The Joys of Thirty-something
The road to acclaim for Harvard’s Afro-American studies department has been littered with potholes, but after 30 years, the unit finally appears to be cruising.
By Ronald Roach
In 1969, Black students, faculty members, and administrators at Harvard university had no idea that their differences over a new academic program devoted to Black studies would send Harvard on a 20-year course of neglect and at times even hostility toward the discipline. Student activists who rejected the original plans for an Afro-American studies program as too weak, pressured faculty members to approve plans for a full-fledged department. Faculty meanwhile — both on campus and within the academy — dismissed the field as little more than an academic flash in the pan. As one university official puts it: “There was a nominal commitment. But there was no intellectual or emotional investment” by Harvard to make Afro-American studies a respected program.“We had a very difficult time in making that into a first-class department. It was very hard,” says Dr. Henry Rosovsky, retired dean of the arts and sciences faculty at Harvard and an early proponent of Afro-American studies.Three decades later, Harvard’s Afro-American studies department has emerged in complete synchronicity with the university’s much vaunted place as a higher education leader. In 1999, Harvard’s Afro-American studies department shines because an all-star team of scholars renowned for their work and their influence hold tenured faculty positions there — academic luminaries like Drs. Cornel West and William Julius Wilson, and the department’s charismatic chair, Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. (see Dr. Entrepreneur pg. 18).It is the brilliant scholarship and affable, yet resolute leadership of Gates — a self-described intellectual entrepreneur — that most people credit with having transformed Afro-American studies at Harvard into a national leader. So stellar is the department’s current reputation on campus that its introductory course, taught by West, is now the fifth-largest undergraduate course at Harvard, enrolling 450 students last fall. “It is the best course on campus,” says Theodore Nathaniel “Teddy” Maynard, a Harvard junior who is majoring in Afro-American studies. “A lot of students take the class just because [West] is such a dynamic speaker…. In a way, I see [Gates and West] as using this White institution to validate Black studies.”Some scholars would counter that the discipline’s growing acceptance has occurred despite Harvard. Nevertheless, the university’s Afro-American studies department has become a model of excellence that other American colleges and universities are striving to emulate.
Gates at the HelmIt was a somber day last December when Gates gave David DuBois, the stepson of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, a tour of the Afro-American studies department. The dour mood on campus was caused by news that A. Leon Higginbotham, a beloved professor, retired U.S. superior court judge, and champion of civil rights, had suffered a fatal stroke the night before. Despite his grief, Gates took considerable pride during the tour in unveiling the most recent product of his department’s endeavors — a project initially envisioned decades earlier by the late Dr. DuBois. The Encarta Africana, is an interactive CD-ROM encyclopedia that charts the complex history of Africans and peoples of the African Diaspora using text, audio, video, and photography (see BI Tech Talk, pg. 38). So moved was DuBois’ now elderly stepson by the demonstration that he wept.“He told me that DuBois would have been proud to see this,” Gates says. DuBois, arguably the most celebrated Black Harvard graduate of the past 150 years looms large in the minds of Black intellectuals everywhere, and certainly among Blacks at Harvard. While the impact of his legacy as a scholar continues to be felt by Black scholars far and wide, Gates is building an intellectual legacy of his own that has caused some observers to compare him to DuBois. Since 1991, Gates has presided over both the Afro-American studies department and Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute. Hired to shore up the floundering department, Gates is said to have exceeded the expectations of those who brought him to Harvard. “It takes a very unusual person to accomplish what he did,” says Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine of Gates’ ability to attract scholars the caliber of Drs. West, Wilson, Lawrence D. Bobo and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham — all of whom were already major figures in their respective fields — to a department that had a bad reputation. “[Gates] is a very persuasive person,” Rudenstine adds. Bobo, a sociologist, who held a tenured post at the University of California-Los Angeles where he also managed key projects at UCLA’s Institute of Social Science before coming to Harvard, attests to Gates’ gift of persuasion. Even though the Harvard slot offered a closer intellectual and personal fit for him than his post at UCLA, he says it was Gates’ unabashed charm that made the opportunity irresistible.“One can be seduced,” Bobo says, recalling a star-studded dinner Gates hosted in his honor. “He sat John Kennedy Jr. beside my wife and that was it.” Bobo was named to the team in June 1996.Wilson, who was recently awarded the National Medal of Science, left a department chairmanship at the University of Chicago in 1996 to join Gates and the Harvard Afro-American studies team. In addition to being lured by the aura of Harvard, he says Gates struck him as extraordinary.