Professor discusses black studies in the 21st century

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 | 10:36 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — A small group of people met Tuesday night to find a 21st-century solution for what Princeton University professor Noliwe Rooks says is a 19th-century problem — the need to recognize black studies as an established department in higher education.

Rooks, the associate director of black studies at Princeton University, began her speech at MU's Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center by discussing the history of black studies as she remembers it.

She discussed the year 1968, when she said young black people came together to demand that others recognize their rights.

“Some people called them riots. Some people called them demanding their rights,” Rooks said.

Rooks also recalled a time when universities were forced to think about their relevance to people and what they had to offer to people of all races.

“Black studies became one means of them fulfilling that kind of mission” of not being racist, she said.

The struggle to make black studies a legitimate department and intellectual study at universities was a long one, and once departments began, they grew rapidly, Rooks said. But there were financial problems at first.

"Money started to became an issue. In a three-year period, we went from no black studies departments or programs to 400," she said, adding that the rapid expansion of such departments pressed the federal government for funding.

Rooks said universities nationwide are beginning to recognize black studies as a legitimate program.

“We are now an intellectual entity. We did all of this fighting so you couldn’t see us as an affirmative action program," Rooks said. "We have the resources and the standing of an actual department. We can’t be pulled back to being seen as just a militant arm of the ancient black community.”

MU graduate student Brandon Pope, who went to a strictly black undergraduate college, said he attended the lecture because he was interested in hearing Rooks’ views on the need for black studies programs on multiracial campuses.

“I like anything talking about black issues, and this is one of them,” Pope said.

Rooks was invited to speak Tuesday as the first of a three-part series, “The Quest for Black Citizenship in America,” which is sponsored by MU's Black History Month Committee.

Rooks' most recent book, "White Money/Black Power: The History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education," explores the history of black studies as a department and institution on college campuses across the country.

The first black studies program was established in 1968 and became a department in 1969. MU's black studies program has been in existence for 39 years. About 200 such programs exist nationwide.

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