Standing in the gap: the past and future of pan-African studies at the university of Louisville.

Author:Jones, Ricky L.
 
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In the 4th Century BC, Plato begins Republic with the classic dialogue between Socrates and others as they attempt to answer the query, "What is justice?" Ultimately, the ensuing conversation reveals that the answer is much more complicated than the question. As we close this special issue dedicated to the University of Louisville's Pan-African Studies Department (PAS), I think it apropos to pose the question, "What is Pan-African Studies?" Or better yet, what does Pan-African Studies do? Why is it needed? What does it address and how does it contribute to the ongoing humanization project that has sat at the heart of so many national and global struggles? I believe the answers concerning Black Studies in general and PAS in particular are not as complicated as Plato's dialogical misdirections, but just as impactful.

Founded in 1973, PAS recently celebrated its 40th anniversary this past academic year. It is one of the oldest and largest Black Studies departments in the country--currently housing 15 full-time faculty members. During its four decades, the department has garnered many laudable honors. It launched the iconic "Conference on the Black Family" in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the department began an industrious faculty expansion spearheaded by then chairman Robert L. Douglas that extended into the next decade. After a quarter century of achievement, the late Dr. Manning Marable of Columbia University rated PAS among the top 10% of Black Studies programs nationally in 1997. Similarly, in 1999, the Department was again rated in the top 10% by a team of extramural reviewers. At the turn of the century, PAS equaled the number of undergraduate graduates with Black Studies majors of Cornell, Howard, and Stanford Universities. It ranked just behind Harvard and just ahead of Yale.

In 2002, PAS established its Master of Arts program--the first graduate degree program in Black Studies in Kentucky. At the time, it was one of only twenty-one Black Studies graduate programs in the country (only five offered the Ph.D.) and one of only three in the South (Clark Atlanta University and Florida International University). A decade later in 2012, PAS launched its Ph.D. program, becoming the first department to do so in the South. PAS has also been the home department of a number of outstanding scholars and achievers. These include the late Dr. James Blaine Hudson, the first African American Dean of the University of Louisville's College of Art & Sciences and the Honorable Brian Edwards, one of only three black circuit court judges in the State of Kentucky.

For those concerned that units like PAS are passing fancies, an examination of the current composition of America and how higher education deals with its ever-evolving constituencies is warranted. An argument can certainly be made that those who believe Area and Ethnic Studies are no longer needed have little sense of history and an even poorer grip on the future. Presently, we live in the most multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural America ever. For good or ill, this demographic trend is not likely to change--the country is becoming more "colorful." In this new 21st Century American reality, no university can call itself a "serious" educational institution without housing good Black, Native American, Asian, Latin, and Women's and Gender Studies. It is not unreasonable then for one to argue that Black Studies will grow rather than whither as we move forward.

Quantitative exploration of Black Studies' current footprint in American higher education is also encouraging. Indeed, Abdul Alkalimat et al. (2013) report that of 1,777 institutions surveyed, "76% have some form of Black Studies, 20% (361 institutions) with formal units and 56% (999 institutions) without units but with a course or courses . . . dedicated to the Black experience" (Alkalimat et al., 2013, p.6). This important study goes on to note that 91% of public colleges and universities and 77% of private schools have either units or courses. More than a third (37%) of public colleges and universities have formal Black Studies units (Alkalimat et al., 2013, p.6).

Supporters of Pan-African Studies and units like it who believe we are viable because of the notable achievements mentioned above or the growing presence of Black Studies programs and classes nationally actually miss the point of the discipline and the Department. Growth and achievement are important, but they are less important if we never answer the initial question of, "What does Pan-African Studies do?" Reaching back to Plato, the answer to this question is both philosophical and political. While departmental missions may be stated differently, the core philosophical impetus for Black Studies since its genesis at San Francisco State University has been the training of a core group of scholars and community members to recognize and combat permanent hegemony. Pan-African Studies is simply another asset in this mandate to increase possibilities and space for human liberation.

Hegemony in Liberal America

Unlike most departments, PAS and similar units were constructed organically to combat socio-political marginalization. In effect, Black Studies is a "warrior's discipline standing in the gap" between peripheralized populations facing domination and hegemony. While the terms domination and hegemony are often deployed, it would be useful to clarify them in our current universe of discourse. When examining societal marginalization in its many forms in his profound Quaderni del carcere (Prison Notebooks), Antonio Gramsci (1971) noted hegemony and domination are not necessarily the same. Cultural and political studies have often invoked Gramsci's concept of hegemony to describe moments of national socio-political struggle, but the term remains ambiguous to many. Probably the most common perception of hegemony sees it as a process through which domination of one group over another is achieved by constructing an ideological consensus (Gitlin, 1980; Goldfarb, 1991; Grossberg, 1992). This formulation of Gramsci is not altogether correct. A repeatedly ignored fact is that while hegemonic struggle always involves coercion and consent, it does not necessarily involve the negativity of domination.

A key variable in this political equation is power and how it is used. While power is necessary for domination to occur, domination and power are different in that power is not always negative. Unlike power, domination is marginalization marked by an exercise of supremacy over and oppression of another (Jones, 2008). This state is always retrograde. Hegemony, however, according to Gramsci, does not necessarily seek or equate to domination. He speaks of hegemony as having two faces by observing, "Permanent hegemony is always bad; temporary hegemony of one group or region may be beneficial to all. Hegemony of north over south in Italy has been bad but need not have been so" (Gerrantana, 1975, p.130). From this perspective, temporary hegemony (at its best) may result from positive leadership aimed at reaching some noble end for the collective. In some ways, Pan-African Studies has provided such leadership on matters of race at the University of Louisville. Permanent hegemony cannot be regarded as such.

If permanent hegemony in a socio-political space is established and maintained effectively, the ideas of the controlling class insinuate themselves into the lives of the oppressed to the point that subjugated people eventually do not regard themselves as worthwhile beings. Consequently, they base their worth on how well they mimic the behavior and life circumstances of the society's dominant group (Marx, 1936, 1959). As Robert Owen and others have realized...

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