities. For example, well re-known Black Studies scholar and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois began his sleuth of scholarly works in 1896; Carter G. Woodson along with others founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and in 1916 they launched the Journal of Negro History. There many other examples too numerous to list. What is important to know however, is that Black intellectual inquiry has contributed to the conceptualization of issues of race, race relations, and social inequality of all types (1) long before Black Studies was accepted as an academic discipline.

Similarly, while Black Studies only became a reality in the mid-1960s, the impetus for Black intellectual thought to be consolidated as a discipline in traditional colleges and universities can be traced much further than the Civil Rights period (Dulaney & Williams, 1996; Stewart, 1984). In fact, Okafor (2013, p. 71) traces activism for Black Studies in academic institutions as far back to the struggles waged by the American Negro Academy established in 1897. The institutionalization of Black Studies in the 1960s however, was a milestone and blazed the trail for women and gender studies, ethnic studies, native studies and cultural studies. Hines (1997) in her overview of Black Studies alluded that the establishment of Black Studies propelled colleges and universities to include more integrated and pluralistic curriculums, programs, degrees, faculty, and departments.

Interestingly, despite the progress made in establishing Black Studies as an academic discipline, the same issues are raised time and again. Are there sufficient numbers of students interested in the discipline, particularly at the graduate level, to make the programs economically viable and academically sustainable? What can someone do with a graduate (or undergraduate) degree in Black Studies? Amusingly, these questions are seldom asked about the more traditional degree programs but are consistently raised for Black Studies, although satisfactory levels of student enrollment, graduation rates, and placement of Black Studies graduates provide evidence of its successes.

Current Programs and Units

The first official 4-year curriculum in Black Studies was offered by San Francisco State College in 1968. Since then more than 300 Black Studies programs, departments and/or centers exist in the US (Okafor, 2013). Degree programs steadily increased and peaked between 1966 and 1975 and by 1975 approximately 7 percent of colleges and universities offered a Black Studies degree (Rojas, 2007). The Department of Pan-African Studies was also institutionalized at the University of Louisville during this period (Hudson, 2010). The lack of funding and other resources along with continued racism saw the demise of many Black studies programs during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s. However, today the most recent survey on African American Studies (Alikalimat, et al., 2013) show that Black Studies 'is alive and well' and that approximately 76 percent of colleges and universities identified by the Carnegie Foundation have programs, degrees and/or courses. Most of these are located in the larger public colleges and universities, and only 20 percent of these have established departments or other types of formal units.

Interestingly, the survey show that the region with the largest percentage of Blacks, the South, has the highest number of course offerings but the smallest number of Black Studies units (2), compared to the Midwest, Northeast and the West (see Figure 1).

Further, only half of all colleges and universities see the need to offer African American/Black Studies courses, and fewer yet (approximately 25%) have established Black Studies as a discipline with its own department. Okafor (2013) suggests that the low numerical representation of the discipline in educational institutions can be considered as the outcome of continued 'intellectual hegemonic resistance that Black Studies continue to face" (74). The compromise is to offer courses rather than programs, although Black Studies as a discipline have evolved and now offer PhDs at some of the most prestigious universities such as Yale, Harvard, and Northwestern.

Theory, Praxis and Transformation: Our Programs, Our Students

The PAS Department was founded in 1973, although the first set of Black Studies courses were offered in the summer of 1969 (Hudson, 2010). Today, the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville is one of the more successful and oldest Black Studies department nationally, and only...

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