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Summit of Black Studies Doctoral Programs to Take Place

Conference highlights scholarship in African American studies departments

EVANSTON, Ill. --- For the first time ever, faculty and students from each of the nation’s 11 universities that award doctorates in the field of African American studies will come together for a conference in April at Northwestern University. 

“We’re celebrating the imminent graduation of our first cohort of Ph.D. students in African American studies and providing them and other scholars with the opportunity to present their work,” said Northwestern Professor Celeste Watkins-Hayes. She is chair of the department of African American studies, which, born of protest in 1972, marks its 40th anniversary this year.

The three-day conference -- a veritable summit of black studies doctoral programs -- is designed to bring visibility to the discipline of African American studies and showcase its scholarship and future stars.

The conference will feature some of the field’s most prominent researchers and its “next generation” of scholars. Yale University African American studies chair Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who wrote and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s inauguration, will give a keynote address. 

An established field of study today, black studies came under attack during the culture wars of the 1990s. In earlier years, the discipline was subject to criticism by detractors who said it was more about activism and self-esteem than scholarship. 

“African American studies operated at the margins of the academy for years,” said Northwestern Graduate School Dean Dwight McBride. “In time, however, the margins forced the center to change, and the very ways in which knowledge is produced were altered. Much of cutting-edge scholarship today could hardly have been imagined before the advent of African American, ethnic and gender studies.” McBride played a key role in establishing Northwestern’s Ph.D. program.

As Americans prepare to celebrate Black History Month, Northwestern conference organizers are finalizing plans for the gathering designed to raise the visibility of African American studies. Titled “A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes,” it will take place at Northwestern from April 12 through April 14.   

Participants will include Northwestern Professor Darlene Clark Hine, whose name is synonymous with the study of African American women’s history; Harvard University historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham who, with Henry Louis Gates Jr., co-edited “The African American National Biography;” historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Nathaniel Norment Jr., chair of African American studies at Temple University, home to black studies’ first doctoral program. 

In 2006, Northwestern became the seventh university in the nation to offer a doctoral program in African American studies. Since then, four additional doctoral programs in the field have been established. 

The 11 Ph.D. programs are at Brown, Harvard, Indiana, Michigan State, Northwestern, Temple and Yale universities and at University of California, Berkeley, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

For more on the upcoming conference, visit

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