In his book Of Black Study, Joshua Myers explores the work of thinkers who broke with the racial and colonial logics of academic disciplinarity. In this excerpt, he asks us to consider the stakes of intellectual freedom and the path toward a new world.
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Of Black Study is an exploration of the ways that W.E.B. Du Bois, Sylvia Wynter, Jacob Carruthers, and Cedric Robinson arrived at a critique of Western knowledge. In their unique ways, they constituted and extended a tradition of intellectual work—of Black Study—that went beyond the imperative to produce knowledge out of the framings and categorical logic of Western epistemologies. In their pursuit of a conceptual and epistemological freedom, they exposed the ways in which the knowledge foundations embraced in the university reflected the racial and colonial logic of modernity, and in doing so, these thinkers posited not “alternative modernities” but “alternatives to modernity.” In the writings of these intellectuals, the academic disciplines come under severe scrutiny. Not only did they recover the roots of these academic formations, but their work also framed their claims of and for scientific legitimacy as similarly vexed, beholden in fact to a conceptual world that could only reveal their objects of analysis within certain codes and orders of arrangement. In other words, knowledge of the world was filtered through disciplines, which were themselves filtered through a particular way of conceiving reality. One could not simply apply them to Black experiences without care. Or without acknowledging how Black life was connected to the very contexts through which disciplines emerged. As similar critiques evolved from others who nevertheless remained committed to knowledge within the gates, the clear lines of difference were Black Study’s declaration of different stakes for such an inquiry.
For Du Bois, there was a desire to reveal the inadequacy of the prevailing norms of scientific inquiry, both on their own terms as well as their ability to reveal the Truth of the Black experience. His work continued a process of thinking beyond discipline, beyond even interdisciplines, in order to access that Truth. In that conception, Du Bois would have heirs who would take this further. His example was foundational to how they regarded the world. And just as Of Black Study grapples with Du Bois’s legacy in ways that are different from those texts that seek to exalt him as the founding father of several disciplines, it connects his confrontation with those disciplines to a genealogy of Black thinkers who extended his example in the early days of Black Studies.
Sylvia Wynter’s approach to the ideas of Enlightenment and humanism is a critique that is becoming more necessary even as her work is becoming more widely read. This work reveals the fraught foundations of liberalism at a time when it is still being hailed as the answer to the problems of Western society. Her work reveals that this hegemonic assumption of liberal ontologies can be dangerous, locating much of her critique in the question of “the human.” Jacob Carruthers’s work is sited in the broad tradition of cultural nationalism, but it was premised on both critique and reconstruction. Carruthers’s Black Study helped locate an approach to culture that did not map Blackness back onto the cat-egories that Wynter and others critiqued. His invocation of speech as foundational to African life introduced a complex conceptual system and methodology for thinking about reality that has not been considered together with many recent Black Studies interventions. Finally, Cedric Robinson’s understanding of the political nature of Western societies—a sadly unheralded component of his work if recent attention is a guide—was necessary for his development of the concept of the Black Radical tradition and emerged in part as a refutation of disciplinary categorization. For Robinson, the meaning of order could be seen as antithetical to certain African systems of society, and the academic disciplines that support order were unwelcome tools for excavating Black radicalism.
To be of Black Study is to be against the ways in which Western knowledge has influenced how reality—particularly the reality that has applied to Black life—has been presented to us. The forms of these presentations take their blueprint from the disciplines of knowledge, formations that emerged from the requirements of Western civilization, read here as that intellectual tradition that inspired the modern world. Implicit in the disciplines are the ways in which they represent themselves as real and logical and thus applicable to domains that are larger than their originary conceptual frames. It is of course beyond their purview to see the ways in which they became real. That is to say, it is perhaps illogical for disciplines to realize how they originate in ways that would demonstrate their constructedness, and even their arbitrariness, when the very point of disciplinary histories is to argue for their necessity. This lack of awareness has enabled some to easily characterize Black Studies as “inherently” interdisciplinary. It is supposed that we can only be because the “traditional” disciplines exist. And because they exist, surely they must have always existed. But at best, the interdisciplinary formats of early Black Studies were a temporary compromise. Those committed to theorizing Africana Studies knew that a real reckoning with Black knowledges would mean disciplinary suicide. As Mack Jones once put it, “We have not shown an inclination to question them (our white mentors) in their entirety, their total beings, nor have we demonstrated a willingness to question their knowledge in its totality.” We would have to leave what was for some our deeply troublesome academic homes. And had we really left, we would never be able to return. As early as the mid-1970s, Cedric Robinson had realized as much. This statement is worth quoting at length:
For many scholars of Black Studies, it was apparent quite early that the discipline of Black Studies would have to break the bounds, the traditional organization, of academic learning, research and scholarship that had emerged in American and European thought by the late 19th century. One needed more tools, more intellectual groundings than were present in the singular discipline of that tradition. For some of these Black Studies scholars, the most readily accessible solution was to construct this new discipline along multidisciplinary or, further, interdisciplinary lines. Presumably this would allow the new discipline the necessary longitude it required while providing enough familiarity for those academicians (and academic structures) with whom its proponents would have to articulate. Black Studies programs simply incorporated men and women trained in the traditional fields of history, sociology, political science, anthropology, ad seriatim. This was both possible and probably appropriate during the earliest phase of the development of the field. It was not, however, a definitive nor ultimately a satisfactory solution.
