MAXWELL:  Black culture is part of the whole

6/11/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Take this pop quiz. In two or three sentences, explain the intellectual significance of at least 10 of the following accomplished African-Americans: Amiri Baraka, Charles Waddell Chestnutt, Meta Warrick Fuller, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, William H. Johnson, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Augusta Savage, Lorraine Hansberry, Phillis Wheatley.

Did you pass? If you are white and attend or attended an American college or university, you probably have heard of no more than six of these novelists, poets, painters, playwrights and sculptors. Most of your black peers, by the way, would not score much better. If, however, we give the same quiz to our European counterparts, many would score higher.

Why? The answer is familiar but one that needs repeating: Racism is so widespread and institutionalized in this nation that black intellectuals and artists are virtually unknown, even to many of the learned. America does not value black culture enough to accept its creators and their artifacts as integral to the nation’s intellectual life. In fact, many conservative intellectuals and their political supporters have condemned multicultural attempts to recognize and teach more black culture.

The opposite is true and has been occurring for decades in many European nations. This fact was the focus of a recent Associated Press article about the Collegium for African American Research that met in Puerto De La Cruz, Canary Islands.

As its name suggests, the collegium is a group of European scholars committed to studying black life and its relationship to American culture. Many of these academics first experienced black culture as children after World War II through the jazz recordings on U.S. Armed Forces Radio. Josef Jarab, rector of Palackeho University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, told the AP that when he was young, black jazz let him “fly to freedom.” As an adult, he played a major role in making courses in black literature and music part of his university’s curriculum.

“There is an enormous amount of skepticism among European students about what America represents in the world,” Maria Diedrich, a professor of American studies at the University of Munster in Germany, told the AP. “But at the same time there is a fascination with the country, and much of this has to do with African-American culture.”

Although black studies have been a staple of many American university curricula since the 1960s, these programs _ because of institutionalized indifference toward black culture _ are not as effective as those in Europe.

And here is why. Conferees at the collegium produced evidence showing that many American campuses teach this curriculum as black studies courses per se, often physically isolated from other parts of the campus life. An American professor, for example, will spend weeks fleshing out meaning in August Wilson’s play Fences. But the professor will not show how Fences contributes to the whole of society. Most respected anthologies of American literature contain black selections, but even they are taught as black literature, not as American literature.

On many of our campuses, black culture is a ghetto in the ivory tower. As a result, few white students leave our campuses with the knowledge to competently discuss the major work of a single black intellectual.

European professors, according to those attending the conference in the Canary Islands, integrate black life into American or English studies programs. They do not teach black subjects in isolation. Another difference between the two systems is that most black studies lecturers in the United States are black, while most in Europe are white. This fact alone makes the two systems seem like night and day _ like different views of the world. The obvious advantage in having more whites teach black courses is that the courses more easily blend into the curriculum and are more acceptable to a wider audience.

American universities’ treatment of black culture shortchanges everyone, and it especially keeps young whites ignorant of the many contributions their black countrymen make to the various academic disciplines. Such ignorance produces distorted views of blacks and discourages the urge to learn more about them.

Ironically, many black students leave traditionally white colleges and universities with a broader liberal arts education than their white peers. In my own case, my black classmates and I, as English majors, not only read every Dead White European Male author tossed our way, we also read and discussed every black writer we could got or hands on. Today, I believe that most of us, compared to our white classmates who did not read blacks, have a broader understanding of American culture. A few of the whites themselves have said as much.

Despite the dire warnings of neoconservatives and their apologists that the left is trying to kill off classical knowledge, I believe that, for the good of the nation, U.S. colleges and universities should adopt the European approach to teaching black life: Treat it as a natural, inseparable part of America’s intellectual esprit.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.