Princeton's Center for African American Studies is giving a big boost

Professors in the Center for African American Studies stand in the foyer of their new home, historic--and recently renovated--Stanhope Hall.  Clockwise, from top left: Wallace Best, center director Valerie Smith, Cornel West *80, and associate director No
Professors in the Center for African American Studies stand in the foyer of their new home, historic--and recently renovated--Stanhope Hall. Clockwise, from top left: Wallace Best, center director Valerie Smith, Cornel West *80, and associate director Noliwe Rooks.
Ricardo Barros

When it was announced in the fall of 2006 that Princeton was creating an ambitious new Center for African American Studies, the news triggered a mix of excitement and wariness among some black alumni who returned to campus a few days later for a conference about their experiences at the University. Among them was Melvin McCray ’74, a Peabody Award-winning editor for ABC’s World News, who came partly in order to videotape the event, “Going Back and Looking Forward.” Having previously made a documentary called Looking Back: Reflections of Black Princeton Alumni, McCray knew how marginalized many black alumni had felt when they were students. Though his own experience had included at least as much good as bad, he could not help feeling a bit skeptical about the news.

“I listened to all the hoopla about the center,” McCray says. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, we’ll see how that works out.’ But, my goodness! It has exceeded my expectations.”

Today, the center is up and running — sprinting, really. Four of the dozen core faculty members started at Princeton this academic year, including Wallace Best, a leading scholar of African-American religious history. Since then the center has hired three more young faculty members: Wendy Belcher, a specialist in African literature; Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Nigerian-born art historian who specializes in African art; and Stacey Sinclair, a psychologist who has explored stereotyping and prejudice. (Like all center faculty except for Cornel West *80, the new professors have joint appointments with other departments.) A specialist in race and public policy is expected to be hired soon. Meanwhile, the center hosted its first visiting scholars this year, four of them, making possible an increase in the number of courses offered from 17 last spring to 26 this term. There are several other positions still to be filled, but as the center moves steadily toward offering a major — perhaps as soon as in three or four years — it is one of the most exciting places on campus.

It’s a brave new world out there in the academic study of race. An early book by Valerie Smith, the center’s director, was called Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings, and as the title implies, old definitions are crumbling, or at least getting creatively blurred. Marguerite Vera ’79 sees this in the applications she receives as the administrator of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, an Alumni Association project. “It’s amazing the things that kids identify as race relations,” she says. “It’s not the black-white issues that we would have thought about. They’re thinking globally. Darfur is an issue of race for these kids; so are Muslim-Jewish relations.”

By now we probably should toss aside our hoary old notions of what African-American studies can be. It’s no longer just classes on “The Harlem Renaissance” or “The Politics of the Civil Rights Movement.” This spring there is a course on “Race and Medicine,” and one called “Rhythm Nation,” which looks at music, poetry, and ideas of nationhood across national boundaries and peoples. “The title is really sexy,” allows Smith. “But the syllabus is anything but trendy. It’s really rigorous. And it’s brought together a really interesting, eclectic mix of students.”

The decision to house the center in Stanhope Hall was a potent bit of symbolism. Not only is Stanhope the third-oldest building on campus, it also sits next to Nassau Hall, in the heart of the campus. (Samuel Stanhope Smith himself expressed views on race that were considered progressive for his time, though a book celebrating the new center says that he — like some other early Princeton presidents — may have owned slaves.) The location reflects President Tilghman’s belief that an understanding of the role race has played in American history and culture is central to any meaningful liberal arts education. As associate director and professor Noliwe Rooks puts it, “We are really trying to make it difficult for a student to graduate without having had the opportunity to seriously engage works about race.”

In some ways, Princeton is playing catch-up. Every other Ivy League school already has an African-American studies department. Philosophy professor Anthony Appiah, who chaired the advisory committee that recommended creation of the center, previously headed the African-American studies programs at both Yale and Harvard. At Princeton, his committee borrowed a concept from physics. The center, it said, should exert a “centripetal force” on the University community: It should function like a wheel, with its influence radiating out like spokes in every direction to other departments. Explains Appiah, “We are not trying to turn everyone into an Afro-Am major, but if we are going to offer everyone the chance of acquiring this knowledge, we’re going to do it by reaching across the curriculum, by having courses in many areas, and by showing colleagues in other departments how their work, in ways they might not have noticed, can interact with African-American studies.”