“One amazing thing about Skip is that he is not only a charismatic leader who relates with ease and intimacy with all segments of the university — and therefore, provides that kind of contact that we need outside of the discipline, outside of Afro-American studies as well as within — but he reads!” Wilson says. “I’m surprised at how much he reads in my own field, and how familiar he is with the stuff that I write about. We sit down and discuss issues that are clearly outside his area, and he can discuss these with a level of sophistication that I find astonishing for a humanist.”In addition to his political savvy, considerable charm, administrative skill, and seemingly boundless source of energy, Gates has demonstrated that he is as much a builder of institutions as he is an accomplished literary scholar. Two of the professors in his department — Wilson and West — hold endowed chairs, and in seven years, he has raised more than $15 million for the unit, including a $3.5 million gift from Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher, a wealthy entrepreneur who graduated from Harvard in 1987.Gates’ right-hand man, friend, and partner in developing the Afro-American studies department, is Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah. A native of Ghana, Appiah arrived at Harvard as part of the arrangement that brought Gates on board. Granted tenure in both Afro-American studies — where he is head tutor — and the philosophy departments, Appiah has been a friend and intellectual colleague of Gates since the early 1970s. The two met at Cambridge University in England and have since held faculty positions at Yale, Cornell, and Duke Universities. “Anthony is like my brother,” Gates says of his friend and colleague. Appiah stresses that the Harvard opportunity was attractive to him and Gates because the department came with the autonomy to make its own appointments. The strategy of working with other departments and schools to make dual appointments is a key to Gates and Appiah’s success. “With this model, you have scholars who are grounded in specific disciplines, such as philosophy and sociology,” Appiah says. “It’s nice to have colleagues who are [engaging] in other disciplines while [we are] dialoging among ourselves.”Among the configurations of Afro-American studies that exist around the country, the interdisciplinary model is perhaps the most common. There are places where the unit functions as a discipline unto itself, most notably at Temple University.“We can have a diversity of approaches because what we want is to have the most authenic picture of the African American experience,” says Dr. Margaret Wilkerson, a former chair of the African American studies program at the University of California-Berkeley. Wilkerson is now a Ford Foundation program officer who currently oversees a national study of Black studies programs.The interdisciplinary, dual-appointment strategy was applied in the Afro-American studies department during the 1980s by then-chair Dr. Nathan Huggins, who built bridges between Afro-American studies and Harvard’s other academic departments in an effort to ensure the department’s survival during tough times.According to those who have observed or were involved in the department’s evolution, the road to Gates’ and Appiah’s success is paved with the struggles of predecessors like Huggins.
The Formative YearsUp until the Huggins era, there was virtually no interaction or cooperation between Harvard’s Afro-American studies unit and other departments.“In the 1970s, the department tended to be somewhat isolated from the most closely related humanities disciplines,” says Dr. Werner Sollors, a German-born literary scholar.The student upheaval that followed the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led Harvard officials, in 1969, to appoint Rosovsky chair of a committee charged with recommending new programs to address Black students’ academic and social concerns. Although the Rosovsky committee won faculty approval for a program in Afro-American studies, a highly vocal contingent of Black students sought creation of a full department that would grant students some say over appointments.Dr. Ernest J. Wilson, then a student member of the Rosovsky committee, and is now a professor at the University of Maryland, says that for a while it looked as if the committee was going to recommend autonomy for an Afro-American studies program. Then a disagreement occurred between the faculty and the students, causing the Black students to feel betrayed, Wilson says. At a faculty meeting on April 22, 1969, Black students offered substantial amendments to the Rosovsky plan. In response to the new plan, the Harvard “faculty voted for the changes the students demanded,” according to Huggins.“It was a bitter decision, many of those voting in favor doing so under a sense of intimidation,” Huggins wrote. Born in a mood of crisis and perceived threat, the department spent its first 10 years in virtual isolation, fighting against the lingering doubts and resentment harbored by faculty members who never fully accepted “Afro-America” as a legitimate field of study. Compounding matters, says writer and former Harvard faculty member Roger Rosenblatt, the department had difficulty attracting a chair because it was viewed skeptically by prominent Black scholars.