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Black Studies: From Academy's Margins to its Center

Student/scholar shares work on black conservatism at historic black studies conference

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March 23, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Changing the face of black Republicanism from moderate to conservative was one of the most significant strategies of the conservative movement in the post-civil rights era, according to La TaSha Levy. 

Part of the very first cohort of Northwestern University’s Ph.D. program in African American studies, Levy will soon share her work at “A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes,” an historic conference that she has been instrumental in planning. (Read story on conference at http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2012/03/african-american-studies-conference.html)

Hosted by Northwestern, the April 12 to 14 conference -- for the first time ever -- will bring together students and faculty members from all the nation’s 11 doctoral programs in black studies.

The conference is important to Levy. “It’s an opportunity to showcase all the amazing work coming out of these 11 programs and for us to all sit down and talk about ways to strengthen black studies as a discipline and move it forward.”

At the conference, Levy will share insights about a group of African-Americans -- including former Black Power militants Floyd McKissick and Roy Innis, entertainers James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr. and football star Jim Brown -- who joined the Republican Party in the Nixon era and promoted black capitalism. 

“I want to illustrate the nuances of black Republicanism and show how different contemporary conservatives are from moderate black Republicans of earlier periods,” she says. “The conservative movement gave a platform to black conservatives to influence national discussions on race, responsibility and public policy. And it protected the GOP from internal challenges to conservative racial ideology.”

Since she was 13, Levy knew that she wanted to pursue black studies. “And not just study it but ‘do’ it,” she says.

Born in Washington, D.C., Levy recalls moving at age 12 from an all-black neighborhood and all-black school to a predominantly white Virginia suburb not far from the nation’s capital. “At school, I immediately noticed disparities in education and came to resent what essentially was a Eurocentric curriculum,” she says. 

As an eighth grader, Levy enrolled in “Know Your History,” a Saturday program taught at a community center that forever changed her life and eventually led her to Northwestern. 

“I came alive in that program,” Levy says. “It taught me that black studies was relevant education and that relevant education prepared you to contribute to the empowerment of African people in the broadest sense of the term.”

Between “Know Your History” and Northwestern, Levy earned a bachelor’s degree in African and African American history at the University of Virginia, taught English and African American studies at a charter school in D.C. and -- in what she calls her “dream job” -- served as the interim assistant dean of African American affairs and directed the Black Cultural Center at her alma mater.

From there she headed for Cornell University, did a master’s thesis on black conservatism and established her first connection to Northwestern. One of her Cornell professors was James Turner, who as a Northwestern graduate student in 1968 helped organize a sit-in at the bursar’s office that in time led to the creation of the African American studies department.

At Northwestern, Levy returned to the subject of black conservatism, about which surprisingly little has been written, she says. “Black conservatives, who gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, were unsuccessful in attracting more African-Americans to the GOP, but that wasn’t their goal in the first place,” Levy says. “For good or for bad, black conservatives have proved to be far more effective in helping to shape national conversations on race and public policy.”

For registration and other information about the admission-free “A Beautiful Struggle” conference, visit http://www.afam2012.northwestern.edu/ and http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2012/03/african-american-studies-conference.html