Twenty-Five Years of Afro-American Studies

by Robert F. Engs, Associate Professor of History

It is with some nostalgia and not inconsiderable angst that I think back upon Afro American Studies' first twentyfive years at Penn. The Program and I arrived almost together. As I understand it, the Program began in the Spring of 1972. I arrived that fall, making me the longest surviving black faculty member in Arts and Sciences--which has not proven to be an unmitigated pleasure.

Even though I have managed to escape the burden of the Directorship, it was, in fact, the AFAMS Program that really brought me to Penn. Initially I was invited to the University as a consultant for two of the committees trying to design the program. I was a newly minted Ph.D. from Yale where the undergraduates had successfully orchestrated an intensely politicized symposium on such programs entitled "Black Studies in the University." It had been funded in part by the Ford Foundation, had made Yale look good, and hadn't led to much aside from the publication of a thin volume with the same title.

I had become entirely cynical about the matter. Black students would demand programs; University administrators would resist; buildings would be occupied; a program would be proclaimed, and a young black fellow, just shy of completing his dissertation, would be enticed from some reputable university to run the thing. It wouldn't amount to much. The nascent director would be overwhelmed by demands placed upon him, never finish his dissertation, and be dismissed by the University's faculty after several years for inadequate academic and intellectual productivity. I meant to avoid that route.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by the elaborateness of the planning being undertaken by so many diverse groups here at the University. [This was before I discovered Penn's penchant for endless committees and meetings thereof.] My only other experience with creating such programs was at Princeton where I was then teaching as an instructor. There the administration had been determined to avoid the unpleasantness of extended debate. Instead it had simply decided to have a program, appointed --interestingly enough--a young Associate Professor named Sheldon Hackney to direct it, and pretty much ignored it thereafter.

Here at Penn, I was impressed that both the committees were chaired by members of the History Department, Professor Al Rieber and Professor Werner Gundersheimer. This suggested to me a welcoming home if I came to Penn to join its faculty. There was my new friend, Ted Hershberg, who was trying to respond to black students demanding a black History course here, but insisting that Ted's skin color disqualified him from teaching it. And there was John Wideman, that brave and misused soul, and the sole black faculty member in what was then the College, trying to cope with his own career and family while defusing the explosive atmosphere on campus. He may have brought quiet to the University at the cost of a considerable portion of his own peace.

Most of all for me, there were the magnificent black students at Penn, pushing the University in directions it needed move but seemed determined not to go. They were so intelligent, energetic, and so savvy about University politics. I still remember Cathy Barlow and her cohorts taking me to lunch at the old Pagano's Italian Restaurant where the new bookstore is to rise. I was only a few years older than they, but they were so much more sophisticated and worldly-wise than I had been as an undergraduate at Princeton. I concluded these were the kind of students I wanted to teach, and Penn was the kind of lively intellectual climate I wanted to teach in.

With the advantage of hindsight, I think if I'd fully understood the Byzantine politics and intellectual intolerance those students were fighting, I might have hesitated. I already understood that student calls for a separate two- or four-year School of Black Studies had less to do with in-tellectual concerns, and everything to do with the distribution of power within the University, and the need to insure some autonomy, some meas-ure of independence, to any kind of black studies program here. What I did not understand was the extent to which opposition to AFAM Studies here transcended mere intellectual dissent to be clearly racist, mean-spirited, and hurtful. It was surely these factors that hastened John Wideman's departure from Penn, for example. And their continued existence is evidenced by the inexplicable difficulty black faculty here have in getting promoted and/or tenured--even when they have tenure in their prior institution!

Back in 1972, however, I was willing to admit, privately that the faculty critics were partially correct: the extant faculty and scholarly resources at Penn were insufficient to sustain a School of Black Studies or perhaps even a Department. Moreover, Penn was, at that very time, moving to reduce rather than increase its number of schools. And the faculty skeptics were technically correct to question even the initial Program with so few affil-iated faculty and courses. But those weaknesses were, of course, the con-sequence of sometimes benign, more often malicious, neglect and exclusion of black faculty and exploration of black issues.

In those days few white faculty would acknowledge that Penn had mistreated Du Bois. Actually, most faculty didn't even know he'd been here! Even as my acceptance of an appointment at Penn was announced, one future graduate student, when he asked about some black-related topic, was told, "Wait until next year when Engs is here. He'll be able to answer that." AfroAmerican Studies might be at Penn, but it was not a part of Penn.

The Program survived and grew in those early years because we consciously insisted that it be placed in the Provost's Office--thereby partially insulating it from the hostility of some opponents in the various schools and departments, from the competition for perennially scarce resources in the new School of Arts and Sciences, and from the vagaries of the revolvingdoor deanship in SAS. More positively, the location of AfroAmerican Studies in the Provost's Office accurately reflected its multischool origins. Although its courses were all on the undergraduate level, much of the energy and support for the early program actually came from the School of Social Work, the only locus of a significant number [in those unhappy days, that meant "more than two"] of black faculty. In truth, much of the early Program's activist and interdisciplinary energies were the product of Social Work faculty input.

The Program also survived in that nascent period because the two Provosts most committed to enhancing the black presence at Penn were in office: the late Eliot Stellar and Vartan Gregorian. Both understood that the AfroAmerican Studies Program was part of a complex of issues, including the recruitment of many more black faculty and students, and some sort of interaction with the African American communities in Philadelphia. With their support, and the help of interim administrative directors of the Program like Louise Stone and Jacqui Wade, we were able to sustain the program and to use the Faculty Directorship as a means of increasing tenured black faculty beginning with Houston Baker.

With the initial debate now twentyfive years behind us, and with the AfroAmerican Studies Program well established, I will concede that our critics back then had a point: All over the nation, black academics and students created new academic edifices with precious few faculty and with limited content. But we had neither because of the long history of exclusion and denial by the white academy. These academically unorthodox structures had to be established so we would have a means by which to add faculty and develop the intellectual content.

In the end, I think we'll understand the evolution of AFAM Studies Programs as somewhat parallel to the origins of historically black institutions founded after the Civil War like Fisk, Howard, or Atlanta. They all started out as little more than poor secondary schools. But they called themselves "universities." They knew that to which they aspired. And that, indeed, is what they became.

AfroAmerican Studies Programs, especially ours at Penn, are still evolving. I hope this anniversary assessment will help the entire community understand the extraordinary excellence we have attained. I hope, too, that we will remember our roots and continue an unorthodox path toward realization of our full potential. We should be thinking not merely of vertical growth within Arts and Sciences, but lateral growth into the other schools. For example: if certain forms of morbidity impact disproportionately on black folk, if there are special tricks to selling Kools in the black community, if the unfortunate use of the cocaine form preferred by blacks merits stricter legal penalty than the form preferred by whites, then all these are matters to be studied within the context of AfroAmerican Studies. Especially at Penn, with its insistence on interdisciplinary and interschool programs, the potential for bridges through AfroAmerican Studies to Medicine, Wharton, and Law is most exciting.

Upon reflection, I'm pretty proud of what I contributed to the program, of the African American colleagues I've helped attract to Penn, and of the students we've taught. I hope that, well before another twenty-five years pass, my white colleagues will realize they should be as well.

Happily, some already are.


Volume 43 Number 32
April 29, 1997

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