Opinion | The Battle for Black Studies: Stanford must center its Black scholarship

Opinion by Fatima Ladha
Feb. 2, 2021, 9:45 p.m.

The Battle for Black Studies is an article series run in collaboration with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and the Black Student Union (BSU). It comes amid a decades-long struggle for a department of African and African American Studies at Stanford. This series, however, is not only born out of a desire to highlight the need for a departmentalized AAAS program — it is an ongoing project of imagining and theorizing possibility, in line with the long tradition of Black Studies. It is a project of education, addressing the realities of race and fighting for a more equitable future. We hope you will join us. 

A week before the end of my last quarter at Stanford, a friend and I spent the afternoon in Green Library’s Special Collections Department, reading through folders and files of primary documents written by and about the Black Panther Party. It is the largest archive of its kind, containing handwritten poems, newspaper clippings about African American delegations visiting Palestine and letters between members promising love, camaraderie and justice.

Whether it acknowledges it or not, Stanford is instrumental in the historical and present-day development of Black scholarship. The University possesses not only the Black Panther Party archives, but hosts the Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute as well, run and developed by Professor Clayborne Carson, who was personally selected by Coretta Scott King to edit Dr. King’s papers. These collections jointly represent some of the most important primary documents from the 20th century, representing centuries of anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-oppression resistance and scholarship. And yet, I only learned about the Black Panther Party archives in my last quarter at Stanford. Most students leave Stanford never knowing of or encountering these documents and the scholarship around them.

Stanford’s failure to give Black scholarship its due importance manifests in the fight to departmentalize African and African American Studies (AAAS). I am a proud alumna from the program, and it has shaped everything I have done since in my life and career. Currently, I am a law student, pursuing racial and immigrant justice. While my focus is not only on Black communities, my education in AAAS was instrumental in my understanding of institutional racism, imperialism and oppression, generally. After graduating from Stanford, I worked as a Community Advocate with Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities in the Bay Area, sharing legal and community resources. The theories and knowledge I learned in AAAS allowed me to be an effective advocate with those communities. I drew from my knowledge of how Black community organizers advocated for immigrant and criminal justice and fought law enforcement surveillance, all of which affected my communities today. AAAS was also instrumental in my understanding of how I, as a South Asian, was going to fight anti-Blackness in my own community through my work. 

Black Liberation is at the center of all other forms of liberation. Not only because Black leaders and organizers were fighting for other communities of color and immigrants earlier than most others, but also because Black organizers continue to show the rest of our communities concrete skills and strategies to resist institutional oppression. Those of us who studied AAAS have a keen understanding of the significance in studying Black Liberation in order to do any kind of anti-oppression work. Stanford, despite having some of the most important documents regarding Black Liberation, doesn’t understand the centrality of AAAS in the study of any other American institutions — including how anti-Black racism is pervasive in courts, housing, voter rights, workers’ rights, healthcare, policing, education and even globally. In order to understand injustices in all these fields and areas, one must study African and African American Studies. The Stanford administration has failed to invest time and care into understanding Black Liberation and its importance for all marginalized communities. 

Each year, Stanford students graduate and many move to neighboring cities in the Bay Area, contributing to the displacement of Black communities. We are able to receive the benefits of a Stanford education, and leave the institution with no knowledge of the potential harms we can cause surrounding communities, particularly Black communities in the Bay Area. This lack of investment by Stanford in anti-racist education of its students directly harms our neighbors.

AAAS was a warm home at Stanford for me. I learned from some of the most thoughtful and caring professors at Stanford, and the program staff made sure to sit with each of us and discuss our long term goals with the program. If I become an effective and thoughtful movement lawyer, it will be a result of my education in AAAS.

Stanford must invest in and departmentalize AAAS, and institutionalize anti-racism education for all students. It must invest in the scholarship of Black academics, revolutionaries, political leaders and artists. It must celebrate and center the Black scholarship and archives it has in its own possession. And Stanford’s administration must concretely declare the importance of African and African American Studies.

Fatima Ladha (she/they) was a member of the Class of 2017. She majored in African & African American Studies and English. Currently, she is a first year at Berkeley Law.

Contact Fatima Ladha at fatimaladha ‘at’ gmail.com. 

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