“I think people around the country who were beginning to build the field decided, why should they come to Harvard?,” says Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and minister of the university church. “Harvard was in a state of indifference or chaos. There are other places less controversial where they could go — and they did.” Finally, in 1969, Ewart Guinier — a labor organizer and father of current Harvard Law school professor Lani Guinier — accepted the department’s chairmanship. However, appointing this nonscholar as chair only served to drive the mainstream Harvard faculty further away from supporting the new department.“The role students played in the working and the formation of the department was much resented [by the faculty],” Gomes adds.By the late 1980s, Afro-American studies — sometimes known as Black studies, African American studies, or Africana studies on other campuses — still occupied only grudging acceptance within the American academy. Its legitimacy was questioned particularly on campuses where it was felt that the discipline originated more from activism than from rigorous scholarship. Harvard was no exception. More than 20 years after it was founded, Harvard’s Afro-American studies department faced its own series of crises. The gravest among these was the untimely death of its chair, Dr. Nathan Huggins, in December 1989. Huggins, a highly-regarded historian, had brought some stability to the department during the 1980s, but had a tough time attracting faculty. Three years earlier, music professor Dr. Eileen Southern had retired from the department. And in 1984, Dr. Glenn C. Loury, the renowned economist whose 1982 appointment had signaled high hopes for Afro-American studies — despite his political conservatism — left the department as well.Ultimately, Sollors, who had joined the Afro-American studies department at the same time as Loury, became the department’s sole remaining professor. For a while, English professor Dr. Barbara Johnson also served as chair.
Getting on Track Huggins’ death eventually spurred then Harvard President Derek Bok to seek a solution. Facing retirement, he resolved that remaking Afro-American studies into a unit capable of commanding the support and respect of the entire Harvard community would be one of his final achievements.“It was really President Bok who said to me that we have to set this [department] right,” Rosovsky recalls.By this time, Black studies had won support from the faculty and administrators of other institutions around the country. To many leading scholars in the field, however, Harvard had betrayed the discipline by relegating the Afro-American studies department to second-class status. Some critics, according to Gomes, even appeared to take satisfaction in the school’s lack of institutional commitment to building a strong department.“They didn’t say ‘give up.’ But they took a certain glee — it seems to me, at any rate — in watching Harvard just twisting slowly in the breeze,” Gomes says, adding that he believes the scorn heaped upon Harvard from leaders in the field of Afro-American studies had the effect of stiffening Bok and Rosovsky’s resolve. Dr. Gerald Early, the director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University also recalls the criticism Harvard was getting from Afro-American studies scholars. “Harvard seemed to be floundering at that time in the wake of Huggins’ death,” Early says. It was at this time, during a search to name a new department head, that a man named “Skip” first came to the attention of Harvard officials. The rap on Gates, however, was that he appeared to have too little loyalty to the institutions at which he taught.“One of the consistent criticisms was that this man cannot be relied on,” Gomes says of the talk that swirled around Gates. “He just hops, skips, and jumps from place to place. He was at Cornell; he was at Yale; he’s at Duke. How do we know that he won’t come here for just two years and skip off to some other interesting place?” Even after hiring Gates, Rosovsky admits he remained skeptical: “I didn’t know Gates. Frankly, I was not so optimistic.” But Gates, ever the shrewd politician, cultivated a working relationship with Rosovsky months before he arrived on Harvard’s campus. He enlisted the dean to serve as his mentor and sought his assistance whenever possible. “I’d had never run a department before,” Gates says he told Rosovsky. Yet to some onlookers, Gates’ inexperience was imperceptible. Dr. Jeffrey Ferguson, a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College, was a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard when Gates arrived on campus. “Gates gave me the impression of a person who’s been thinking about running a Black studies department his entire life,” Ferguson says. “He had a plan.” In fact Gates’ idea of making Afro-American studies into a premier academic enterprise at Harvard and other institutions grew partly out of the ambition that he, Ernest Wilson, and other Black students had for the field while still undergraduates. Wilson recalls talking to Gates about Black studies one summer when they, by coincidence, met in the Congo.“We had big visions [for Afro-American studies] back in 1968, 1969, and 1970,” Wilson says.The young scholars dreamed of what Ivy League institutions might do with Black studies if only they would embrace it like Harvard did the Kennedy School of Government, Wilson says.
