Shawn Alexander can recognize the look immediately. It’s one of surprise when a student enters his African-American studies class and finds, standing at the front, a white guy.
“Years ago, it happened more,” said Alexander, 38, who grew up near Rockford, Ill., and teaches at the University of Kansas. “I’d see the kids walk into my room, look down at their registration cards and up at me, and then walk out to make sure they had the right classroom.”
Around the country this year, college campuses are celebrating the 40th anniversary of African-American studies programs. Although black scholars make up the majority of the faculty, white scholars increasingly are making their mark, including two teaching at Northwestern University.
It may be the ultimate in inclusion as well as irony in a discipline that emerged out of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s to challenge “the man” and the white status quo. If African-American history looks back at the black experience, African-American studies tries to examine it from the inside out and from every angle.
White scholars have pursued doctorates in African-American history in relatively large numbers; but whites with doctorates in black studies as well as those who teach in the field remain fairly rare.
Martha Biondi, an associate professor of African-American studies and history at Northwestern University, said she believes her racially mixed group of students places far more stock in her passion for her craft than the fact that she’s white.
“There probably are students who wouldn’t enroll in a black studies course with a white professor,” said Biondi, 44, whose doctorate is in African-American history. “But it’s my view that students are incredibly open-minded. They may at first say, ‘I wonder if this person is qualified,’ but students want a teacher who performs well, and, at the end of the day, that’s how they’ll judge you.”
From the beginning, the goal of African-American studies – with its immersion in black culture, literature, history, politics and religion – was to critique and strengthen social justice policies for people of African descent worldwide.
Scholars of African-American studies often share a desire to immerse themselves in black culture but also come from a background that leans toward social justice and changing the world.
Biondi was reared in a predominantly white, small town in Connecticut. She remembers being anti-Nixon in the third grade, watching black news affairs programs on television and reading her baby-sitter’s copies of The Nation. As a teen, she aspired to become a civil rights lawyer.
“Early on, I found the 1960s movements to be very vibrant, particularly the ideas of democracy and equality and freedom,” said Biondi. “They were intellectually compelling ideas.”
African-American studies programs emerged in the 1960s from the racial transformation taking place on college campuses across the country. More black students were arriving and facing racism, and they believed universities could help by adding more black professors along with courses that reflected their experiences and sensibilities.
The first black studies program began in 1969 at San Francisco State University. Nathan Hare, a black professor hired the year before to head the department, said its mission was to create a new approach to scholarship that would lead to changes on campus and in the community.
“We were uniting the academy with the street,” said Hare, who holds doctorates in sociology and clinical psychology. “We wanted to elevate black scholarship, but it wasn’t like no white person could touch it. Just like it wasn’t like black students should only take black studies courses.”
He said that whites, Asians and Hispanics joined black students in the 5-month-long campus uprising – considered the most violent chapter in campus history – that began at the end of 1968.
By 1973 nearly all of the country’s major universities had a black studies program, but the transition was less than smooth. When Mark Naison began teaching at Fordham University in 1970, he didn’t just encounter skepticism about a Jewish guy from Crown Heights teaching in the discipline.
“There was a group of Black Nationalist students who completely rejected me doing this,” said Naison, 60, who wrote about the experience in his book “White Boy, A Memoir.” “I wasn’t who they had fought for, and they would try to stare me down. I grew up in Brooklyn; I’m not a small person. I stared back.”
At the time, Naison said, he was living with a black woman, was doing community organizing and had been kicked out of the white community. “I stared back because I had nowhere else to go,” he joked.
Naison has used rap music to teach history (he goes by the name “Notorious Ph.D.”) and has appeared on comedian Dave Chappelle’s old show flaunting his knowledge of black history. But Naison said he’s sensitive to his place as a member of the “majority” who’s in a profession where he’s a minority.
“I refused to be department chair until I was there nearly 20 years,” said Naison. He did chair the department in the early 1990s and will do so again next fall.
Naison is old school. At Northwestern, Tom Edge is part of the newest generation of white professors entering the field. Edge, 33, received his doctorate in African-American studies last May from the University of Massachusetts.
What’s changed most dramatically in the discipline over 40 years is the student body, which is far more racially diverse. Edge said that although he’s had a positive experience in the classroom, he has faced some pushback from friends for his choice of study.
“If you’re white and studying black culture, then you must be in the midst of some identity crisis,” he said.
Edge was drawn to black history as he began to learn just how much had been omitted from history class at his New Jersey high school.
“Almost always it’s my white students who ask me how I became interested in the field,” said Edge. “Many of them have learned history the way I did, and when they see how black history fits in, they begin to understand its richness.”
A visiting professor at Northwestern this year, Edge opted not to have his picture placed on the Web page of the black studies department. At first he did so for no particular reason, but he now believes it’s better for students to learn he’s white on the first day of class.
“There are no expectations on how I’m going to do,” he said. “Instead students judge me by what’s going on in the classroom. I do my best to present information to them as thoroughly as possible. They can see how much I love doing this, and that’s more important than anything else.”
Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.