“People think that what we are doing represents the next wave of what African-American studies could be,” adds Smith. Smith is a small, bespectacled dynamo whose dissertation at the University of Virginia, on literacy and freedom in antebellum slave narratives and African-American fiction, became her first book. After stints at Harvard, Princeton, and 10 years at UCLA, Smith returned to Princeton in 2001. Today she leads an African-American studies program that began, at Princeton as similar programs did elsewhere, almost 40 years ago.

At the end of the turbulent 1960s, students were demanding more “relevance” from the courses they were being offered and pointing out that it seemed ironic to talk of promoting democracy on the other side of the world when so many segments of the population were voiceless at home. “Paternalistic white administrators started saying, ‘Let’s just give them something so they’ll shut up and go away,’” says Rooks, who has written a history of African-American studies called White Money/Black Power. That something was African-American studies or, as it was known in those more radicalized times, black studies.

Presiding over the creation of African-American studies as an academic field was the somewhat unlikely figure of McGeorge Bundy, who, after serving as national security adviser in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, became president of the Ford Foundation in 1966. With his attention no longer monopolized by the Vietnam War, Bundy looked out upon the world around him and discovered that there were a lot of black Americans who were angry and, he believed, with good reason. “He decided we needed to embrace and fund black power because it would lead to the kind of reorganization that would put African-Americans on a level field, and then you could talk about integration,” says Rooks. So the Ford Foundation funded efforts to register black voters in the 1967 mayoral election in Cleveland, leading to the election of Carl Stokes, and the campaign for community control of the schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

Then, with the foundation sinking $40 million into black studies, programs sprang up virtually overnight, Princeton’s among them. “In 18 months there were almost 500 programs and departments,” notes Rooks — most of them with little thought given to the curriculum and few people trained to teach rigorous courses. And when, several years later, Ford pulled its money out, many of those early programs folded or were drastically downsized. “On a lot of campuses, African- American studies functioned more as an affirmative-action program than an intellectual exercise,” says Rooks. It made it nearly impossible for the new field to command much respect.

In the early days of Princeton’s program, which began in January 1969, there was a lot of quick turnover without much progress: By the time sociology professor Howard Taylor took over, in 1973, the program consisted of exactly one survey course. Taylor found himself fighting hard against an army of naysayers. “Was African-American studies a legitimate academic enterprise? We fought that battle for six or seven years before things started to change,” says Taylor. “[President] Bill Bowen [*58], bless him, thought it absolutely was a legitimate academic enterprise. ... I think the founding of the center is testimony to our winning that battle.”

Princeton, of course, had its own racial past to contend with. The first African-American to graduate from Harvard did so in 1870; Yale had its first black graduate a few years later, in 1874. Seventy-three years would pass before John Lee Howard ’47, a biology major who had come to Princeton as part of the Navy’s V-12 training program, became the first African-American to graduate from Princeton.

That’s a record of determined exclusion that can be hard to ignore. Princeton currently is doing well attracting African-American students, but, says associate professor of politics and African-American studies Melissa Harris-Lacewell, “The big question is, if I’m a talented young faculty member: Is this a place where I’d be willing to come, over and above the very long and nasty history of race on Princeton’s campus and the continuing understanding of what this place is to the outside world? The answer seems to be yes.”

For Harris-Lacewell, this was not just a rhetorical question. She came to Princeton in 2006 from the University of Chicago, where she taught politics, helped build the school’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, and ran a program for high school students. She still mourns the life she left behind in Chicago, so to fulfill her “urban need,” Harris-Lacewell spends every Monday in New York, where she is a student at the Union Theological Seminary.

The reason she was willing to trade Chicago for Princeton was the sense that she could be a part of building the center into something truly special. “I did believe President Tilghman when she said [Princeton] had an intellectual commitment to African-American studies,” she says. “At the University of Chicago, few high-level administrators could articulate the intellectual reasons why the study of race should be at the center of a liberal arts education.”

Harris-Lacewell demands a lot of her students — her course descriptions warn that they require a lot of work — but despite that, her classes have long waiting lists. The first course she taught at Princeton was called “Disaster, Race, and American Politics.” It was an ambitious mix of theoretical material and hands-on hard work. It culminated in her leading her students to New Orleans during the January intersession week in order to gut houses by day and meet with various stakeholders by night. The group created a Web site [wegotguts.com] that, more than a year later, still is raising money and awareness. “The rumor is, if you take a fall semester course with me, it’s literally never over,” she says, laughing. “My Katrina students are still getting called to do work.”

