When Raymond Williams embarked on his famous Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, it was to document a major transformation in collective values and interests in the post–World War II world. This was a world in flux, in which the meanings of culture were undergoing a swift change and in which, perhaps more importantly, terms that had circulated almost exclusively in the specialized domains of academic fields were circulating beyond university discourses. Keywords, then, was an attempt “to understand several urgent contemporary problems—problems quite literally of understanding [the] contemporary world” (Raymond Williams 1983, 13). What it offered was “not the specialized vocabulary of a specialized discipline… but a general vocabulary,” a collection of words in everyday circulation, words that were used “to discuss many of the central processes of our common life” (14). In the tradition of Williams’s paradigmatic text and the several academic Keywords texts that have been issued in recent years by NYU Press, Keywords for African American Studies explores the terms, categories, and concepts that delineate the contours of Black studies as an intellectual imaginary and as an experimental project within the U.S. academy. Rather than a definitive or exemplary text defining the boundaries of this scholarly field, this book is evidence of a generative process that we hope will further an ongoing conversation about the potentials and limits of our African American studies vocabulary.
This volume collates the words that have hovered under the surface of our conversations in and about African American studies as well as the terms that have circulated in our classrooms, conference panels, and publications. Cataloguing keywords as an intellectual practice has served as a way of expanding and undoing assumptions about knowledge and power as those categories operate on our everyday lives. And while the keyword as a form of knowledge has become so popular in academic work that it has nearly exhausted its novelty (the American Studies Association hosted a session titled “Kill That Keyword” at its 2014 annual convention, for example), it remains a genre of knowledge production that, in its portability and density, both moves with interdisciplinary fields of knowledge and serves as a record of that movement: How do words move? Whom do words move? As Meta DuEwa Jones illuminates in her entry on “Poetics” in this volume, if the keyword is traditionally known as a “key to a cipher or code,” Black studies turns the keyword into an active process that not only uses words to clarify but also uses words to encode messages of liberation. “Cipher,” she writes, “is a verb: actively subversive coding.”
The keyword is a form, a genre, of knowledge production that accomplishes at least three relevant tasks. First, it serves as a mode of interrogation, prompting us to take stock of the language we use and the ways it has changed over the decades of this field’s formalization. Second, it makes the work of professional researchers and teachers accessible to laypersons: students, activists, intellectuals, and other individuals and collectivities both within and outside the circle of universities and scholarly publishing. Third, it is a record of change over time; over the more than forty years since the field of African American studies’ institutionalization in formal academic units and degree-granting programs, the words here—think, for example, of the word “race” or the word “post-race”—reflect both the nuanced shifts in analysis that result from a long-term evolution of an interdisciplinary scholarly discourse and the speedy erection of a new vocabulary occasioned when our scholarship adapts to dramatic turns in public discourse. This book is an attempt at cataloguing and interrogating that movement of words through time and space.
This book is an active inquiry into the vocabulary that circulates to describe, and at times circumscribe, Black culture and society in the contemporary world, particularly in the United States. Although African American studies—what Russell Adams refers to as “the intellectual and empathetic treatment of a totality of phenomena” involving Black people (1977, 99)—began to be officially institutionalized in American universities in 1968, its expression in its “off-campus” instantiations dates back at least to the days of the early U.S. republic. It has since then been a project of survival aimed at documenting the vitalities of Black collectivities and cultures, what June Jordan called “Life Studies”; at the same time, it has served as what Christina Sharpe has more recently referred to as wake work: the labor we undertake to “tend to, care for, comfort, and defend the dead, the dying, and those living lives consigned, in the aftermath of legal chattel slavery, to death that is always imminent and immanent” (J. Jordan 1981, 55; Sharpe 2014, 59–60).
