Africology: Naming an Intellectual Enterprise in our Field
Molefi Kete Asante
One sign of the maturity of the field that has been called Black Studies since its inception in the 1960s is the debate around the naming of what it is that scholars in the field do. I find this debate quite rewarding because it suggests the dynamism in the field. One does not find this type of discourse in those fields that are tired and exhausted. Ours is, by its very nature, an evolving and exciting field of study.
I would like to approach this issue of the name of the field by going through the avenue of discipline itself. What is it that we do as scholars? How has the enterprise changed over the past forty years? What constitutes the best scholarship? What books are the flagships of our theories, methods, criticisms, analyses, and applications?
It is impossible to discuss this issue without some understanding of the diversity of the field. My own perspective, grounded in an Afroentric idea, is that the name for the field should be Africology. There are several reasons for the choice of this name at the present time in the history of the intellectual enterprise. In order to establish my argument I will explain the history of the enterprise, discuss the political implications of the early name of Black Studies, and demonstrate how “a black perspective” came to represent the best of the tradition of Africology. In passing, I will give some attention to other names that have been recommended for the field.
History of the Enterprise
When thousands of African Americans entered the universities in the l960s spurred on by a decade of Civil Rights and the murders of many black leaders, they were looking for an education that would be emancipatory and liberating. What they found was something entirely different. They discovered that the universities were the bastions of white racial domination. The literature that trickled down to the masses of whites was based on the research reports and findings of white professors. The students also discovered that the curricula of these universities were geared to white students and was based on false information about black people. In effect, they found a racist structure. The institutions had to change in order to reflect the new day. Thus, “Black Studies” was an outgrowth of the attitudes of young students of the l960s who had been convinced by the rhetoric of Malcolm X and others that what was being taught in the universities was “White Studies.” One did not have to examine the entire curricula of all the universities to discover that in most cases the faculties were “lily white” and the subjects that were being taught were nothing more than reinforcement for white supremacy.
The immediate response to this situation was that the institution needed to become relevant to the new times which demanded that there be “Black Studies” since nothing of the sort had occurred on these campuses before. Black Studies was not meant to be a cure all; the issues were too grave and the problems ran too deeply, but the thrust of the movement was toward repairing and restructuring the consciousness of black people.
One can say that the early programs named the field. Those first programs in northern California were called Black Studies. A few other programs went for other names but the defining characteristic of the enterprise was still Black Studies as at San Francisco State College where Nathan Hare directed the program. All other programs, whether they were Afro American Studies or Africana Studies at the time, became Black Studies programs.
Political Implication of the Early Name of Black Studies
According to most scholars of the early history of Black Studies, and this is especially true when you read Maulana Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies (Karenga, 20020, the idea of social responsibility entered the discourse quite early. African Americans felt that the fact that the society had literally thrown African American people to the curb, kicked us in the solar plexus, and spat on our history, we had a moral duty to respond in the name of the ancestors. Thus, the name Black Studies served a moral and a political purpose. The political purpose was that it gave us a rallying point, a place of departure and a point of destination. We knew who we were talking about when we said Black Studies.
There was no ambiguity and yet this lack of ambiguity is what has created the uncertainty we see in the professional lives of many colleagues who are troubled by the specificity of ideas such as paradigm (See Mazama, 2003), black perspective, or Black Studies. Those who embraced the lack of ambiguity and accepted the idea of Black Studies flourished. The earliest journal in the field was Black Scholar, with a subtitle as a journal of black studies, founded by Nathan Hare and Robert Chrisman, but the journal that captured the spirit of the profession and asserted the name of the field was the Journal of Black Studies founded by Robert Singleton and Molefi Kete Asante in l969. Asante started editing the journal in that year and it has since grown to be one of the most authoritative journals in its field. The Western Journal of Black Studies, long edited by Talmadge Anderson, soon came online as a major force in shaping the research interest of the field. Maulana Karenga wrote the first Introduction to Black Studies in the l970s, thus solidifying the idea that Black Studies was a legitimate name for the field.