Last fall, when Harris-Lacewell taught “Introduction to African-American Politics,” she gave students several options in lieu of a final exam and enlisted McCray to help her. He came from New York to teach the students about interviewing and editing and, with about $30,000 worth of new equipment and access to the ABC video library, they made some fascinating short features. Some produced short profiles of African-Americans in politics, like Newark mayor Cory Booker and Democratic Party heavyweight Vernon Jordan. Other students made newsmagazine features, one on a controversial animal-rights campaign on campus last fall that compared animals to human slaves, the other about private-versus-public education of minority students. A third group organized a Spike Lee film festival followed by a panel discussion.

This spring Harris-Lacewell is co-teaching a course on environmental justice with Kim Smith, a fellow at the Princeton Environmental Institute. Like Harris-Lacewell’s earlier course, this one was to include a trip to New Orleans over spring break, during which the students would work on a mapping project in which they would walk the streets and inspect houses as they go, noting what would be needed to make them habitable once more. In the evenings, the students were to meet with representatives from community organizations and nonprofits.

Environmental justice is a new discipline that brings together thinkers from fields that haven’t had much common purpose in the past, from engineering and city planning to public health and biology. Harris-Lacewell’s next book has a chapter on the subject. “African-American women have definitely been in the vanguard of local environmental-justice movements,” she notes. “Sometimes it’s LULUs [local undesirable land uses] like the siting of pig farms or factories. Sometimes it’s health questions, such as why there’s such a high incidence of asthma in the south Bronx.” One side effect of asking such questions is that it brings together an unusual mix of students: The class is about one-half scientists, a third Woodrow Wilson School public-policy types, and the rest humanities students. “That’s a mix we just haven’t seen before,” says Rooks.

Indeed, many of the center’s classes feel more “hands-on” and practical than would be possible in, say, a class on Shakespearean tragedy or Renaissance history. The real world is an effective lab. Says Rooks, “I wouldn’t want to make it sound as if you have to gear all things to social issues. People who want to go to the library and write papers, we’ve got room for you, too!” But there’s no denying that faculty members are eager to develop courses that will put the energy and imagination of Princeton students into the service of communities around the country and, indeed, the world.

Smith and her colleagues are busy outlining the structure of the major they expect to offer in a few years. There are to be three curricular tracks: race and public policy; comparative race and ethnicity; and African-American life and culture. Students will choose a track around which to organize most of their course work. “It’s a way of giving the certificate program, which is on its way to being a major, more intellectual coherence,” says Smith. It’s also a way of signaling the intellectual focus of the center, which is that African-American studies is not an insular field but should have a comparative focus, an international focus. Finally, it’s a way of organizing the center’s hiring priorities. “We are thinking about how our future hires will support these tracks so we are not just randomly hiring people,” says Smith. “That’s one reason we are so excited about Wendy Belcher, who works in African and African-diaspora literature, because it feels as if [hiring her] will help us strengthen the comparative race and ethnicity track and will help us tease out the diaspora focus of what we are doing.”

With several faculty members still to be chosen, Smith says she does not see the center as the main vehicle for hiring black faculty at Princeton. While she knows there’s a good chance some of the center’s hires will be African-American, she doesn’t believe that improving the University’s minority hiring record should be the center’s responsibility. “It’s important for us to distinguish between African-American studies as a discipline and the University’s commitment to diversify the faculty,” she says. “For us, it’s really important to hire the best people working in the field. We support the University’s desire to diversify the faculty, but we don’t feel that it’s our primary responsibility to be the place where that takes place.”

There is still much to be done. Smith — who is finishing a book that examines ways that the civil rights movement has been appropriated by filmmakers, writers, and politicians — is also hard at work performing what for most academics is at best a necessary evil: persuading people to donate money to help the center reach its target endowment of $28 million. That money is to pay for visiting fellows, postdocs, faculty research funds, graduate fellowships, and academic gatherings. In late April there is to be a major two-day conference on environmental justice, and Harris-Lacewell and Smith are mulling over a conference on race and real estate. When the momentous 2008 election is at last over, faculty members would like to find a way to talk about it with calm perspective. And in the fall, writer and professor emerita Toni Morrison will return to teach a class called “The Foreigner’s Home: Studies in the Literature of Dispossession.”

For Harris-Lacewell, the most exciting news of all is the creation of faculty-graduate seminars, which meet every other Wednesday in the late afternoon. It used to be that the only time the center’s core faculty got together was to make administrative decisions — about things like hiring or choosing postdocs. “We didn’t have much of an opportunity to share our intellectual energy with each other,” says Harris-Lacewell, who organizes the seminars. “Now, when we all get together for seminars, you can just tell that everybody feels so happy. We are starting to build an intellectual community.”

Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.