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.

As far back as the late 60s and 70s, academics who have engaged in Black Studies have never simply acted as Ivory Tower scholars. We have always engaged in different ways, particularly because we believe it is important to be civically engaged. Working on a seemingly “obscure” 18th century topic (or any other specific area our faculty devotes scholarship to understanding) does not stop us from being citizens. Yet, at the same time, we work within a University structure that does not always understand the value of this kind of active engagement with the public.

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.


Bridging the Theoretical and the Practical

Today, as we construct and strengthen this bridge, we attempt to bring the field into the Ivory Tower and the Ivory Tower into public education. 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 engage in community service.

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:

  1. Respond to the persistence of inequality and the practices that lead to it, and
  2. Respond to the massive upwards distribution of wealth.

Our various scholarly pursuits are inevitably tied to one — or both — of these two aspects.

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:

  1. Laying the path bare. This is an idiom of bell hooks. It 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.
  2. Sharing beyond your immediate concern. Share with people who are not situated in the world precisely as you are situated.
  3. Speaking 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?

Adapted from talks by:

Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. & Professor Imani Perry