In Dialogue with Dr. Rasul Mowatt and Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin on the History and Import of Black Studies


A young Black man and woman in profile against a yellow background representing ongoing conversation around Black studies.

Toward Inclusive Excellence is excited to share with our audience a new podcast feature entitled “In Dialogue,” structured as a discussion between prominent scholars on timely topics. TIE‘s first “In Dialogue” session features Dr. Rasul Mowatt, head of the department of parks, recreation, and tourism management at North Carolina State University, and Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin, Trinity College’s Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies, for a conversation about the recent attacks on AP African American studies and College Board’s subsequent decision to strip down the proposed curriculum.

Watch the full discussion below:

As Dr. Baldwin and Dr. Mowatt note in their discussion, the ongoing controversy over AP African American studies in Florida is not just about controlling one specific class or curriculum, but is rather about having control over education and determining how this country will educate future generations. What is truly at stake, in short, is the future of American democracy.

This troubling trend fits within the ongoing attacks on the freedom to read, which Deborah Caldwell Stone elaborated upon in her 2022 interview with TIE, and is particularly pressing as we close out Black History Month 2023. It sets up our discussants to deliberate more deeply on the history of Black studies as a discipline, its radical origins and aims, and the role of librarians and faculty in furthering this academic and political project today. To conclude, our guests advise listeners on how to advocate for the most vulnerable communities on campuses and underscore the power of community organizing.

Both Davarian and Rasul have been previously featured as guests on separate episodes of TIE‘s podcast, covering universities exacerbating inequities in urban living and applying social justice principles to leisure studies, respectively. We are fortunate to have them return for this informative dialogue. There is much to learn and appreciate here.

Here are some some key points from the video:

On contextualizing our present circumstances:

“It [the present controversy] gives us an opportunity to reflect on what Black studies was as a founding field and discipline, like what [were] the circumstances it was born out of. In many cases it’s probably lost on people, [but] it’s born out of the struggles specifically around Black liberation and Black struggle in the sixties. It was meant to be an alternative and critique to the sort of status quo of what is understood to be history and culture specifically in the United States. And while we are definitely far away from 1968, not too far … but I do think that we lost that political history. When we know that political history, it’s not surprising for this particular action to take place because Black studies in its origin was radical.

  • Dr. Rasul Mowatt 

“I don’t think it’s a mistake that this campaign against African American studies or Black studies in high schools in the curriculum is happening on the eve of Black History Month … This is all happening with DeSantis [against] the backdrop of Tyre Nichols, [against] the backdrop … of Flint, Michigan, [against] the backdrop of immigration campaigns that … [against] the backdrop of massive evictions … that are adversely affecting Black and brown people. So this idea that the overrepresentation of Black people in popular culture means we don’t need Black studies is a misnomer and our oppositional partners, they know this. This is the reason why they’re attacking Black studies, because they see the power in it … Knowledge and the lens of a Black studies experience catalyzed social movement actors in queer studies, in Chicano studies, in Indigenous studies, in women’s studies. Understanding the intimate relationship between this country and the Black experience has provoked people to look at their own conditions in new ways. So there’s a reason why [they] want to shut down Black studies, because it allows people to see the world from a different lens.

  • Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin

On the role of libraries and archives:

“I have always found librarians and archivists to be some of the most radical and progressive people because they keep the records, they have the receipts … Those who are currently in power, they rest on the ability to make their opinion or view of the world seem natural and inevitable. But the power of the archive is to show that there has always been another way. To show that you can imagine differently based on what’s been imagined in the past and push that forward. And I think there’s something about being in that space and seeing alternative visions of the world in our past, things that we couldn’t maybe not even be able to imagine in the present that has generated and inspired a progressive lens amongst librarians and archivists.” 

  • Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin

“To keep it within Chicago, you know, museums we need to think about as public facing archives, and while, yes, there are ways in which we can get official sort of standing and official funding to create infrastructure, like the DuSable Museum, we have to remember that Margaret Burroughs, the DuSable Museum was just her living room. And so, when we think about what she created in her living room, we can recognize that we don’t need to be bogged down by thinking that what we’re up against is insurmountable, you know, because … [the DuSable Museum] was in her living room so that neighborhood children could walk in and learn about history and culture and the ways in which people who were like them were able to do things beyond what their own imagination was limiting themselves to think.”

  • Dr. Rasul Mowatt

On what steps can be taken to diversify the academy:

“There’s a reason why then we don’t see a lot of Black professors and a lot of [Black] librarians on campus, and specifically Black-based libraries on campus because that would then institutionalize that type content [Black studies content], you know, because of course a library on a university level is capable of holding a lot more material than maybe a community-based library. Having been a person who worked for city government and was running a community center, I remember distinctly the sort of content that was in the library in the neighborhood and it was not relevant books or newspapers across the world … I think the other part is … we should not be afraid of saying or seeing that creating alternative ways in which that type of knowledge can be accessed, taught, and learned is not an impossibility [nor] something to shy away from.”

  • Dr. Rasul Mowatt

“The misnomer is that these institutions are not diverse. These schools are extremely diverse, but where? They’re diverse in the professoriate [when] we talk about [how] 70 percent of professors are non-tenure track contingent labor; those areas are majority people of color and women. The university is diverse in terms of the food service staff, in terms of the groundskeepers, in terms of security staff, that’s where your institutions are diverse. We do a lot of work in these schools, but in the very spaces where we do work is exactly where power has been extracted, and so the only solution is organizing … We have to organize collectively to regain control over the resources and power within those institutions and not turn away from them. Grab hold of the classrooms, grab hold of the cafeterias, and grab hold of the rec centers … and make sure they serve our communities.”

  • Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin

Listen to Davarian’s episode on how universities exacerbate inequities in urban living.

Listen to Rasul’s episode on applying social justice principles to leisure studies.

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Interested in contributing to TIE? Send an email to Deb V. at Choice with your topic idea.

Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.