Keywords for African American Studies exposes the problem of Black life as a problem for vocabulary. When Du Bois begins his landmark The Souls of Black Folk, he exposes keywording as a problem for a problem people, a problem for living and a problem for study:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. (1903, 2)
If to be Black in America is to provoke the ever-unasked question, it is also to live in the silence of the ever-unanswered question. Du Bois writes, “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word” (2). The process of keywording, because of the violence of America—violence our work is implicated in—is both necessary and fraught with its own limits. Keywords for African American Studies is, then, both necessary and riddled with the problems of unspeakability. Du Bois turns to these specific problems—the problems that Black living in an age of American imperial expansion presents for Black study—in “Science and Empire,” an essay in the 1940 volume Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward the Autobiography of a Race Concept. There Du Bois writes first of his sixteen years as an ambitious sociology professor. Du Bois’s interest in “race contact” clarified his vision of “the whirl of events which swept the world on”: Japan’s rise through the Chinese and Russian wars, the colonization of Africa by European powers, the U.S.’s annexation of Hawai‘i and Puerto Rico, and the construction of the Panama Canal ( 2014, 27). To interpret this swirl of imperialism, Du Bois retreated to “the ivory tower of race” until he was able, following Booker T. Washington’s 1895 speech at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition, to synthesize his analyses of race and political economy (28). Importantly, the course of intellectual development was interrupted by the omnipresence, the “red ray,” as he describes it, of Black death on display, on the market:
At the very time when my studies were most successful, there cut across this plan which I had as a scientist, a red ray which could not be ignored. I remember when it first, as it were, startled me to my feet; a poor Negro in central Georgia, Sam Hose, had killed his landlord’s wife. I wrote out a careful and reasoned statement concerning the evident facts and started down to the Atlanta Constitution office, carrying in my pocket a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris. I did not get there. On the way news met me; Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said that his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store farther down on Mitchell Street, along which I was walking. I turned back to the University. I began to turn aside from my work. (34)
Nahum Chandler describes the lynching of Sam Hose as “the mark for the bearing of a whole era in the life course, not only of a scholar, researcher, thinker, and writer, but of a self-reflexively identified people” (2014, 18n.2). Indeed, we might hear the echo of Du Bois’s lament in James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, in which he writes, “This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair” (2007, 196), or in Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, which opens with a meditation on the relationship between Black death and intellectual labor: “I wasn’t there when my sister died. I was in Chicago at the Cultural Studies Association meeting and I was finishing the paper that was my first attempt at the work that became this book” (2016, 1). The press of Black premature death on work—on words—is visible across our vocabulary. Even this volume, an attempt to provide a “snapshot” of that living vocabulary, was delayed by the deaths of friends, family members, and colleagues.
On the other hand, African American studies has flourished in its capacity to generate new terms of existence in the face of conditions of death. Book publications have been vital tools for archiving these terms. Monographs such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, Molefi Asante’s Afrocentricity, Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power, Addison Gayle’s Th_e Black Aesthetic_, and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark have supplied the very words for outlining and debating the political and intellectual priorities of Black studies (Fanon 1963; C. Robinson  2000; Asante 1988; Ture and Hamilton 2011; Gayle 1971; Morrison 1992). Perhaps to an even greater extent, anthologies and edited critical collections such as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman, Gloria Hull, Barbara Smith, and Patricia BellScott’s All the Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, Mary Helen Washington’s Black-Eyed Susans, Barbara Smith’s Home Girls, Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s Words of Fire, and E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson’s Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology have attested to how collaborations among scholars and with activists constantly change the vocabulary of Black life, Black struggle, and Black scholarship (Bambara 1970; Hull, Bell-Scott, and Smith 1982; Mary Washington 1975; B. Smith 1983; Guy-Sheftall 1995; Johnson and Henderson 2005).
Why Keywords for African American Studies Now?
Consider the context against and within which African American studies as both a formal field of study with degree-granting programs and a set of knowledge practices that bear no allegiance to the project of universitas unfolds both on and off campus today: the flowering of both local and national social and political movements addressing the evisceration of Black lives by carceral and surveilling apparatuses, the resurgence of overt white supremacy, the decrease in resources devoted to Black studies on many campuses and the opposite (the dramatic increase in resources devoted to programming and hiring in Black studies) on others, the meteoric rise in both the velocity at which knowledge in the field is produced and the sheer number of sites for that knowledge production on the Internet and in public space. These conditions of possibility—or rather, conditions of necessity—for African American studies are the same conditions that mark this moment as an opportune moment for a “snapshot” of our vocabulary. When we began collecting entries for this volume in 2015, people were in the streets throughout the United States attempting a large-scale change in the vocabulary of racial being and violence. What are #BlackLivesMatter or #SayHerName if not eruptions of voice in defiance of the mundane drone of the daily rundown of the black body count? In an era when we, as practitioners of a multisited, heterogeneous field, are being challenged by students and off-campus communities to respond in more intelligent and practical ways to the twenty-first-century challenges of mass incarceration and resurgent white supremacy, the precision with which we interrogate our lingua franca may be a small measure of knowledge production’s capacity to both clarify and reflect the world as we know it—as through a mirror, darkly—and turn it upside down.
To say there is nothing exceptional about the disaster unleashed on Black living in the twenty-first century is not to say there is nothing new about its expression or, perhaps more importantly, the vocabulary by which we locate, understand, and expose that assault or the ongoing survival of that assault. As we trade in the knowledge that emerges to expose the ongoing disaster of Black subjection in the New World, in and beyond America, the vocabulary we use to package and present that knowledge is continually changing in its attempts to keep up with and, in its most optimistic moments, defy the ongoing war against Black people.
