“The Field and Function” of the Historically Black College and University Today: Preparing African American Undergraduate Students for Doctoral Study in the Humanities

When W. E. B. Du Bois wrote “The Field and Function of the Negro College” in 1933, the “Negro” college, still in its youth, grappled mightily with its ability to introduce unique curricular approaches to enhance higher education in America and to help the country meet its potential as a democracy. Echoing remarks he had been making about the Negro college since 1906, Du Bois implores it to position itself on the “high ground of unfaltering facing of the Truth” (130) and to provide for the world a lens through which to interpret all history, one that looks to Africa “to interpret and understand the social development of all mankind in all ages” (125). By 1950, Du Bois’s peer, Alain Locke, in response to Harvard’s 1945 report General Education in a Free Society, had begun to argue for a new method of university education that would not only change the scope of liberal arts or general education but also use liberal arts training to change the way of intellectual thinking (268)—in other words, Locke proposed that we change not just what we study but also how we think. In an attempt to exorcise parochial thinking and to correct traditional culture bias, he proposed a methodology he termed critical relativism, which called for an evaluation of world cultural values or ideas about humanity while avoiding the two extremes inherent in such an evaluation—relativism and dogmatism. In its acknowledgment of values as relative to their culture, critical relativism would situate them in the contexts out of which they are birthed and concurrently acknowledge, with reciprocity and tolerance, the diversity of values and cultures that populate the world, all the while subjecting cultural values to objective criticism. A curriculum model grounded in critical relativism would make clear how course content from seemingly disparate disciplines and cultures connects one to another and, significantly, to the formulation and articulation of solutions to problems of the human condition and social culture. Central to the development of such solutions is an awareness of the limits of the narrow confines of the nation-state as governing or underlying concept and a corresponding commitment to require the liberally educated to imagine themselves as citizens of a world of many coequal cultures.

While Locke, as a multiculturalist and interdisciplinarian avant la lettre, envisioned the implementation of his proposed curricula for all colleges and universities, not just historically black ones, the Harvard-trained philosopher and Howard University professor was fully aware of the history of black intellectual traditions, which by necessity developed at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). HBCUs would lead the way to critical reforms of American higher education. Absent such transformation of liberal arts ideals, “an external dislocation in the relationship of knowledge to the problems of social culture” and “a breakdown of the culture itself,” Locke predicted, could and should be anticipated (265). After revisiting the 2010 MLA report Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity with an eye toward answering its call for more contextualized and textured narratives to accompany the data as text, I found myself turning, again, to Du Bois and Locke as the intermediaries through whom I might best explain the report’s acknowledgment of “the continuing prominence of HBCUs [as the undergraduate institutions] among African American doctorate recipients” (1).

A pulling back of the layers of Locke’s proposal for a core curriculum for liberal arts or general education training reveals that undergirding that proposal is a keen awareness of the significance of the humanities—which concerns itself foremost with the exploration, analysis, and exchange of ideas that inform the human experience and human condition—to the well-trained student. In the broadest interpretation of the idea of the humanities, it is impossible to completely dissociate traditional humanities disciplines from fields more interested in empirical articulations of data, despite the accepted demarcation between science and the humanities. As Cathy Davidson suggests, “The humanistic turn of mind provides the historical perspective, interpretive skill, critical analysis, and narrative form required to articulate the significance of the scientific discoveries of an era, show how they change our sense of what it means to be human, and demarcate their continuity with or difference from existing ideologies” (707). Our failure in recent years as scholars and critics to provide, with adequate integrity and saturation, the variables Davidson cites here and, conversely, the failure of the American public to understand and demand that this need be met have, in unfortunate ways, rendered Locke’s prediction of a breakdown in social culture a near foregone conclusion. More than fifty years after his caution and perhaps in an effort that seeks, at least in part, to mitigate the breakdown, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, offers a remarkably similar admonition and posits that an aesthetic education is of utmost importance in what the American education system has finally come to accept as a global era. The MLA report, Du Bois’s admonishment that the HBCU accept its role in the innovation of moral consciousness, and Locke’s curriculum proposal, especially when considered in the light of Spivak’s argument, implore us to consider again the HBCU in rethinking the humanities fields and in meeting the demands of that rethinking. At least two related questions come to mind: In what ways does the HBCU, with its commitment to fostering and extending black intellectual traditions especially, advance humanities ideas and ideals? What role does this commitment play in preparing African American undergraduates to become doctorate recipients?

