African American Studies: Graduate Studies for the 21st Century

Of the 175 African American Studies (AAS) programs and departments currently in existence, 15 offer a master's degree and 6 also offer a doctoral degree. Given that AAS departments and programs have been in existence since the late 1960s, universities have been quite slow in creating and maintaining graduate programs in AAS. Ohio State University and Cornell University were the first institutions to implement a master's degree program in AAS in the early 1970s. It was almost 20 years later, in 1988, that the first doctoral program in AAS was created at Temple University, under the leadership of Molefi Kete Asante. Several years later, other universities—such as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Harvard University, Yale University, Michigan State University, and the University of California, Berkeley—followed Temple's lead and created their own doctoral programs in AAS. However, these universities did not espouse the same philosophy that informed the first doctoral program in AAS. Indeed, there is a major difference between the Temple doctoral program and the others, in that the AAS department at Temple consciously rejects the European metaparadigm and espouses the Afrocentric paradigm developed by Molefi Kete Asante.

An Intellectual Departure

What defines Afrocentricity, the philosophy upon which the Afrocentric paradigm is based, is the crucial role it attributes to the African social and cultural experience as the ultimate reference point. Afrocentricity fully acknowledges the negative impact that Europe has had on the lives of African people, and it suggests the restoration of a sense of historical and cultural continuity as the first and indispensable step for Africans' recovery. Quite naturally, the Afrocentric historiography assumes ancient African civilizations as the most relevant historical and cultural source for African people, wherever they may find themselves today. Afrocentricity also contends that it is Africans' acceptance of ideas foreign to their cultural reality and ethos, ideas imposed on them by Europeans as “universal” and superior, that has caused the state of great confusion in which Africans currently find themelves. It is this confusion that has created the imperative need for Africans everywhere to find in their own cultural references the concepts and practices that will benefit them.
The organizing principle of the Afrocentric paradigm is the centrality of the African experience for African people. The position taken by the department of AAS at Temple is that what defines African Studies as African Studies (and not something else) is its focus on the African experience from an African perspective (i.e., Afrocentricity). Much of what passes for AAS is nothing but European studies of Africa and her people. Such confusion is made possible by the unquestioned, yet highly problematic, acceptance of the European perspective as universal.

The Temple University Model

AAS at Temple concerns itself with different topics, and this does not contradict the unidisciplinary status of African Studies but is very much to be expected, since African Studies endeavors to cover the African experience's multiple dimensions. As a result, it covers all aspects of African lives. The purpose of Afrocentrically generated knowledge is to empower African people and give them the means to ultimately put an end to their current predicament. The strong commitment to Afrocentricity in the Temple AAS department is demonstrated by its sponsorship for many years of the Annual International Cheikh Anta Diop Conference, a major platform for Afrocentric scholarship, and especially by the courses it offers. For example, students are taught, among other things, ancient African history and civilizations, as well as to decipher the ancient Egyptian language mdw ntr. Although the period of Africans' enslavement in America is understandably mentioned in several classes, emphasis in AAS is placed on Africans' past, current, and possible victories. Thus a new name, Africology, meaning the study of African phenomena from the standpoint of African people, has been suggested for AAS.
The Temple program was from the start an important voice for Africans, and it instantly became highly successful in attracting hundreds of Africans from all over the world, as well as non-Africans from North America, Europe, and Asia. These students came to the AAS department eager to be a part of a liberating educational experience. However, existing as it did in a white supremacist context, its very success worked against the Temple program. Indeed, in 1997 Temple's administration hired Joyce A. Joyce as the new chair for the department of AAS. In a number of proposals, Joyce defined her mission—to dismantle the Afrocentric program and place it under the intellectual tutelage of various European studies departments. Under this new plan, AAS doctoral students would have had two advisors, one in AAS and one from another department or program (such as history, English, anthropology, sociology, or women's studies), a formula that had never been employed in any other department at Temple University.
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Dr. Adeniyi Coker, Director of African American Studies at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who in 1991 became the first student to receive a Ph.D. from a department of African American Studies
However, the university's plans were resisted by some faculty and students, who, through public protests and a lawsuit, were eventually able to obtain the removal of the chair and the resignation of the dean. Thus, although the department greatly suffered from the fighting and lost considerable intellectual ground, it nonetheless managed to maintain its Afrocentric orientation. Other graduate programs in AAS have not been subjected to the severe attack leveled at Temple, and this is in large part attributable to such programs posing no threat to the tradition of Eurocentric academics. Indeed, those departments do not fundamentally challenge the implicit assumptions about Europe and Africa found in most American universities. These assumptions can be briefly summarized as follows: (1) all human beings evolve along the same line, (2) the European experience is universal, (3) Europeans are superior, and (4) “others” are defined by their experiences with Europeans. As a result of such assumptions, the history of all women, men, and children in the world is said to naturally coincide with that of Europeans. Thus Europeans are implicitly or explicitly held to be the universal norm by which Africans' intellectual, cultural, and social “progress” or, rather, lack of progress will be evaluated. This is ethnocentrism par excellence, as it claims that there is only one way of being human, and it is white. What it also suggests is that for Africans to put an end to their inferior condition, they must emulate Europeans. In addition, this ethnocentrism implies that Africans could not have had a meaningful existence before their contact with Europeans, hence the creation of a Eurocentric historiography that places the brutal European intervention into African lives as the defining starting point of Africans' existence.
Thus, the history of Africa is divided into precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods, during the latter of which, it is said, Africans started “developing.” In a similar fashion, diasporic Africans are made to believe that their history started in the 17th century, when their immediate ancestors were dragged in chains to American shores. In that context, the bulk of diasporic Africans' existential experience would have been as “slaves” to Europeans. In the best and most generous case, enslaved Africans are depicted as “resisting” their mean white “masters”; in the worst case, they are depicted as acquiescing to their servile status and happily participating in their own oppression. However, whatever the case, the fundamental and racist assumptions of this Eurocentric historiography are not questioned: Africans are always defined in relation to Europeans.

