The Lost Promise of Black Study
Even as they carve out space for Black scholarship, established universities remain deeply complicit in racial capitalism. We must think beyond them.
September 28, 2021
Sep 28, 2021
17 Min read time
Even as they carve out space for Black scholarship, established universities remain deeply complicit in racial capitalism. We must think beyond them.
Howard Fuller, founder of the Malcolm X Liberation University. Image: AP Photo/Perry Aycock
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.
Structural racism and capitalist imperialism are everywhere, 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.
• • •
At the IBW’s inception, there was initial confusion as to whether the Institute was a school—an aspiring “Black university” like that Harding had theorized in tandem with his efforts to launch the IBW. Harding was teaching history at Spelman when he—with Gerald McWorter (later Abdul Alkalimat), a professor of sociology at Spelman, and Stephen Henderson, a professor of Black literature at Morehouse—laid the groundwork for an Institute for Advanced Afro-American Studies at the Atlanta University Center (AUC). This was the precursor to the IBW, which grew out of the Black studies movement that had roiled college and university campuses nationwide during the late 1960s. Established schools, including the Black colleges in Atlanta, had been inhospitable to progressive Black studies programming, leading Harding and his comrades to pursue “relative autonomy” through institutional separation from the university.
The Black studies movement roiled college and university campuses nationwide during the late 1960s.
To be sure, Harding did see promise in a radical renewal of Black higher education. He, McWorter, and others developed a rich conceptual vision of a transformative “Black university.” In the pages of Ebony in 1970, Harding imagined this as “a new place or a renewed institution or a complex of institutions” driven by “an attempt to break with the long-established familiar patterns of white domination and control over black higher education.” He imagined a university that would “enter that stream of global anti-colonialism which refuses to educate young people primarily for the service of the colonizers.” That is, the Black university had to disavow white American common sense about the work of colleges and universities. “Dark copies of dying whiteness are no longer needed,” he said. It was time for the Black university to break with a dying civilization, to get on the right side of history, and demonstrate a “total commitment to the life” of the Black community and world. And he was clear that, though this vision was to be distinct from the IBW, they could support one another. “While those of us at the Institute of the Black World do not consider ourselves a Black University, we are building a research center which will perhaps help to create the content, direction and materials for those new or re-ordered institutions which have committed themselves in such black directions.”
Harding was convinced that similar contemporaneous experiments, such as the Malcolm X Liberation University in North Carolina, reflected the desire for a radically new kind of university. But he was clear that no established Black college or university in 1970 fit that mold. After battling with administrators over Black studies programs at Morehouse and Spelman, Harding thought, at least initially, that King Center sponsorship would enable a greater degree of institutional autonomy. By the late 1960s, well into the Black Power era, AUC administrators, like those at predominately white schools nationwide, were concerned about burgeoning student radicalism and the institutionalization of Black studies on their campuses.
A key flashpoint was the 1969 dismissal of Morehouse professor A. B. Spellman, who had been involved in a failed attempt with students to push for a Black-centered curriculum. The student-led Atlanta University Black Paper remarked on the episode, calling out the administration’s “authoritative, sophisticated force to squelch the thrust of the educational revolution,” what the students regarded as little more than an attempt to kowtow “to the interests of the Rockefellers, Fords, DuPonts and Harrimans.” For private institutions such as Morehouse and Spelman, structural dependency on white philanthropy made the prospects of the radical renewal that Harding had in mind a nonstarter. But he did not want this funding. Instead, he suggested that material support for the Black university concept would require claims on the public coffers and a “constant experimentation” with the “still untapped sources of funding within the black community.”
While the post-civil rights milieu shaped the institutional spaces for critical Black scholarship, the demands of these spaces ultimately undermined the work.
When Harding and Henderson officially launched the IBW in January 1970, it had no formal affiliation with any college or university. Harding claimed that “for the life and work of the black scholar in search of vocation, the primary context is not to be found in the questionable freedom and relative affluence of the American university, nor in the ponderous uncertainties of ‘the scholarly community.’” That relative affluence, as Craig Steven Wilder has shown, was built on the back of African slave labor. Though we tend to imagine that education is reducible to instruction, to a nurturing relationship between students and teachers, its institutional reality is, as Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell put it, a “context constituted as much by students and instructors as it is by those who cleared furnace ashes and emptied chamber pots, by those whose communities were removed for campuses to take root, and by those whose bodies were used as the raw materials for scientiﬁc experimentation and discursive elaboration alike.”
