Opinion | The Battle for Black Studies: Bending the arc to Black thought

Feb. 16, 2021, 6:35 p.m.

I remember my fifth birthday vividly. The red tile floors of the daycare. Warm, enveloping sunlight streaming through the sunroof. My navy blue dress, complete with a lace collar and pearl-like buttons. 

What I remember most of all however, was this thought: That an outfit that pretty was wasted on somebody who looked like me. 

A classmate must have asked me (again) why my nose was so big, or why my lips were so fat. And at age five, it was dawning on me that the answer to those questions was my parentage. That I looked like I did, as ugly as I did, because — unlike my little Bogotá schoolmates — I was Black. In my childhood, I developed a hardened despair about my Black features: that they were incorrigible, immutable, undeniable.

Ugliness is a peculiar feeling. It’s a chronic ache — bearable, but degenerative in nature. And it ate at me, steadily, until I began to read African-American literature. 

I was about 16 when something about James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain hit me. I don’t even remember what it was in the book, but I suddenly realized that my perpetually rotting, crumbling sense of self-confidence wasn’t a natural outgrowth of my being Black. That it was neither the legacy or inheritance of my African ancestry.

I remember that day vividly as well. It was the first day the roundness of my nose and the curve of my lips weren’t bad, weren’t ugly. Could even be pretty, perhaps. African-American literature crashed over my teenage self like a wave. And in its wake was a budding sense of pride and confidence.

Black literature, art and scholarship is like this. Like water, that is. Everything bends to it eventually. 

I did. 

I don’t know if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words are true and the moral arc of the universe does actually bend towards justice. But Stanford’s AAAS Program taught me enough to realize that America always bends towards Black thought eventually. 

Lurchingly, spasmodically, it’s bent to some version of Dr. King’s strain of thought. It’s adopted a number of the societal safety nets innovated by the Black Panther Party. America is still bending that way now. Departmentalizing the Program in African and African-American Studies could help Stanford tap into the force of that bend.

During my time at Stanford, I saw the bending process unfolding in real time. As a AAAS major, I learned about paradigm shifting Black scholarship. Intersectionality, for example, is one of the defining social analytical frameworks of our time. Intersectionality describes social socio-political categories like race, gender and class fit together like Jenga pieces. It posits that these categories intersect and overlap, creating unique advantages or vulnerabilities for different populations. The term was developed by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black scholar and graduate of the Africana Studies department at Cornell University. Her work has suffused some of the major social movements of the last two decades, and is at the forefront of our emerging American consciousness. 

The Black Lives Matter movement, which is growing into one of the defining movements of this century, is profoundly and intentionally intersectional. This is obvious in its breadth and inclusiveness. It is a movement that declares that Black lives matter, that queer and trans Black lives matter, that we should speak the names of Black women victims of police brutality, that we should protect Black immigrants, that Black joy is precious and deserving of protection. Its decentralized nature has allowed it to seep into every corner of the nation. Every single state has seen Black Lives Matter marches in the last couple of years. It’s projected to be the largest mass movement in American history. The phrase #BlackLivesMatter has found a burrow — welcome or not — in most Americans’ brains. 

This movement, and the Black scholarship infused in it, is bending American policy, attitudes and life. It is unwise for Stanford to under-resource African and African-American Studies — the field of academia best equipped to study and influence it. 

Majoring in AAAS helped me understand what was happening outside the classroom during my time at school. My sophomore year, I saw Ferguson burning across hundreds of digital screens. I was glued to coverage of Michael Brown’s murder and of the violent repression of the Black Lives Matter protests that lit up in its aftermath. 

I could understand the visual agony of it all: the way an armed white man could successfully claim self defense in shooting a Black teenager eight times, finally murdering him with a bullet through the eye. 

I saw, clearly, the American tradition of it all: The Black residents of Ferguson were violently compelled to act as the base of the city’s economy. Ferguson routinely balanced its budget by excessively fining Black residents, and using police violence — real and threatened — to extort payments.

AAAS grounded my thoughts when my emotions were scrambled. If I know now that abused Black populations are lucrative for our governments, it’s because I studied this. If I understand that we live in a country that assumes that when Black people are hurt, it’s because we did something to deserve it, it’s because I majored in AAAS. And if I know that this is deeply wrong, it is because of this program.

That the country is lurching towards understanding these same things, is because of the seismic abilities of Black thought and Black activism. 

With what I learned from AAAS, I built scaffolds for a self-confidence that I previously did not have. In AAAS, I found that the strongest moral fiber, the sweetest English texts and the most innovative uses of media, constitute the Black reality I can belong to.

Black scholarship is the trellis that shapes my, and America’s, consciousness. Stanford prides itself on churning out students and ideas that chart the course of national and global history. Black Studies is THE ideal vehicle for this kind of effect. 

Despite inadequate resources and infrastructure, the Program in African and African-American Studies consistently produces artists and thinkers already shaping the American experience. It has one of the most expansive troves of knowledge about Black figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Black movements like the Black Panther Party. Brilliant faculty teach in the program, though without departmental status it is difficult to keep and attract future talent.

Stanford can choose to have the necessary infrastructure to help set the future American socio-political mold, or it can choose to fall behind. 

That is the difference between departmentalizing or not departmentalizing AAAS.

Departmentalize AAAS. 

María Victoria Díaz-González (she/ her) was a member of the Class of 2017. She majored in African & African-American Studies. She currently works as a freelance journalist.

Contact María Victoria Díaz-González at mdiaz94 ‘at’ @alumni.stanford.edu.

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