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Black power: Chicago colleges buck the trend of declining interest in African American studies programs.

Ten years ago, the office of the DePaulia, a student-run campus weekly at DePaul University, was the scene of a protest reminiscent of the civil rights movement. Upset over what they considered insensitive coverage of minority issues, a group of mostly African American students staged a sit-in, grabbing national headlines.

In the end, the protest resulted in some changes at the school, including voluntary sensitivity training for DePaulia staffers. It also sowed the seeds for the establishment in 2002 of a new academic program: African American and Black Diaspora Studies.

Its program director, Darrell Moore, says it has since grown slowly but steadily. In the spring, the school produced its first three graduates with majors in black studies, and it now has 10 more declared majors.

Students and professors at other Chicago-area schools are similarly enjoying a sound environment for black studies. The schools report constant, if not growing, levels of student interest. Scholars from different schools have been pooling resources to further study in the discipline. And two universities are starting new race-related courses of study.

"There's something different happening in Chicago around black studies," said Beth E. Richie, who heads the African American Studies department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It isn't happening in New York. It isn't happening on the West Coast."

Indeed, these programs seem to be bucking a growing national trend of sized-down black-studies departments and declining student interest.

The University of Minnesota, for example, has recently cut back its black-studies department to focus mainly on the undergraduate level. "We weren't getting the students in our classrooms; we weren't getting the majors that we needed," said Earl Scott, its interim chair.

And the U.S. Department of Education reported that the number of graduates who majored in African American studies constituted less than 0.05 percent of all graduates in the 2003-2004 academic year-the latest year for which the data were available.

For Shelby Steele, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, the low figure reflects the fact that black-studies programs were created out of mainly political reasons, and that they have accomplished little. "Students are confirming the bogus nature of black studies by not going into these departments," he said. "They are not stupid. They know there's no future in black studies."

But the consensus seems to be that the Chicago-area schools have reasons to be optimistic.

Waldo E. Johnson Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, says the city's racial dynamics play a role in attracting students to the discipline. "Living in Chicago-which is still a very segregated city--can very likely encourage students to pursue the study of race relations or the African American experience through their majors and minors and classes," he said.

And Ayana Karanja, director of Loyola University Chicago's Black World Studies program, says there are still pressing social and political exigencies that black-studies programs are equipped to handle. The lack of educational opportunities, for example, is still a significant concern for African Americans-even 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, she said.

Karanja added that the hardship that many African Americans endure is more "in your face" in Chicago, and that, in turn, encourages students to pursue the study. "These harsh realities create questions in the mind such as, 'Why are the overwhelming numbers of 'street people' black?'" she said.

Ellen Schneider, a freshman at DePaul University, wants to be a lawyer-or maybe go into politics. But, right now, Schneider is nalyzing Steven Spielberg's 1997 movie "Amistad." Schneider's professor, Julie Moody-Freeman, is screening the film to 30 students in her "Introduction to African and Black Diaspora" class.

Schneider, who plans to be a black-studies major, said it was hard to watch. "It raises a lot of interesting issues about what slaves really endured," she said.

Originally from Michigan, Schneider decided to attend college in Chicago because of the variety of opportunities to study race relations. "It's very easy to ignore race, but, being in [Chicago], you have more of an opportunity to witness race relations," she said.

Student interest-calculated by the number of declared majors or minors, in large part-is on the rise at Chicago-area schools.

Three years ago, Northwestern University hired Dwight A. McBride to "completely rebuild" its African American studies department and its curriculum. The school also increased the number of the department's core faculty members from three to 11. The changes have resulted in a jump in the department's declared majors and minors-from a total of 15 in 2002 to 36 last year.

McBride, the chairman, added that those numbers don't tell the full story. "Our courses have been very well-enrolled, and not just by the majors or the minors," he said.

Al Bennett, director of Roosevelt University's St. Clair Drake Center for African American Studies, said, because of the added interest, the department has offered additional courses to reflect current areas of interest, such as "HIP HOP: POP Culture and Political Expression."

For some black-studies scholars, enrollment numbers are a secondary concern. Abdul Alkalimat, director of Africana Studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio, says the critical question about the current condition of African American studies is not a department's structure but its ability to affect social change. "We were fighting to create a program that would impact what was a tremendous need-a cancer-in every urban area," Alkalimat said. "Why do we still have black studies if we still have black communities that are full of crack, people with criminal backgrounds, people suffering from racism?"

The solution may lie in the programs like those offered at Roosevelt, where some courses are designed to encourage the research within the community. They are partnering with the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Housing Authority to create educational and employment opportunities for the residents near U.S. Cellular Field.

And scholars from Chicago-area universities have created the Chicago Council on Black Studies in the hopes of working together and furthering research in the discipline. The council often helps organize symposia and conferences, and offers its members and students a means to network, said Karanja, its co-chair.

And, to expand research in the field, Northwestern will soon start the nation's seventh doctoral program for black studies. Richard Iton, a professor of African American studies, said the response has been "outstanding."

The University of Chicago, which doesn't have a major or minor program in black studies, is also developing a comparative race-studies curriculum.

"People always seem to be talking about the demise of African American studies .... But it's only been some 30-odd years," McBride said. "When you take the long view, the research and the field of African American studies has really just begun."

Ellen Schneider plans to major in African American and Black Diaspora Studies at DePaul University. Photo by Mary Hanlon.
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Title Annotation:Keeping Current
Author:Woodward, Whitney
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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