Question everything you’ve been taught about race and racial groups and begin again. You have to question the dominant discourse about every group. Begin again with evidence instead of myth. Look past outcomes to origins. How did we get there? Why does one side of town look like this, and the other side looks like that? The answer is never that one side of town are better people.
– Imani Perry
The Work of African American Studies
In our department at Princeton, we believe African American studies plays a role in producing cosmopolitan people who are capable of not just encountering difference, but of thinking about difference in very sophisticated ways.
For students who graduate with this skill set, it means not only that they can manage difference, but also that they can live with difference as a value in their lives. We believe that African American Studies offers an extraordinary bibliography which, in many ways, equips students to become global citizens.
So we continually work to build the bridge between the theoretical and the practical. We understand that knowledge gained in the classroom translates in the world in very concrete and practical ways, especially in terms of how we address problems of persistent racial inequality and other structural barriers that continually confront our communities.
To that end, the following question is often, and rightfully, asked of scholars by the public: What can we as scholars actually do from our positions of relative comfort and security in order to produce true change?
To address racial inequality, our department believes that we must:
- Respond to the persistence of inequality and the practices that lead to it, and
- Respond to the massive upwards distribution of wealth.
Our various scholarly pursuits are inevitably tied to one — or both — of these two aspects.
Our conception of African American Studies understands that the racial system of the United States was never simply black and white; it recognizes the special place of Africa as a symbol and as root of African American cultures; and it explores the spaces of the African Diaspora with which North American black people have always been connected.
Our conception assumes that race in America was constructed in dialogue with discourses in other societies and accepts that the concept of Diaspora cries out for comparative exploration. It also recognizes that African American experience is not singular but multiple, inflected as it is by gender, sexuality, class, region and religion. Finally, this conception is particularly well-placed to allow fruitful exchanges—based on historical interconnections in subject matter, shared methods and opportunities for comparative analysis—with other interdisciplinary fields: African Studies, Latin American Studies, Latino Studies, Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies. But it relies centrally, too, on the continuous openness of African American Studies to the existing disciplines of the humanities, the fine arts and the social and biological sciences.
We recruit the brightest minds – junior and seniors scholars – in the field and provide an institutional environment in which they may flourish.
We disrupt the divide between the practical and the theoretical by thinking about African American Studies as a site where the practical and theoretical are always thought about together.
In the twenty-first century, many fields are following in the footsteps of African American Studies and laboring to establish connections between theory and practice. Whether you think about this approach as public scholarship done by “public intellectuals,” or simply as work done by scholars who engage with audiences outside of universities, African American Studies has pioneered a contemporary pattern in education that influences and alters the ways in which scholars from multiple disciplines think and operate in the world.
That is, people are not only talking about this bridge in African American Studies; they’re talking about it in political science, sociology, psychology, history and other fields. University administrators are even talking about it when they propose requirements for students to go out and engage in communities their campuses are located within.
We write for a broad public, and if you are part of that public, we hope you build on our scholarship in many and varied ways, including (but not limited to) engaging with others in the form of these three modes:
- Lay the path bare. This is a call to reveal knowledge about the path you traveled that led to attainment of social and cultural capital. This knowledge should be made plain to others who do not possess that capital.
- Share beyond your immediate concern. Share with people who are not situated in the world precisely as you are situated.
- Speak truth. Stop pretending things are fair. Don’t be defeated; be honest.
Finally, remember, the texts you choose to read and the people you consider in your community are all important reflections of your values and your understanding of what is at stake. So, what classes will you take, what will you try to learn, and how will you engage?