On the Brink: Afro-American Studies At Harvard

Afro-Americans have known little understanding in the educational institutions of this country. In fact, what they have faced is the opposition of the white ruling class to any inclusion of black people on their own terms. This was the case in slavery, when the law punished those who would teach the slaves to read or write. This was the case after slavery when blacks were restricted from the white schools. The Brown decision of 1954 removed segregation from the legal texts and left it in the streets. Now, in 1977, the forces of white supremacy are fighting viciously to maintain segregation in the public school system.

Ideological discrimination has been no less violent. The tenets of racism have beer developed and continue to be taught at no less than this country's most esteemed universities. The characterizations of blacks as animal, barbarian, infantile, pre-scientific, intellectually inferior, psychologically disadvantaged, and morally unsound continue to buttress the intellectual foundations of social relations in this country. How perfectly consistent that no attempt would be made on the part of universities to study thoroughly the history and civilizations of the African continent without the pressure of vocal militants. How perfectly consistent that American colonizers would ignore all the history of a continent before their own rape of that continent. How indeed could a place like Harvard recognize the legitimacy of African studies when it refused to admit any serious proportions of blacks until relatively recently?

Black students had no light task when they set out to bring black studies to Harvard in the school year 1967-68. The result of the work of the ad hoc committee formed that year was the addition of a course taught by Frank Friedel in the spring of 1968, Soc Sci 5, "The Afro-American Experience." One could speculate on the level of absurdity reached in the attempt to teach about black people in one semester, but the student protests of that course register the most acute awareness of the University's failure. Several students had nicknamed that course "Famous Negroes I Have Known". Though some members of this University at that point wished to discredit the students' criticisms as being of the white professor instead of the course, saner members of the population acknowledged the fact that no professor, black or white, could succeed where Friedel failed.

Black student demand effected a more logical response in the form of a Faculty Committee on African and Afro-American Studies; logical in the sense that it was more than a hasty reaction to black demands for a relevant curriculum. In retrospect, the logic of that committee is questionable. How Martin Kilson, one of the most outspoken critics of black studies, came to sit on that committee causes one to wonder. Even more cause for wonder is how Henry Rosovsky, then professor, now dean, became the chairman. To Rosovsky, this came as no surprise. He was later to say that he felt as knowledgeable in Afro-American studies as most. Which gives more cause for wonder!

Then Dean Ford charged the committee with the task of developing the curriculum of the University with regard to Afro-American studies. One of the tasks (a "detailed charge") he assigned the committee was the investigation of "a possible field of undergraduate concentration, held together by the centrality of concern for African and Afro-American subject matter." A self-styled "expert" in the field, Rosovsky chose to both admit this "detailed charge", and then sabotage it by dividing the committee into two subcommittees, one to explore African studies and the other to explore Afro-American studies. This was Rosovsky's first failure to act as a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and represented his strong tendency to substitute his own wishes for the mandates of the FAS and the demands of students.


The committee issued a report in January of 1969, usually referred to as the Rosovsky report. The report had good and bad points. On its bad side, the separation between African and Afro-American studies was blatant. The report also favored a committee to oversee an undergraduate degree program, though it offered no reason why a department would be unsatisfactory. Many departments have been born out of less student interest and just as limited faculty resources. A final criticism of the report was that it glorified Harvard's history of African studies, maintaining that "African studies has had the advantage of satisfactory and congenial growth within established disciplines." Rosovsky makes a tremendous effort to detail all the research and curricular offerings of the school in African studies, but all his efforts fail to conceal several facts. No African languages were taught at Harvard at that time, despite all their reputable African anthropologists (did they use interpreters?). There were few courses dealing specifically with Africa; those few were offered primarily in Anthropology, some in Government, and a few in Education and Social Relations. No courses were offered in the History Department on Africa. There was no institute of African research, no department, no committee, no center for African studies. Certainly the Peabody Museum had distinguished itself with regard to its collection of African art and artifact, but then again, anthropology never had any qualms about the study of African "primitives".

Aside from these, the Rosovsky report was praised in general by students and faculty, because it represented the first attempt to rectify Harvard's mistakes with respect to black people. The report did acknowledge the inadequacy of the curriculum in Afro-American studies and recommended that the University commit itself to the goals of increased research, faculty, and funds in Black studies. It proposed graduate and undergraduate degree programs as well as an institute for Afro-American research. It indicated a need to make special efforts to bring to Harvard experts in Afro-American studies who lacked the "normal academic credentials". The report emphasizes the need to include students in the selection of faculty as well as the development of the new program, in light of "the students' high degree of interest, knowledge and competence in this emerging, and in some ways, unique field of study". Rosovsky was correct when he said in American Scholar in the fall of 1969 that his report was widely acclaimed and widely accepted throughout the University. In his article entitled "Black Studies at Harvard", he continued by expressing disbelief that events made the reversal they did soon after his report. But he ignored in that article an important action of his committee several months after his report, an action which did awaken students to the real nature of Harvard's commitment to them.

