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The Lost Promise of Black Study

In Atlanta in late 1969, historian Vincent Harding joined with a group of Black academics to establish the Institute of the Black World (IBW). Rooted in a commitment to “the colonized situation of the masses of the black community,” the IBW was to be a center of Black studies—ecumenical in orientation and focused, as Martin Luther King, Jr., was, on reconciling diverse ideological perspectives.

Initially affiliated with the Martin Luther King Memorial Center, the IBW unsettled the center’s philanthropic backing and quickly wore out that partnership. Harding and his comrades, mindful of the pitfalls of the liberal democratic establishment, sought to cultivate a more robust Black radical counterpublic. Part of this entailed, as he put it in 1974, a principled commitment to the “vocation of the black scholar” and an unflinching courage to identify and speak truth to the enemy. “Nothing that is black and whole and alive in America can be fully comprehended apart from the endless white thrusts towards our exploitation, deracination, death, and dismemberment,” Harding said. “No discussion of schools or banks, of black mayors or black production workers, of black music or black literature, of black politics or black religion in America can make sense to the people unless we identify the enemy.” For Harding, this meant analyzing systems of oppression and the pervasive reach of structural racism and capitalist imperialism, including the institutional spaces intended to nurture their critique.

The IBW was established to carry forth a mode of Black scholarship in the spirit of King’s later work. Thus, it presents a case study in the challenges, both epistemic and material, of planning and building the beloved community from within the confines of the racial capitalist world order. “The depth and variety of scholar-activists at the IBW made it the greatest collection of black intellectual talent in post–World War II America,” writes the historian Derrick White. Indeed, the IBW’s roster included Stephen Henderson, William Strickland, Lerone Bennett, Howard Dodson, Walter Rodney, Sylvia Wynter, C. L. R. James, Ella Baker, James Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs, Katherine Dunham, George Beckford, St. Clair Drake, Ossie Davis, and many others. Yet the Institute was chronically underfunded, infiltrated by both the FBI and local police, and held at a distance by the leadership of the Black colleges and universities with which it was marginally affiliated. It was a short-lived experiment, forced into closure by the early 1980s. Its fate exemplifies how the post–civil rights milieu shaped efforts to carve out institutional space for critical Black research and scholarship, and how the demands of professionalization, managerialism, policy prescription, and philanthropic funding ultimately undermined the work.

These considerations invite comparison with contemporary debates about institutional support for Black studies. At a time when teaching, learning, and scholar activism have been circumscribed by neoliberal rationality and a structural dependency on both state and private capital, some have sought to theorize a mode of Black study that is “in but not of” formally established institutions—most notably the predominately white university. The idea is not to try to build independent Black institutions, nor to press for more governing control over predominately white spaces, perhaps owing to pessimism about the viability of such efforts.

Instead, transgressive Black study is seen as a mode of flight into what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten refer to as the university’s “undercommons.” This is a necessarily fugitive act of “[sneaking] into the university” to “steal what one can.” Perhaps the IBW’s demise was historically inevitable, a testament to the suffocating grip of racial capitalist dominion. But as we think about transformative Black study as a mode of flight in the twenty-first century, the time has come to look beyond familiar and established institutions, to recommit to the work of building, and to reimagine the IBW as a missed opportunity.

Read entire article at Boston Review