Friday, November 09, 2007

Patricia Hill Collins on "Emancipatory Knowledge: An Oxymoron?: The Case for Contemporary Black Studies"

Patricia Hill CollinsWhat a week! First, Junot Díaz was here, then last night, the university's very highly regarded African American Studies Department invited the distinguished scholar Patricia Hill Collins (at left) to deliver this year's Allison Davis Memorial Lecture. (Allison Davis (1902-1983), a pioneering anthropologist and scholar of education, prolific author, and member of the President's Commission on Civil Rights, who was one of the first African Americans to receive tenure at a majority-white institution; he and his colleague Abram Lincoln did so at the University of Chicago, where he had received his Ph.D., in 1948. He taught at Chicago until his death, at which time he was the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor, and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellow. Every Black person teaching at a majority-white institution should know his name and his story.)

Collins, now the Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, the first (2007-8) African-American woman to lead the American Sociological Association, and the author of such groundbreaking books as Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990) and Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (2005), needed little introduction to the packed audience, but she did receive excellent ones from our acting dean, sociologist Aldon Morris, and the Af-Am Studies chair Richard Itonchair of African American Studies, political scientist Richard Iton (below, at right). Her topic was "Emancipatory Knowledge: An Oxymoron?: The Case for Contemporary Black Studies." What, she began by asking, does it mean to be doing Black Studies now? What are Black Studies programs, scholars and students focusing on, and how does this relate to their original, historical aims? Is the knowledge diffused among Black communities in the US and elsewhere? Are the three original aims, or core principles, of an organic link between Black Studies departments and Black communities, the development of a special relationship between Black Studies departments and Black students, and the correction of the historical record, exemplified in the practices and praxes of contemporary Black Studies departments? And what about the gulf between what she called "paper programs," underfunded, understaffed Black Studies programs, such as the one she had taught at before her move to Maryland, and those at élite institutions, like the university, which offered doctoral programs, graduate funding, and star scholars for students to work with? How could and can the majority of Black students, let alone Black people, be served under such conditions, or is this, well, an oxymoron?

I won't recapitulate her provocative, often funny, and always lively argument, which she condensed for time constraints and then Powerpointed for purposes of clarity, but I was on the edge of my seat (seriously, does anyone else ever feel this kind of excitement at scholarly talks?) the whole time as she discussed it. In fact, I took about 4-5 moleskine pages of notes, and am still reviewing them, and probably would have stayed behind to ask her questions, but I had to finish reading short stories for my Friday classes. But I saw her as throwing down a gantlet, of the sort that folks in our incredible African American Studies program have been regularly debating, and issuing a challenge to faculty members, students, and people in the community (of whatever race), to think about Black Studies in particular, and its original emphasis on Black liberation and knowledge production, but more broadly about knowledge creation and production in the academy, and its relationship to the wider community.

Patricia Hill CollinsBeing both part of and somewhat outside of academe, I've often felt like so much of the exciting work that's done inside colleges and universities either does not get translated into a form that's accessible and practical to those outside it or does so only after a long hiatus, while too many people with both feet inside academe assume that everyone is part of their conversations--or isn't, but wouldn't want to be. I feel this is less the case with artists and other creative folks, who by and through their practices and production are involved in conversation, negotiation and translation, but I do sometimes feel this strongly when it comes to the many brilliant scholarly conversations that occur and develop within college and university walls. Now, I am not saying that all knowledge, in its articulation and production, has to be immediately or initially practical, but again, there are so many exciting discoveries, developments and discussions--at least they excite me--that occur within academe, and I'm thinking in particular about the humanities and social sciences, that would benefit our public discourse in general, and specific conversations that take place in the media, in the political arena, in private dialogues.

I often think about the rich and nuanced arguments around sexuality, gender and performance, to take one example, and how alongside these you can have a discussion with people, go online or open a book or magazine and find the most retrograde, reductive discourse on these issues, as if the very premises of contestation and complexity were non-existant. I'm not blaming the scholars, who as I know from my experience with the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at CUNY even went out into the communities they hoped to engage with to hold workshops, classes, discussions, and so forth, but I still feel that all of us could be doing more, and Hill Collins's talk underlined this for me.

One of the things I really liked about Hill Collins's talk, as I do with her books, is how she negotiates scholarly discourse, some of it quite demanding and difficult, in such a way as to also speak to a wider array of readers. She noted at the end of her talk that people are "thirsty for new ideas," and that thinking about what might constitute "emancipatory knowledge," in the broader sense, could very well be one of the things folks out there would love to hear about.

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