Evolution in Concept
It was clear to those early leaders of the field that a simple aggregation of courses about black people was not Black Studies. What is more some universities had courses on their books that discussed social problems and identified the courses as “the Problem of the Negro”, or issues of social justice. In the South, black colleges often had courses called “Negro History” on the books. None of these courses or conventions ever came close to what the students of the l960s were demanding of the institutions of higher learning. They wanted courses, indeed curricula, taught from a black perspective. Those programs that decided that black studies meant an aggregation of courses about black people merely went to their faculties and asked who wanted to teach courses on Black literature, Black history, Black psychology, or Black Rhetoric. Once you were able to find a sufficient number of persons to teach you could announce that you had a Black Studies program possibly with a major or minor. This is not to be disparaged because it laid the foundation for some intense reflection on the parts of the faculty.
Already there were those professors, such as Winston Van Horne at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and James Turner at Cornell, with ideas for the naming of the departments and programs. Van Horne pushed for the term Africology, after reading the term Afrology in my book, Afrocentricity (Asante, 2001). On the other hand, Turner had moved into Cornell at a time when the term Africana Studies was being used and promoted its use. Neither term seemed to catch traction at first as both departments at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Cornell remained isolated beacons. Van Horne held a series of intellectual conferences at Milwaukee with leaders in the field to underscore the important of Africology. Africana Studies, although reminiscent in sound to many people of the term Afrikaner Studies, a reflection of the white minority regime in South Africa, kept growing until it had captured several important departments. Pan African Studies was an early competitor but soon petered out at Kent State, Temple, and University of Louisville. There are still vestiges of that term in some places. By the end of the l990s Africana Studies, in a purely numerical sense, had gained ground on the indomitable Black Studies as a name for programs. In some places departments had seen the shift from Black Studies, Afro American Studies, African American Studies, to Africana Studies. Temple under the leadership of Molefi Asante leaned toward Africology. This was not implemented during Asante’s tenure and became one source of the conflict between the Afrocentrists and Joyce Joyce during her brief tenure as chair at Temple.
My position was that the entire academic enterprise had to have a rallying point that was clear, distinct, and bordered. This was not intended to shut scholars out who were legitimately interested in “the black perspective” but rather to articulate what we meant by that perspective. Each name for the field carried its own baggage but in some cases it appeared that some names had dragged an entire train load of baggage. For example, Black Studies was definitive and simple when it was first introduced. As the field has grown this term has lost its definitiveness and stands more as a label for anyone who teaches a course on black people. One can teach Black Studies without ever being trained in the field. I do not mean formal training necessarily but I mean reading the literature, attending the conferences, and participating in the discourse in the field. This is not possible in any other discipline I know. One cannot walk into economics without some training. One cannot walk into sociology or political science without some formal orientation to the fields. Why should a person trained in some other field be able to teach Black Studies without formal or informal training? This remains problematic to me and I believe it is important that those in the field, such as myself , commit discipline suicide in order to be able to understand our role in the new field.
Africology is the Afrocentric study of African phenomena. This is in keeping with my belief that definitions should be meaningful, establish boundaries, and have substance. If one cannot define the name of the field and give it meaning, then a field may not exist. I do not try to define Africana Studies, for example, because I do not know what it means in practical terms. I can define African Diaspora Studies but the definition frightens me because it isolates Africa from the rest of the African world. These are some knotty issues that are avoided when we say Africology. To say it is the Afrocentric study means that it is not the European study, the Arab study, the Christian study, etc., of the phenomena, but the Afrocentric study which clarifies where we are coming from in our approach to the study of the phenomena. To be Afrocentric is to seek African agency in every situation, analysis, or critique. It is the study of African phenomena which means that it is not limited to the United States, Brazil, or Africa. In fact, it opens the door for a discussion of Belizean phenomena or Comoros phenomena.
Clearly, one may criticize the use of a Greek derived idea of Africology with “ology” meaning “the study of” in its Greek rendition. However, I like this much better than the Latin-derived notion of “studia” because the suffix is within the word itself. I do not have to use two words; I can stick with one word. In a sense of aesthetics, I prefer Africology to Africana Studies, though I am sure some of my colleagues will make a case for its use as well. To me, I would much rather be known as an Africologist than as an Africana Studies scholar or Africana Studies professor. I find it cumbersome and not aesthetic. More importantly, one does not know what I really am or where I am located intellectually if I call myself by some adjective and studies. No, I am an Africologist and you know what that means right off the bat.
Asante, Molefi (2001) Afrocentricity. Chicago: African American Images.
Karenga, Maulana (2002) Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
Mazama, Ama , ed. (2003) The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton: Africa World Press.