Constructive analysis of some of the vehicles that spurred the African American presence in the Ivy League is essential for the future, panelists told the audience on Oct. 22 in Jerome Greene Hall's Altschul Auditorium. The panel -- part of a two-day interdisciplinary conference titled "Black Presence in the Ivy League: Where Do We Go From Here?" -- was presented by the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) in conjunction with the African American Policy Forum and the Black Ivy Alumni League.
Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature and African American studies as well as director of the African-American Studies Institute, kicked off the evening's discussion with a challenge: "The most important question before us in terms of higher education is our ability to sustain an intellectual organization capable of addressing crises in the black collective -- some of which are ancient and some that are new." Griffin couched her statement within the context of the words of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., who inspired the conference's subtitle. "These are the questions that must be asked," she read from one of King's memorable speeches, powerfully reminding attendees of his mandate to discuss contentious issues.
Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of anthropology and African American studies, gave a brief introduction of the panelists. Then scholar-activist Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and History at the University of Pennsylvania, initiated an informative and thought-provoking discussion that brought to the forefront the future of black studies as a viable and effective tool for social change. Berry contended that social advancements during the last few decades, as promulgated by the existence of black academicians and students at Ivy League institutions, should be viewed as a substantive "marker of progress in education" but not "the promised land." She drew a correlation between the growth of black studies programs at Ivy League institutions and the aftermath of landmark affirmative action cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Bakke v. Univ. of California as milestones. They are indicators of "how much progress we've made in trying to open up the national life [of blacks in America], without regard to race, class and other kinds of indigenous discrimination," she offered.
Law School Professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw pointed out that although great strides have been made with regard to building reputable black studies programs and should celebrate these markers of progress, celebrating these victories without paying attention to some of their more troubling consequences is a mistake. Many black students, Crenshaw observed, want to cleanse themselves of the stigma of being beneficiaries of preference (i.e. affirmative action) and thus tend to distance themselves from the very programs that enabled their admittance. She stressed the importance of African American scholars engaging their students in discussions on the role that affirmative action and black studies programs have played in their success. "We haven't done a good enough job encouraging [students] that there is no stigma, no need to cleanse themselves," she said.
Lewis Gordon, Temple University professor and ongoing visiting professor of government and philosophy at University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, declared his perceived value of affirmative action programs with the sentiment, "I am a very proud affirmative action recipient." He shared his conviction that black studies is still a valuable and powerful tool for bringing about social awareness and empowerment. "Black studies is an area of profound creativity, [with which] we can actually do something," he said.
Manning Marable, Columbia professor of public affairs, political science and history and founder of IRAAS, focused his comments on what he believes is the future of black studies. Marable called for a revolution in this area, wherein black scholars construct a new language for "documenting and preserving our history." Marable joked that when he first arrived on the CU campus as one of only a handful of black faculty members, he was referred to as "the black guy." Marable's reflection on his early experiences at Columbia served to underscore the research mission of the institute -- the critical examination of contemporary black history, culture, politics and social relations. Marable founded the Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia in 2002 to further advance research in these key areas.
Berry concluded the conference with a challenge: "We must speak truth to power and find the courage to re-imagine our people and their destiny."