In April of 1969, the committee issued an outline of a proposed degree program in Afro for undergraduates. The proposed plan was that students would take all the requirements for an established major, as well as some colloquia and/or seminars in black studies for credit. In order to study Afro-American studies, students would have to take another concentration, and take on more work in addition. One can understand the outrage which black students felt when they strenuously rejected this proposal as a violation of the spirit of the Rosovsky report. One can not understand why Rosovsky did not see this as a contradiction to the statement in his report that the "study of black men in America is a legitimate and urgent academic endeavor." What this proposal implied was there was no legitimate autonomy necessary for Afro studies; rather, Afro should be made a "focus" within another discipline. Clearly this was a violation of the spirit of the Rosovsky report.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences agreed with students, and on April 22, adopted a proposal developed by the ad hoc committee of Black students a few weeks before. Several things were resolved: that the new program would be a department, governed by an executive committee of students and faculty; that the standing committee would exist until there were two tenured members of the department; that the department would have a "radical" orientation, concerning itself with the issues of the black community and having a component of field work for credit. Students and progressive faculty had won a great victory; black people had been able to determine for themselves what their education would look like.

Although Rosovsky recognized no relation between the study of Africa and the study of black Americans, students and faculty did. This was borne out early in the history of the department. Dean Ford, when he defined the undergraduate program as having a "centrality of concern for African and Afro-American subject matter", noted that this was what "interested parties were pressing for". This reinforces the statements of old members of the Association of African and Afro-American Students that the organization was heavily pan-Africanist in its political outlook. When the standing committee began its search for faculty to teach in the new department, Ephraim Isaac was one of the first asked. He was doubtful at that time, he says, about whether the department's perspective included his background of expertise; Richard Musgrave, the chairman of the standing committee, indicated to Isaac that his knowledge and skills would be invaluable to the department. In the report it published in the fall of 1969, the standing committee affirmed the need for the department to consider "not only the. . . black community in the United States, but also its relation, past and present, to the experiences of black people in other parts of the world, especially in Africa". Andrea Rushing, an instructor in the department, commented in 1972: "There is no serious way to discuss the experience of Afro-American without discussing Africa. Afro-Americans did not--like Topsy--just grow on the shores of the New World. The question of emphasis can be argued, but with the dearth of other courses on Africa at Harvard, the department has no choice but to make sure that its students have the foundation laid and the links pointed out within the Afro-American Studies department."

This is what the department undertook to do in its first years. Ephraim Isaac taught courses in African languages, religions, history and civilizations. Three of the four full-time instructors in the first year taught courses outside the realm of the United States, and in the later years more faculty with expertise in African and the Caribbean came into the department. This occurred through the close interaction of the standing committee and the department, which meant the involvement of students and faculty inside and outside the department. It was no accident that the department had a strong African and Third World component; this was a reflection of the founding sentiments of the black students as well as the wisdom of the faculty in the early years of the department.

In 1972, after three successful years of the department, Chairman Ewart Guinier had this to say about the situation:

Over three years have passed since the Rosovsky report was issued in January, 1969. It is clear that crucial gaps still exist in the fulfillment of the recommended goals in the report which were accepted in principle by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Harvard must now move to turn these recommendations into reality by initiating a capital fund drive to establish graduate degree programs in Afro-American studies, to develop the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, and to create at least four additional chairs in Afro-American Studies. Harvard's failure to fulfill these recommendations could only be construed by the black community as compelling evidence that Harvard is not serious about Afro-American Studies and continues to throw its weight on the negative side of black aspirations. (emphasis ours)

While the department had managed to carry out fairly well the task of bringing Afro-American studies to the Harvard community, in 1972 the University and the department were at odds. The University chose to ignore the tasks it had assigned itself in 1969, and abandoned all commitment to the young department. The DuBois Institute was no closer to establishment than when it was first conceived. The standing committee had made no recommendations for tenure positions in the department. There was no graduate program in Afro-American studies. When the three-year Review Committee met in the year 1971-72, they had little positive to say. The situation was not one of growth for the department, the department had to focus its energy against the forces in the University who were now attempting to isolate and undermine the department. Suddenly, Afro-American Studies was the step-child no one cared for any longer. It was not a discipline, it should not be a single concentration, it should not be a department, it was not even that great an idea for Black students to study Black people. If the criticisms had been isolated, it might have been easier to ignore them. But when the review committee demanded that the department's isolation within the University be ended, it was trying to shout back the tide. Nothing the department could do would reverse the unspoken verdict that the department had been a mistake.

One has to marvel at the cunning with which the University has undertaken to destroy the department. Five years after the Rosovsky report, President Bok decided to establish the DuBois Institute. Not to carry out the original directives for such an institute, but to establish an institute. He delegated to his special assistant, Walter Leonard, the responsibility for developing a prospectus for the institute, and, heedless to the clamor of students and Afro faculty for the original prospectus, the powers in Mass Hall set up the DuBois Institute. Second-class status is the mark of the Afro Department which is not consulted or notified about the establishment of a research center in Black studies. Benign neglect is the mark of a university which isolates its Black studies department from its complementary research center.