Afro-American Studies Front and Center Despite its early marginalization, under Gates, the university’s Afro-American studies department has flourished into a coveted jewel within the Harvard community. Today, the department occupies a set of handsomely appointed, spacious second-floor suites in the recently renovated Barker Center, which formerly served as the Freshman Union. For a university that has long seen its professors exert influence in national affairs as public intellectuals, faculty members in the Afro-American studies department easily lead the pack. The blossoming of Afro-American studies at Harvard in the 1990s has coincided with the national prominence of Black scholars and writers as public intellectuals in American society. It is a phenomenon which has benefited Harvard directly, since several of the most celebrated among these public intellectuals are now members of the Afro-American studies department’s academic “DreamTeam.” This high-profile success, Rudenstine says, has resonated with Harvard alumni of all backgrounds. As a result, Harvard fund raising officials have enlisted Gates to speak at fundraising events around the nation.“Skip is terrific at [fund raising]. I didn’t have any idea he had that particular gift,” Rudenstine says. Early credits Gates with raising the profile of both Black scholars and Afro-American studies. Black studies under Gates at Harvard has “gotten more visibility and more legitimacy,” he says, adding that the increased visibility also has benefited Black scholars who are critical of Gates’ approach to Afro-American studies. Scholars such as Dr. Molefi K. Asante are given greater exposure by the news media, he says, because they are more radical and Afrocentric than Gates and the Harvard team. “It’s like Asante and Gates are seen as the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King [of Black studies],” Early says.Though occasionally criticized for its interdisciplinary structure, Gates’ vision for Afro-American studies lends itself to including the scholarship of people like Dr. J. Lorand Matory, an anthropologist whose work focuses on West Africa and Brazil.“It’s imporant that Black North Americans be studied within the context of African, Afro-Latin, and Caribbean societies. My contribution to Afro-American studies is to put Black North Americans within that broader context,” he says. Matory, who earned his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Harvard in 1982, says he neither planned to return to his alma mater nor did he imagine that he would teach in an Afro-American studies department. Last year, he won tenure in both the anthropology and Afro-American studies departments.“It was like coming home,” Matory says. “Half my colleagues [in anthropology] have known me since I was [an undergraduate].” Another major criticism of the Harvard “DreamTeam” is its glaring shortage of women. Currently, the department has only two — Dr. Suzanne Preston Blier, an expert in African art and architecture; and Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, an expert in African American women’s history. The Ford Foundation’s Wilkerson says it’s of little surprise that Black women are not better represented in the Afro-American studies department because women, especially Black women, are underrepresented throughout the Harvard faculty (see BI The Numbers, pg. 34)“Harvard has a history of having significantly more men than women in faculty positions,” Wilkerson says.Gates acknowledges this shortcoming and hopes to address it in future appointments (see Dr. Entrepreneur, pg. 18) .The department also is seeking approval to develop a Ph.D. program in Afro-American studies at Harvard.After three decades of Black studies at predominantly White campuses, there remains an expectation that Afro-American studies departments work explicitly for the advancement of the Black community. Criticism of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department has included critiques that the department has fallen short of its potential to help bring about change in the Black community.“I’d like to see more balance,” with the Afro-American studies department increasing its number of social science and public policy scholars, says Ernest Wilson, a political scientist. Gates believes, however, the community responsibility idea, which was wholly embraced in the 1960s and 1970s and reflected in the career of DuBois, can pose a hazard for today’s Afro-American studies departments, and argues that scholars like Wilson can exert an impact on social policy. Despite the criticism, there is little question that Harvard’s Afro-American studies department is charting new terrain in the field. For Gates, that’s part of the thrill.“My modus operandi is to try to create, to be intellectual, and also to build institutions…. I happen to love administration, so I make life easier for all my colleagues. And they seem to like the way I do it.” Cheryl D. Fields contributed to this story.
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