Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department? 

More Africans, fewer Americans, at Cal's African-American Department.


The December 1 essay "Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department?" contained several factual errors. Perhaps most notable was the erroneous assertion that "Caribbean professors have run the African-American department at Cal since it was established in the early '70s." In fact, only three of the department's nine chairpersons have been of Caribbean origin, and one of them was an American citizen from the US Virgin Islands. As for the number of black teachers on campus, our assertion that "most" of Cal's forty-odd black teachers are immigrants seems to have been in error; representatives of the department say that only a handful are immigrants.

The essay went on to say that Cal's African American Studies Department and its globalized focus on "Diaspora Studies" was partly to blame for the lack of black students and faculty at Cal. While that assertion was clearly the opinion of the article's author, the essay may have left the impression that former department chairs Percy Hintzen and the late Barbara Christian were uninterested in recruiting black students or teachers to Cal. In fact, both were vocal supporters of affirmative action on campus.

The article also asserted that there are only eight black graduate students attending UC Berkeley. According to Cal's Office of Student Research, in the fall of 2004 there actually were 316 African-American graduate students on campus. Similarly, while there appears to be no definitive roster of how many African-American women teach at Cal, according to the department, there are roughly twelve, and not eight, as our story alleged.

Here is the text of the article as it originally appeared.

Last week, as I was leaving UC Berkeley's African-American Studies Department at Barrows Hall, I reflected on how sad it is that so few African Americans are seen on campus. This was not the case back in 1968 when I came here to teach in the English department. Then, you would see a black presence in all walks of student life. Over the years, the number of blacks has dwindled nearly to embarrassing invisibility.

Then, as I approached Sather Gate, I saw a startling spectacle: a group of black students blocking the university entrance. They were standing still and silent, with black gags across their mouths. Somebody passed me a sheet of red paper listing the students' demands.

The students called their demonstration a "blackout." They wanted more black professors, male and female. They wanted more African Americans -- most of the forty black male teachers on campus were immigrants. They wanted more black female professors -- there were only eight among the 1,500 faculty. They wanted more black graduate students -- there were just eight, and six of those were from the African-American department.

I was elated. I felt the pride I had felt as a student back in Greensboro, North Carolina, when we sat in at lunch counters to protest legal segregation. Was I dreaming?

Apparently not. I clapped my hands; I couldn't stop applauding them. A young black American student approached me, holding a camera. She was Erinn Rahsom, a Ph.D student in the African-American department. "Would you like to make a statement about the demonstration?" she asked.

"You damn right!" I said, right into the camera lens. It was the very same camera I had ordered for the department when I taught there two years ago.

I had just left a meeting with Professor Stephen Small, the new chair of the African-American department, but could not tell Rahsom what I really thought -- that the department itself was partly the reason we don't have more black students and professors at Berkeley. How could I explain to her the growing schism between the native blacks and black immigrants who control African-American university departments across the country?

In the late '60s and early '70s, black American students struggled -- through demonstrations, sit-ins, and teach-ins -- to found a Third World College at Cal. Eventually, they forced the university to establish a Black Studies department. But many of these students never graduated; they were forced out by the university authorities.

Caribbean professors have run the African-American department at Cal since it was established in the early '70s. Putting black immigrants in leadership was part of the university's reactionary strategy to keep African Americans in line. This strategy began with the late Barbara Christian and continued with her close associate, Percy Hintzen. As the chairman, Hintzen wanted to offer the students more courses about the Caribbean and Africa under the aegis of "Diaspora Studies" -- code for hiring blacks from the Caribbean and Africa.

By replacing black American teachers such as me with black immigrant teachers, the university attempted to sever the vital connection between the black student and the teacher as a role model. My position in the English department was given to an immigrant whose experience is far removed from that of an African-American man.

A meeting on the issue was held that night at Evans Hall. The small auditorium was filled with about 150 to 200 students. From the stage, four black women, all dressed in black, ran the discussion.

"The area I come from, San Bernardino," Pia Winston said, "it's a big step to UC Berkeley." She said she had been so excited to be at Cal. But during the first week -- Welcoming Week -- she got a rude awakening as to what Cal was really like.

Her moment of revelation came as she and several girlfriends were on their way to a party. As she told her story, she could not hold back her tears, and beckoned to her girlfriend to come up onstage. The other woman picked up the story: "When they got up to these white students, the students said, 'Go home, you black bitches!'"

The audience was stunned. Then another black woman got up and told a similar story. She and some girlfriends had gone to a frat party. At the door, the frat host said, "You girls [pointing to the Latino and white girls in their group], you can come in, but you black bitches stay outside."

Yet another woman said she was told, "Go back home -- you niggers are not wanted here!"

Black students endure such humiliation every day at Cal. It is the same kind of humiliation that the leaders in the African-American department tried to subject me to. It is the rise of the non-African-American black who, although a foreigner himself, feels he is closer to the policies of a university administration that supports them at the expense of native black Americans. The truth is simply that UC Berkeley says loud and clear that African-American students and faculty are not wanted here.

The leaders of the African-American department are hostile toward native blacks for this reason: They know they are building their careers on the work African-Americans students did back in the '60s and '70s. They are suffering from a lack of authenticity. In plain black English, they are "faking the funk."

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