The HBCU, since its inception, has been engaged simultaneously in acts of inclusion and subversion. As M. Christopher Brown and James Earl Davis indicate, “Understanding the fundamental characteristics that shape historically Black colleges serves as a framework of analysis for meaningful equity and access” and inclusion; yet, in its commitment to help the disempowered interpret and engage the “competing roles of knowledge construction, information transmission, and status allocation” (32), the HBCU participates steadily in the undermining of accepted thought as truth, especially in relation to peoples of color, and prompts us to interpret more broadly what we know and how we come to know it. Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity reveals that African American students who earn doctoral degrees in humanities fields (identified as English, literature, modern languages, religion, history, philosophy) are being trained at the undergraduate level overwhelmingly at HBCUs—Spelman College, Howard University, and Morehouse College being the top three. Research suggests that there is a definite correlation between higher educational aspiration and African Americans who attend HBCUs.1 Factors relevant to the correlation may include student-student interaction, which increases leadership aspirations and thus a desire for additional education, and student-faculty interaction, which Kevin Cokely suggests is the best predictor of academic self-concept among HBCU students (while GPA, Cokely asserts, is the best predictor of academic self-concept for students at traditionally white institutions). Undeniably, student-faculty interaction provides encouragement to pursue further study. It was what led me to become a professor.

Research still says little about how curriculum informs self-concept and about the relation of self-concept to educational aspiration in humanities fields and success at the doctoral level in them. Research is clear, however, that emphasizing teaching and valuing it as equal to scholarship, even valuing teaching-based scholarship, have a long-standing history at HBCUs. As Du Bois announced at the turn of the century, curricular innovation must be the hallmark if not a mandate of the HBCU, considering that dominant narratives tend to be less than forthright and inclusive in their dealings with peoples of color. At Howard and at Morgan State, for example, introductory humanities courses have been reimagined both to make evident an Africanist presence in traditional humanities texts and themes and to recognize the ways African beliefs, themes, and cultures anticipate time-honored mythologies, thus highlighting that the relation between African cultures and traditional Western ones is reciprocal at the very least. Such reimagining helps undergraduates, as early as their freshman year, understand how humanities texts teach us about ourselves and our relation to others, about values and beliefs, about creativity and democracy.

The most astute humanists consistently recognize the relation of humanistic inquiry and analysis to ideas of self and other, to ideas about what constitutes right and good, and to ideas about culture and meaning. The requirement of curricular change at the HBCU from its inception and the unrelenting tendency toward curricular innovation ever since encourage humanities departments, especially at HBCUs, to position themselves as vanguards and to prepare their students for the rigor of the multilayered exploration of texts as cultural productions. At Spelman College, the all-women’s liberal arts college that ranks highest among HBCUs as the undergraduate institution of students who go on to earn doctoral degrees in humanities fields, English majors are expected to demonstrate critical thinking about ideas and texts and understand the role of literature in the development of culture. But they must also show that they can “recognize and engage the conflicts and tensions in values and belief systems” embodied in literatures from different cultures and “examine and analyze the representations of women, especially Black women, depicted in literature and visual culture” (“English Goals”). To help meet these objectives, students are required to take the standard Introduction to Literary Studies and Introduction to Critical Theory Studies courses along with others. They are also required to take two courses in category 1, “African American and US Literature” (esp. Seminal Writers in the African American Tradition), two from category 2, “British Literature,” and two from category 3, “Gender Studies, Critical Theory, and International Literature.” This curriculum is buttressed by a required two-semester course in the African Diaspora and the World Program, which places particular emphasis “on the intersections and connections among the various communities of African descent globally” and seeks to have students “examine, interrogate and deconstruct dominant knowledge systems about Africa and its diasporas” and “identify how Africa and African diasporan communities have shaped the modern world” (“ADW”).

Students majoring in English at Howard are similarly required to take at least one course in the African American cluster (a requirement for all undergraduate students, as is the two-semester course in the African Diaspora and the World Program at Spelman) in addition to African American Literary Foundations, a course that examines representative African American literary discourses (including folk traditions) from the colonial period to the present. More than twenty courses in humanities fields with an emphasis on African American and African diaspora cultures are offered each academic year, and students take six such courses on average. In addition, many courses in African literature, Caribbean literature, and African diaspora literatures are offered regularly as electives. The department’s mission is to train its students in ways that are informed by African American and African diaspora critical strategies and intellectual discourses.

At Morehouse, in addition to traditional courses on authors like Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, students can take a two-semester sequence in African American literature and single-semester courses on the Harlem Renaissance, the contemporary African American novel, the Caribbean novel, and major authors in African American literature. Like the English departments at Spelman and Howard, the Department of English at Morehouse encourages students to use their special position at an HBCU to understand ideas and concepts and their histories through texts and movements that adopt a liberal worldview informed by African diaspora traditions. Most English departments would argue that they too embrace the aim of fostering in their majors “an abiding appreciation of world literatures and cultures” and of providing them with the intercultural skills “necessary to succeed in advanced studies in the humanities” (“Department”), but there persists among these HBCUs a distinctive commitment to a culturally responsive pedagogy that aggressively expands the Western world’s values, literatures, and cultures to include those from classical and modern African and African diaspora civilizations. The logical (even if only anecdotal) by-product of this commitment is the development of a self-identity rooted in black intellectual traditions that are at once expansive and inclusive and confined and unique. In the best of circumstances, students are exposed to a range of global traditions and texts that transmit both culturally specific and universally applicable humanistic heritages. The goal of the core courses in the Humanities Division curriculum at Howard, for example, is to help students feel at home with all peoples of the world. Plato’s and Socrates’s inquiries about morality and the greatest good are contextualized among wisdom literature of classical African civilizations. Mephistopheles’s role in Goethe’s Faust is read through the lens of the African trickster, and Faust’s lament that two souls live within him is considered alongside Du Boisian double consciousness. A broad base of knowledge about the world and its cultures and the awareness of being heirs to this intellectual and cultural genealogy create in students a self-definition informed by their traditions and heritages and a confidence that abides with them under circumstances good and bad. They understand fully, through theory and practice, the significance of graduate study’s contribution to knowledge production—its project of making critical interventions in traditional and nontraditional spaces alike. They survive graduate school and go at a pace comparable to that of their white peers: “only African American and white doctorate recipients show completion rates over 50% at year 10” (Data 1–2). Although African Americans received less than 5% of total doctorates earned in English between 1997 and 2006 (table 3b), in 2003–04 they found tenure-track placements in English departments at the high rate of 73.9% (table 4) and earned competitive salaries (table 8). Finally, more than 80% reported that they were either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” in their roles as humanities faculty members (table 12).