On and around today’s campuses, and across the global supply chains that serve them, living labor continues to serve dead labor as a means of “accumulation-by-education.” The ugly past allows present universities to continue these constitutive processes and refine their technologies. Universities remain settler colonial institutions, forged in the theft of Indigenous lands and captive labors, that continue to conscript students and their families, teachers and researchers, administrators and service contractors, bankers and speculators, corporate managers and policy wonks in processes of growth and expansion. As la paperson—avator of Wayne Yang, professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego—writes in A Third University is Possible (2017), “universities are land-grabbing, land-transmogrifying, land-capitalizing machines.” They are “gigantic machines that are attached to other machines: war machines, media machines, governmental and nongovernmental policy machines.” All of this was clear to Harding and his comrades in 1970—enough so that the IBW had to be forged in flight. In the half-century since, the conditions of the university have only worsened.
The university, la paperson writes, is a “worldmaking” institution, today an amalgamation of three distinct “worlding formations.” Rooted in the logic of accumulation, “first worlding universities are machinery commissioned to actualize imperialist dreams of a settled world.” Here we identify the “academic-industrial complex,” the large research universities and for-profit academic enterprises that demonstrate an unabashed commitment to “brand expansion and accumulation of patent, publication, and prestige.” There is also a “second” worlding formation, a “desire to humanize” and “liberate” in the mold of Enlightenment liberalism. This formation, often reflected in liberal arts colleges, aspires toward a more democratic and participatory academy. But in challenging students to study the arts and humanities, to ask questions and search for themselves in the development of their critical consciousness, this second formation tends to promote a “libertarian mode of critical thinking” that “displaces the possibility of sustained, radical critique and thereby remains circumscribed ‘within the ivory tower.’”
In its formal register—as critical theory or intellectual deconstruction of systems of power—Black studies finds some daylight in the second university. Though this critical work is essential, critique too frequently remains only discursively or ideologically radical. Its lessons carry a “hidden curriculum” that “reflects the material conditions of higher education—fees, degrees, expertise, and the presumed emancipatory possibilities of the mind.” In other words, critique tends to depend upon and thus “reinscribes academic accumulation.” When we wax nostalgic about the world-expanding possibilities of a liberal arts education, la paperson says, we are
rarely talking about a university that rematriates land, that disciplines scholar-warriors rather than ‘liberating’ its students, that repurposes the industrial machinery, that supports insurrectionary nationalisms as problematic antidotes to imperialist nationalism, that acts upon financial systems rather than just critiquing them, that helps in the accumulation of third world power rather than simply disavowing first world power, that is a school-to-community pipeline, not a community-to-school pipeline.
Harding, for his part, rejected the imperialism of the first university and disavowed the liberal escapism of the second. He sought to reorient Black study and scholarship around the principle of “community-in-struggle.” Here his vision aligns with what la paperson calls the university’s “third worlding” formation. Implicit in this phrasing are connections with the Third World Liberation Front, including the watershed battle over Black studies at San Francisco State College in 1968, and the larger legacy of the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the anti-colonial movements of the Global South. The “third world” locution is not accidental. Here, the work is “interdisciplinary, transnational, yet vocational,” aligning closely with Harding’s vision. This work also goes on in the university’s “underground,” as Harney and Moten would say, in the “downlow lowdown maroon community of the university,” in the “undercommons of enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”
Though critical work inside the university is essential, critique too frequently remains only discursively or ideologically radical.
The IBW practiced a form of “collective scholarship” as a deliberate counter to racial capitalism’s technologies of partition and individuation, which in our neoliberal moment are replicated in the disciplinary wall building and credentialing processes of the professionalized academy. As Harding put it, “in the same way that we break beyond false boundaries of Western colonialism, attempting to recreate our essential Pan-African unity, expressing our solidarity with the larger pro-human struggles, so too our truth demands that we reject the artificial barriers of the academic disciplines to seek the human unity which underlies the experience of our people.” Surely this was intended to safeguard against narrow knowledge production and the commodification of scholarship and credentialed expertise that could be neatly packaged and sold into the technocratic calculus. But such “collective scholarship” also signals a mode of speculative togetherness and movement building that is less derivative of the university, less defined by subversive flight into its netherworlds, less interested in “steal[ing] what one can.” It is an act of building more than it is one of taking.
• • •
We can think of this as Black study in the afterlives of MLK. And the afterlives are multiple. If the King Center projected a moderate, liberal version of the King legacy and found material support from the white ownership class of the world King sought to dismantle, the IBW fought to advance King’s structural critique of racial capitalism. This was a persistent undercurrent throughout his life, but became amplified in his last years—thanks in part to Harding’s comradeship. Harding was a key author of King’s famous 1967 antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” which tied global imperial violence to the logics and practices of capital accumulation and racial formation. King immersed himself in these themes in his last years. He was gripped by the plight of urban youth as he moved though Newark, Chicago, and Watts; brought to tears at the sight of starving Black children in rural Mississippi; motivated by welfare rights activists to, as he put it, “look to them for guidance” and a richer understanding of state violence toward poor Black women. King was a student of the Black world. He was never walled off from the life-and-death struggles for Black survival or from its visions of transcendence. He learned from it, reflected on it, and expressed its movement continuously.