Distinguishing Factors in Graduate Programs

Unfortunately, most graduate programs in AAS display an unquestioned acceptance of applying the European paradigm to the African experience. This has two major consequences. The first one is that most graduate programs are informed by a Eurocentric historiography. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for example, only one course, African Origins of the Afro-American Community, seems to suggest an awareness that the so-called Afro-Americans had a life before their enslavement by Europeans, while at Harvard University such a course is not even available. In fact, in programs other than that at Temple University, Africans are referred to either as “Blacks” or as “Afro-Americans,” but never as “African Americans,” let alone “Africans,” in course titles. In addition, the categories used are, unsurprisingly, Eurocentric. The University of California, Berkeley, for instance, offers courses on “developing societies” (i.e., societies, like those in Africa, defined as less than and needing to emulate European societies).
The second major consequence of most graduate programs applying the European paradigm to African experience is that they then define themselves as “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary.” Indeed, all graduate programs, with the exception of those at Temple University and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, define African Studies as interdisciplinary, that is, as a field of study that is dependent on so-called traditional, established disciplines (i.e., European disciplines). In other words, in order to exist, African Studies must be tied to European studies.
The clearest example of that line of thinking is provided by Yale, which offers a joint doctoral degree in a European discipline and AAS. Furthermore, in that strange arrangement, there is no claim to equality, since the department of AAS considers the European discipline chosen by a student to be “his or her primary field of study.” Thus, the AAS department readily admits to its being secondary to the “traditional” discipline chosen by the students. All the faculty who supposedly teach in that department have joint appointments or no appointment at all in AAS. At Harvard, where the degree awarded is a “Ph.D. in Afro-American Studies,” a similar model prevails, since half of the courses taken by the students who seek a Ph.D. in Afro-American Studies must be from a “traditional” discipline, such as anthropology, sociology, or English. Quite consistently, all the faculty of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard have joint appointments. In fact, Harvard University, which has claimed to have the premier department of AAS in the country, attempted to garner credibility for its Afro-American program by hiring Henry Louis Gates in 1990, who in the midst of much media hype embarked on assembling a loose group of highly visible black intellectuals, the “Dream Team,” who remained fully committed to their respective European disciplines and departments. This strategy, however, resulted in a precarious arrangement for Harvard's Afro-American Studies department, which started to crumble away a few years later with the departure of some of its most visible half members, such as Cornel West and Anthony Appiah, who both were attracted to programs other than African American Studies elsewhere, shortly followed by Gates's own leave of absence. In fact, Harvard does not even claim disciplinary status for Afro-American Studies but, rather, defines it as a “field,” with a focus on African people as the defining criterion and its tools of intellectual investigation drawn from the European disciplines that are defined as primary.
There is the same emphasis on the multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary aspect of AAS elsewhere, of course. AAS departments have focused on doctoral programs rather than master's programs due to spatial constraints. Master's programs tend to define African Studies as a field focusing on the black experience rather than as a discipline. For example, the Department of AAS at Ohio State University, which has the largest number of faculty of any AAS department, espouses the definition of AAS as multidisciplinary, with students having to take courses in literature, music, history, psychology, sociology, political science, economics, community development, and so on. The Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, on the other hand, advocates a “transdisciplinary” approach.”
There are at least two interrelated reasons why those who teach in African Studies programs are quite comfortable with a definition of African Studies as multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or some similar concept. Having been trained, for the most part, in a European discipline, they simply continue applying the skills acquired while being trained as sociologists, psychologists, literary critics, linguists, historians, and so on, while focusing on some aspect of the African experience. They have generally not questioned the premises upon which the European intellectual discourse rests, nor have they seriously questioned the relevance of such discourse to African lives. This is indicative of the pervasive confusion among black scholars about the academic and intellectual standing of AAS. This state of affairs is not a new development—it has characterized AAS since its inception because AAS was created out of a strong political spirit rather than a clear intellectual vision. It is most likely, therefore, that as long as AAS is conceived as a mere appendage to European studies, it will fail to entrench itself further in the academy. In order to grow stronger at the graduate level, AAS must attain disciplinary status, which can happen only if scholars involved in AAS accept Afrocentricity as their defining paradigm.



  • African studies
  • temples
  • Afrocentricity
  • African people
  • American studies
  • the afrocentric paradigm
  • historiography


Further Reading

  • Asante, Molefi Kete. (2003). Afrocentricity. Chicago: African American Images. This book provides an excellent discussion of the intellectual and political context within which AAS emerged. It puts particular emphasis on intellectual confusion in AAS and makes a compelling case for the embracing of the Afrocentric paradigm by AAS scholars and students.
  • Karenga, Maulana. (1993). Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. This book is indispensable reading on AAS birth and growth.
  • Mazama, Ama. (2003). The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. This book provides a useful and comprehensive overview of the principles, theories, and concepts developed by Afrocentric scholars.
  • Mazama, Ama. (2004). Graduate Programs in African Studies. In JacobGordon (Ed.), African Studies for the 21st Century. New York: Cambridge University Press. Mazama discusses at length the problems facing AAS graduate programs and makes recommendations for strengthening existing programs.