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Solidifying a Discipline: Northwestern Offers Black Studies Ph.D.

Northwestern University is home to the first African American studies doctoral program in a major metropolitan area with a racially diverse population, rich African American history and important black institutions.

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January 9, 2007 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. -- With the arrival of five Ph.D. candidates last fall, Northwestern University joined a small, elite group of universities that offer a Ph.D. in African American studies.

Only 12 miles from downtown Chicago, Northwestern is home to the first black studies doctoral program in a major metropolitan area with a racially diverse population, rich African American history and important black institutions.

What's more, students in the program have the opportunity to participate in Chicago's unusually cohesive and vibrant community of African American studies and ethnic studies scholars that visitors from universities elsewhere call unique.

Most important, in joining the six other Ph.D.-granting institutions that include Harvard, Yale and University of California-Berkeley, Northwestern demonstrates its strong commitment to an academic discipline that was born of student protests in the 1960s and for years struggled for respect at the margins of academe.

“The margin forced the center to change and has altered the very ways we produce knowledge,” says Dwight McBride, Leon Forrest Professor and chair of Northwestern's African American studies department. “Much of what we now understand as cutting-edge scholarship could hardly have been imagined before the advent of African-American studies, ethnic studies and gender studies.”

McBride arrived at Northwestern in 2002 with a mandate to strengthen the African American studies department and create a Ph.D. program to rival the best in the country. Even as he and others at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences worked to create the new Ph.D. program, the discipline itself was a topic of debate.

Media and journals covering higher education asked if black studies programs were “past their prime,” reported on faculty cutbacks at some universities and wrote of declining student enrollment at others.

According to McBride, rumors of the field's demise have swirled since the first undergraduate programs were established decades ago. “However, few scholars today seriously consider cutting-edge scholarship without thinking about the impact of race.”

“Northwestern has made the African American Studies department a priority, and we have recruited a remarkable group of faculty,” says Weinberg College Dean Daniel Linzer. “We now have a responsibility and opportunity to train the next generation of scholar-teachers in this field.”

Calling Chicago an ideal place to do that training, McBride speaks not only of Northwestern's African American studies faculty, its Center for African American History and its incomparable Herskovits Library of African Studies. He also points to the critical mass of young and mid-career scholars of race and ethnicity at Northwestern and other area universities that makes it a dynamic African American studies center.

Under McBride's leadership, Northwestern's black studies faculty has grown from three to 14 core members and from six to 22 affiliates. In recruiting Darlene Clark Hine -- who helped shape Michigan State University's black studies doctoral program -- McBride brought to campus a leading scholar of the African American experience and pioneer of black women's history.

Zinga Fraser and the four other doctoral candidates -- whom faculty call “the first cohort” -- will benefit from the lively intellectual community of African American and ethnic studies scholars that McBride and others in Chicago have helped build.

For close to a decade, McBride has played host every year to three to four salon-style evenings of what he calls Chicago's Race and Ethnicity Study Group. Attended by a kind of revolving think-tank of scholars, the informal get-togethers feature a presentation of an individual scholar's work-in-progress.

“These are very different from academic presentations in a classroom or lecture hall,” McBride says of the gatherings in his Chicago home. “It's important to make them homey, to keep a fire going and to create an atmosphere in which we can relax and associate the intellectual work we all do with pleasure.”

The result: “There's something really powerful about seeing all these intellectuals -- a moveable faculty of scholars and graduate students of African American and ethnic studies -- gathered in my living room exchanging ideas,” he says.

Board of Trustees Professor Hine, who grew up on Chicago's West side, says it is a kind of community that simply did not exist when she was in graduate school or, for that matter, in the 35 years of her 38-year academic career not lived in Chicago.

She emphasizes the importance of that community and sees it reflected in the fact that, with two exceptions, all Northwestern African American studies faculty share offices on a single corridor of Crowe Hall at the heart of campus.

“The offices of black studies faculty at other universities often are scattered throughout campus so there's no 'there' to the departments,” explains Richard Iton, associate professor and graduate director of African American studies. “Here we share space and actually like each other.”

Shared quarters and frequent contact naturally spur interdisciplinary discussion and thinking that find their way into faculty scholarship. “I am a different scholar because of these encounters,” McBride insists. Hine agrees: “Separating scholars of African American studies from one another mitigates against strengthening a discipline and encouraging the field.”

Hine was a graduate student at Kent State in 1970 when, in an unforgettable moment, she watched as national guardsmen drew their guns on student protesters, killing four and injuring nine. She decided then that creating “a new world” required teaching a “new kind of history.”

If black women's history was not going to be limited to mention of abolitionist Sojourner Truth and underground railroad leader Harriet Tubman, it was going to be Hine's job to create the new history.

“African American studies is all about transgressing boundaries and disciplines and making discoveries by exploring different fields and perspectives,” Hine says. “I literally had to teach myself to do the interdisciplinary research my work demanded. That won't be true for today's doctoral candidates. They'll be better, more efficient interdisciplinary scholars as a result.”

Educated at Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Stanford and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the new cohort came to Northwestern with experience in African American studies and interdisciplinary thinking. Fraser, for example, received a master's degree in African American studies from Columbia University. In an award-winning thesis, she examined issues of gender and race in the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus.

In small lectures, workshops, informal dinners and conversations, she has found a welcoming community. “I never anticipated how coming into conversation with different sorts of people the way we do would help me think about my own project,” Fraser says. “Academia can be a cold place, but here the faculty are always thinking what else can we do for you.”

New cohort members Kortney Ryan Ziegler and Patricia Lott cite the confluence of scholars at Northwestern as their main reasons for studying here. Ziegler, whose work looks at black lesbian solo performance artists, will study with Hine, McBride, Sandra Richards, Jennifer Brody, E. Patrick Johnson, Sharon Holland and others. Lott, who did graduate work at Berkeley, came to work with Richards and McBride, who share her interest in slavery and memory.

All three plan to do some work at nearby universities. “If students want to add a professor from another campus to their dissertation committee, we'll happily do what it takes to make that possible,” McBride says.  Fraser, Lott and Ziegler already have been in contact with or will take classes with faculty members at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois-Chicago.

Late last year, McBride invited 70 people to his Rogers Park home to celebrate the department's new doctoral students and faculty. “Seeing them all together was the crowning moment of my five years at Northwestern,” he says. Far from working at the margins of academe, African American studies today is on scholarship's cutting edge.