King’s legacy is at home in what some contemporary theorists call Black study. “We are committed,” Moten says:
to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal—being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory—there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.
It is striking how well this formulation of Black study resonates with King’s vision of life and labor in the beloved community, in that rising tumult of aspiring mutuality, necessarily speculative, with one foot planted in the racial capitalist order, and another stepping out beyond its constraints. King relished the thought of ordinary people taking the time to a read a book and engage their neighbors in conversation about its subject matter. And, most crucially and scandalously, he imagined people getting paid to do this. This kind of Black study, what Moten goes on to call a “sort of sociality,” demonstrates its worthlessness as a fuel for the engines of commerce and indicates that new engines must be built that can run on sociality as a more sustainable biofuel.
“Study is talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three.”
King wrestled with the suffocating constraints of the racial capitalist machine. Although a great dreamer, he knew that it is impossible to dream up a revolution of values. As Harding put it, King “was wise enough to know that you can’t get at values just by saying you’re going to get at values. You’ve also got to get at the structures that support the values.” Black study in the afterlives of King requires not only ideological and epistemic work, but also a fully embodied confrontation with the technologies of racial capitalism. The marginal spaces of the modern university are but one case study. One key lesson from this case is that we must look beyond what la paperson calls the “‘representational’ work of knowledge production that we associate with universities” in order to confront also “the steam and pistons, the waterworks, the groundworks, the investments, the institutional-governmental-capitalistic rhizomatics of the university.”
Contemporary notions of a fugitive Black study that is “in but not of” the university reflect both an optimism about the richness of the transgressive work already thriving in the undercommons and a pessimism about institutional change. Robin D. G. Kelley points out in these pages how this scholarly fugitivity relates to IBW comrade Walter Rodney’s notion of the “guerilla intellectual.” But “unlike Rodney’s guerrilla intellectuals,” Kelley says, “Harney and Moten’s guerrillas are not preparing to strike, planning to seize power, contesting the university (or the state; the difference isn’t always clear)—at least not on the terms they have set. To do so would be to recognize the university and its legitimacy and to be invested in its regimes of professionalization.” The concern, as Harney puts it, is that “by making a request to authority one is therefore already implicating oneself.” But if the traditionally recognized university and its regimes of professionalization hurdle toward a legitimacy crisis as neoliberal inequality and Black suffering carry forth, perhaps questions of abolitionism and flight take on a new salience. Beyond practices of sneaking in and stealing what one can, the prospect of simply abandoning these institutional spaces is becoming more viable and more imperative.
For decades the neoliberal imagination has been consumed by the specter of “dark times.” The conditions of our world have become so bleak, so despairing that, to paraphrase Wendy Brown, we are unsure if it is just the times that are dark or the world itself. Part of the value in revisiting the era of King and Harding, of sympathizing with the collective struggles of the Black radical tradition, is that it helps historically situate the scholarly fugitivity of today’s neoliberal pessimism. Akin to the most sobering critics today, King and Harding grasped the power of the possessive hold, the ways that our extant organizations—and the state, the market, and the antiblackness that possess them—are set up to reproduce themselves. King and Harding were, like us, discontented with all of this.
But their era reflected a spirit of collective worldmaking that put the times in their place as moments in history. King was able to cast his era’s “deep rumbling of discontent” as the “thunder of disinherited masses, rising from dungeons of oppression to the bright hills of freedom.” The powerful and exploitative profiteers “deplore our discontent,” he said, because they “resent our will to organize.” It is this worldmaking spirit, born of critique and necessarily collective in nature, that led King’s scholarly heirs to take flight of the undercommons and strike out into the open—to join in bold and disciplined efforts to build, indeed to institute, the Black world.
Let us not forget that King warned about integrating into a burning house. Does Black study in the tradition of King call for reinvestment in established universities and their “institutional-governmental-capitalistic rhizomatics”? Or should we instead look for a fire exit and turn our attention to building spaces like the Highlander Center and the Institute of the Black World? Harding put the question this way: “What institutions must be discarded now in order that they may be more fully prepared to break the circle of white power? What chances and risks must we take in our own time in order to help them towards better positions for their own overcoming movement?” These are the kinds of questions—at once wildly visionary yet life-directing and immediately pragmatic—that present themselves in the afterlives of King’s critique. For, ultimately, King spoke of a “black revolution,” one that “reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” It remains frightful and uncertain work, but such is the struggle to bridge the decline of one world and the eruption of another.
Editor's Note: This essay was adapted with permission from Prophet of Discontent: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Critique of Racial Capitalism by Jared A. Loggins and Andrew J. Douglas (© 2021 by the University of Georgia Press).
September 28, 2021
17 Min read time