As the 2007 report “Affirmative Activism” (published in Profession [ADE Ad Hoc Committee]) and 2010 report Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity make clear, there is much work to be done to increase the pitifully low number of African American faculty members in English. The cluster of essays “African Americans and the Doctorate in English” in the fall 2006 ADE Bulletin offers meaningful suggestions that speak candidly of possible solutions. Like my colleagues, I recognize that the HBCU is a vital source for feeding the pipeline of African American faculty members in humanities fields, English in particular. We would agree, however, that the HBCU is no panacea for a problem deeply rooted in historically practiced institutional and cultural discriminatory customs within the profession and without. So when Doug Steward astutely notes that there are stories the data do not index about the “pathways by which black Americans enter and succeed in, or walk away from, advanced study in English” (33), we should consider that among those stories are those that remind us that content matters, that what we know and how we come to know it are as meaningful as what we do with what we know and who we are.

Conversations about curriculum in which broad-reaching, full engagement with African diaspora traditions is posited as a saving grace (as Locke posits it) and in which acknowledgment is made of these traditions (as Du Bois makes it) as critical to enhancing the ways we think of ourselves in relation to the world might be seen by some as divisive. But as Wole Soyinka argues in Of Africa, the query, What is Africa? is best answered in the negative: “it is not a hegemonic construct, nor one that aspires to be” (24). So the approach by HBCUs to African diaspora studies tends to avoid fictionalized representations of the continent and to deconstruct the histories that emerge to perpetuate them. Their approach avoids imposing oppression or suppression on its methodology. Instead, HBCUs seek to expand the “existing boundaries of apprehension, one that transcends the mere cataloguing of external phenomena and attempts to delve into the nature of others, emerging (hopefully) with enhanced knowledge of one’s self and place in an enlarged and more complex universe” (Soyinka 35). Using texts to explore solutions to problems of the human condition and expand our view of the world and our relation to it is what these top HBCUs and other peer institutions have in common with the humanities. In fact, it’s their shared “field and function.”


  1. See especially Wenglinsky for commentary on the influence of HBCUs on educational aspiration.

Works Cited

ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of African American Faculty Members. “Affirmative Activism.” Profession (2007): 150–55. Print.

“ADW Creates Global Citizens (Continued).” Academics: Majors and Programs. Spelman College. Spelman Coll., n.d. Web. 24 July 2013. <>.

Brown, M. Christopher, and James Earl Davis. “The Historically Black College as Social Contract, Social Capital, and Social Equalizer.” Peabody Journal of Education 76.1 (2001): 31–49. Print.

Cokely, Kevin. “The Impact of College Racial Composition on African American Students’ Academic Self-Concept: A Replication and Extension.” Journal of Negro Education 71.4 (2002): 288–96. Print.

Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity. Modern Language Association. MLA, Apr. 2010. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. <>.

Davidson, Cathy N. “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions.” PMLA 123.3 (2008): 707–17. Print.

“Department of English.” Morehouse College. Morehouse Coll., n.d. Web. 24 July 2013. <>.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Field and Function of the Negro College.” The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906–1960. Rev. ed. Ed. Herbert Aptheker. New York: Monthly Rev., 2001. 111–33. Print.

“English Goals and Objectives.” Academics: Majors and Programs. Spelman College. Spelman Coll., n.d. Web. 24 July 2013. <>.

Locke, Alain L. The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Ed. Leonard Harris. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989. Print.

Soyinka, Wole. Of Africa. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

Steward, Doug. “The Status of African American Faculty Members in English.” ADE Bulletin 140 (2006): 32–34. Web. 23 July 2013.

Wenglinsky, Harold H. “The Educational Justification of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Policy Response to the U.S. Supreme Court.” Educational and Evaluation and Policy Analysis 18.1 (1996): 91–103. Print.

Dana A. Williams is professor of English and chair of the Department of English at Howard University. This essay appears as part of a cluster from the Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada.

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