Such a procedure could not address in powerful, authentic terms the social and historical ordering, the crucial sensibilities which were concomitants in ideological and sociological form to the persistence of African peoples beyond the advent of modern industrial systems of production and social organization. Too much depended upon the sensibilities, the conceptualizations, the categories of experience, and the perceptions of African peoples being similar to those of non-African (specially, European and Euro-American) peoples. African notions of time, space, explanation, and the order of things, that is rationalization, had to resemble enough what is made of them in Western experience in order to be submitted to treatment according to the peculiar organization of knowledge which Westerners now think of as universal. This was the epistemological thrust which accompanied the early development of Black Studies and which contributed some misdirection.
This misdirection lingers and lingers. So there is now a generation who repeats the canard of interdisciplinarity as a guiding principle of Black Studies. Their veil of ignorance has become a useful tool for compromising our historical struggle for autonomy in hiring, promotion, and even teaching. One simply frames Black Studies as Black content studies, leaving unaddressed the question of what it is we have done and do that is in fact different, in a space created for the purposes of intellectual transformation and human liberation rather than mere representation and recognition within what already is. In this corruption of our work, one also manufactured by administrative fiat and neoliberal priorities, we increasingly encounter an intellectual situation in which questions of theory and methodology come from the home of an individual’s joint appointment rather than from a Black Studies tradition.
To those who genuinely want to escape, Black Studies can be such a space. But there are theories and methodologies all our own, ways of entering into a Black Studies “disciplinary” territory all our own. They must be renewed, yes. But first they must be known. We already have relationships to the traditional disciplines. And it was not always a given that we would merely compromise and accept the university’s offers of peace. A lot of times it was intellectual warfare that defined that relation. For a critical contingent of Black Studies thinkers, the traditional disciplines and their relationship to Black Studies mirrored the relationship of every other Western mechanism of control and management in their relationship to Black life. Like the maroons, there would be a place in Black Studies waiting for those ready and willing to make the necessary break. So it is here where we might continue to think and utilize perceptions of African time, space, and explanation, à la Robinson, to eventually think beyond and break from even the category of “discipline.” To think otherwise.
Of Black Study is concerned with this concept of “otherwise,” to follow the thinking of writers like Ashon Crawley. In his beautiful analysis of the forms of Black pentecostal aesthetics that have been influential to Black self-actualization, Crawley makes the claim that Western modes of knowing could not reveal them for what they really were. Attached to Crawley’s argument that Western theology and philosophy were constructed on aversion, on the propensity to not see Blackness in its fullness, is the idea of Black Study: “a mode of approaching objects, a form of intellectual practice, that resists the stilling and stasis of abstraction through language, and through quantifying … concerned with the world, with the destruction of inequity and the imagining and material realizing of otherwise worlds, otherwise possibilities.” In thinking otherwise, we remove the conceptual and disciplinary logics supporting and reifying race, gender, otherness, and the related political projects that ensue from them, while allowing other ways of being to animate how we know the world. Du Bois, Wynter, Carruthers, and Robinson write and theorize about this tradition of Black livingness, while simultaneously participating in the same political and ideological struggles that grounded them, creating a rich form of inquiry that possesses an urgency, an authenticity, a grounding that affirms that there is in fact a beyond—that there is more to Black thought than mere critique.
This book also imagines that beyond, that desire to frame a world and an African sense of being that exists in that world that is different from the worlds and the image of “the African” constituted by the modern. These, too, were part of explicit acts of resistance, struggles that continued into the twentieth century, where they were picked up by the intellectuals treated in this text. In their conceptions of liberation, the thinkers explored here, however, center ways of being and existing and of making worlds differently as the meaning and nature of freedom. It is Du Bois’s declaration that to the formerly enslaved freedom was God, the human rhythms of a general strike found in something more than just the American economic order; it is Wynter’s excavation of Black ritual and “jazz-life” as foundational to oppositions to New World economic arrangements; it is Carruthers’s ability to see in both Black intellectual traditions and Black struggles in revolutionary Haiti, the continuity of an ancient African tradition of “Deep Thought” concerned with the nature of the moral-spiritual universe; and it is Robinson’s Black Radical tradition as a way of accessing the meaning of how to live against Western notions of “the political.” These were their terms for “otherwise.” While there are differences in their projects, the question of how peoples of African descent live and might live is at the core of their Black Study.
Life Studies as Black Study.
Black Study as the beautiful ways in which Africans have always made meaning out of “this battlefield called life, called life, called life, called life.”
Black Study as the beautiful ways we do, feel, theorize, write, and teach our Lives.
Black Study as the beautiful ways that we have always recognized that in an academic setting where we are surrounded by ideas and practices that steal life, we will continue to live, and we will continue to choose to “believe in life.”
Joshua Myers is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Howard University. He is the author of Cedric Robinson: The Time of the Black Radical Tradition and We are Worth Fighting For: A History of the Howard University Protest of 1989.
Of Black Study is available to purchase here.