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From Black Power to Black Studies

 How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline


Fabio Rojas


 Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007

Paperback. 279 pages. $25. ISBN 13: 978-0-8018-9825-9


Reviewed by Hélène Christol

Université de Provence (Aix)



The sixties are currently being rediscovered by a new generation of historians and social scientists who retrace the tracks of their turbulent eventful years. Fabio Rojas’s book, as its title clearly states, aims at investigating the emergence and development of black studies that were initiated at the end of the decade in the USA under the pressure of black, nationalist movements, and became an academic discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. Even though many studies have already been published on the forms and activities of black protest at the end of the sixties and on the movements that spawned departments of black studies, Rojas’s work adopts a different perspective for the analysis of this new academic field that did not die in the aftermath of the sixties, but still stirs up debates as to its existence, nature and goals. Taking the standpoint of the social scientist, Rojas’s research topic is less the action of the groups and influences that led to the creation of black studies than the point of view and reaction of the institutions themselves—in that case, the university—and the way in which they deal with serious political challenges and absorb or adapt to conflicts and change.

The thesis of the book which is presented in the preface as a “skeptical response” to Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in Education, Culture and Society, is that if, to a certain extent, schools reproduce the values of social elites, they are also the seats of political struggles in which “minorities build institutions and act as the primary authors of their lives” [XIII]. Presenting the black militants no longer as victims of the system, but as actors within the system, and focusing on the institutions of higher learning as sites constantly negotiating paths between evolution and the status quo, Rojas opens new ways of considering the institutionalization of social change and examining what happens when the radical urge of the beginnings starts waning and bureaucratic decisions follow the time of rage and of conflicts. What is gained and lost on both sides in terms of reform, knowledge and professional identity? 

To answer these questions, the book is carefully designed to analyze not only the moments when student black movements organized to fight for black studies, but also the outcome of this fight in terms of the durability of the programs, the universities’ social environment that privileged the development and survival of their presence in institutions of higher learning, the professors and intellectual communities that supported them, and finally the particular nature of black studies programs as “an institutional space for racial difference” which makes them a “counter center,” that is a “formalized space for oppositional consciousness existing in mainstream institutions” [21].

Out of the seven chapters, three are devoted to the “movement that became an institution,” with a very detailed analysis of the emblematic Third World Strike of 1968-1969 and of the difficult, but finally successful, interactions between San Francisco State College President, Hayakawa, and the Black Student Union [Ch. 3]. The remaining four chapters focus on the survival of black studies in the 1970s and 1980s, illustrated by three case studies of institutions, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Harvard University, where black studies programs evolved in different ways [Ch. 4]. They also examine the impact of private foundations on the survival of black studies, especially the role of the Ford Foundation and the questions raised by its intervention [Ch. 5], before looking closely at the construction of black studies as a permanent interdiscipline with its canonical texts and tenured or tenure-track professoriat [Ch. 6].

The last chapter works as a conclusion and an estimate of the answers that can be given to the questions raised by Rojas’s initial hypothesis. Underlining that the university is one of the most difficult institutions to change in modern society, Rojas concludes that the pace of change on campuses must seem “glacial to activists.” For slow-moving targets like universities, it therefore seems more effective for social movements to avoid extreme disruption and occupy an ambivalent position, creating a “counter center” as an oppositional space, an interdisciplinary unit, that appeals both to black and liberal audiences. Without ceding all ground to the dominant culture however: “black studies’ institutionalization shows that movements test cultural boundaries; they do not mimic them, but expand them through hybridization” [214]. As supporting his argument, and in spite of the counter example of the Temple University Department of African American Studies, Rojas observes that “black studies achieved some degree of stability by abandoning cultural nationalism and community education” [216] and thus became a viable academic field.  

Rojas’s book, based on precise data, stimulating notes, figures and tables, a useful index, and, above all, original archival sources, raises important issues on black activism, social movements, the role and nature of change in universities. His substantive research on black studies leads the author to a larger reflection on the tactics that social movements use or should use to cope successfully with the institutional structures in which they are inserted, and on the way in which such bureaucratic or institutional structures respond to conflicts and to change.

In his thoughtful, meticulous, sometimes too heavily didactic analysis, the reader might regret the absence of the major actors of black studies, the students themselves, who are curiously not mentioned. Why do they choose to join the programs, what are their professional [or political] objectives, who are they in terms of race, class or gender, such are some questions that remain unanswered.  In the same way, an analysis of the curricula offered by the Black Studies Departments would have been useful to illustrate the nature and contents of the “counter spaces” created by black studies. Even though Rojas’s main concern is the institutional development of the field, these elements would have brought a better understanding of the theory developed by the author.  We must say however that Rojas himself notes in his preface that there are still major topics, like the ones we just mentioned, that deserve more attention and that future researchers should “fill the holes” in his study and find new ways of “looking at things” [XIV]. His book is certainly an excellent incitement to further his research and offer new insights into a still burning and controversial topic.




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