The process of developing a Keywords project requires the assemblage of an interdisciplinary group of scholars with expertise in specific subjects related to African American studies. As editors, we began by identifying terms that function as important, if not essential, in dialogues, discourses, and debates in the field. These words operate as critical nodal expressions of relative ideas and concepts in a specific field of scholarship. While not necessarily unique to African American studies, the keywords in this volume hold specific relevance to the field. Moreover, the elasticity of these terms—their capacity to stretch beyond the field—is not the focus of the entries in this volume. Any elasticity in meaning is explored in the context of African American studies. “Diaspora,” for example, has a very different meaning and engagement in this volume than in a general dictionary or encyclopedia, or in other Keywords texts.
Some of the terms that follow are keywords in African American studies—words that have not only circulated in but even structured knowledge in the field: “race,” “intersectionality,” “blackness.” On the other hand, many of these are keywords for African American studies, words that have just begun entering our conversations and that are here, in our hands, asking for more airtime. Take “rock,” for example. As Daphne A. Brooks uncovers rock as a musical form carved out of Black blues discontent and Black feminist fire, she offers up the word for critique and for claim: “Rock remains in a hard place as long as historians and critics alienate the form from its racially, regional, gendered, and queer roots,” she writes. “No popular music genre’s name encapsulates its own social and cultural complexities so accurately and so succinctly,” she writes. If “rock” is the hard place of thinking race, gender, and sexuality as constitutive of musical sound, Brooks’s work here suggests a new vocabulary for—rather than describes an existing vocabulary of—contemporary Black studies.
The authors included in this volume were tasked with creating entries that accomplish three fundamental things. First, each entry defines a term that circulates in the field and details how the keyword engages lines of thought, research, activist projects, or other critical projects in and beyond the university. Each author explicates the utility of the term, how it circulates, and its current meaning. Second, each entry details how the term has evolved over time. The entries reveal how dynamic certain words, concepts, and points of knowledge are in the wider field. Keywords, like language itself, do not operate in a vacuum but are inextricably tied to a dense fabric of social meanings that change over time. Words such as “religion” or “riot” can mean different things in different places, times, and contexts. In the context of academic inquiry, these words enable and engage very specific phenomena. A term’s full meaning can be properly understood by its proximity and use with other words. Keywords are dependent on concepts, frameworks, and critical genealogies that all function as essential modifiers to those words. It is, therefore, a special task to choose a single word, rather than a broader term, and define it.
Finally, we place each keyword within a specific intellectual genealogy and epistemological context as a node of inquiry. Keywords operate in relation to “particular formations of meaning” (Raymond Williams 1983, 15). They may shift and slowly (or in some cases rapidly) evolve over time. Rarely are words describing various social and cultural phenomena held in interpretive stasis. Inasmuch as our notions of power, gender, and race evolve, the keywords that scholars use to engage these notions adapt and find a degree of malleability in meaning and application. The function, therefore, of these entries is to chart these developments succinctly and substantively in a way not found in either a dictionary definition or an encyclopedic entry. These keywords operate as something more than those helpful reference sources.
The mutability of these words emerges out of a critical engagement among scholars who are in conversation with each other, while simultaneously producing work that refracts the wider world beyond the ivory tower. Just as African American studies was born from a strong relationship between Black communities and academia, the epistemological work remains critically sensitive to the diverse political, social, cultural, and religious phenomena of those communities and their histories.
From spatial, temporal, and topical positionalities through interdisciplinary engagement, interrogation, and theoretical mapping, these entries reflect the dynamic function of both vocabularies and the scholarship therein. The keywords’ meanings are not fixed and not always settled in meaning but remain important elements to understanding the field. Since the establishment on college campuses, beginning in the late 1960s, of formal departments devoted to study of Black life, African American studies—a name that we are using as a shorthand to refer to the disparate formations devoted to the study of Black culture and society, such as Black studies, Afro-American studies, African diasporic studies, and so on—has persistently disrupted traditional categories and modes of academic knowledge. As Wahneema Lubiano argues, African American studies scholars intervene in academic discourses in order to “change the world” by “demystifying the relationship of ‘knowledge’ producers to ‘knowledge,’ as well as to foreground the connection between ‘culture’ and Afro-American ‘everyday life’” (1996b, 68). In some sense, then, African American studies has served as a decades-long “keywords” project: an experimental, interdisciplinary attempt to document and interrogate “problems of meaning,” in Raymond Williams’s words, “in the area in which the meanings of culture and society have formed” (1985, 15).
It is important to note how we decided on the terms included in our own title, Keywords for African American Studies. As we use “African American” as a shorthand to refer to the diversity of social formations that constitute Black culture and society, we see ourselves exercising one of the central insights of the Black Power era in general and of Ture and Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America in particular. In that book, the authors argue for the central role of self-definition in Black radical politics. As they state, “We shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and our relationship to the society, and to have these terms recognized” (Ture and Hamilton 2011, 35). Here Ture and Hamilton point to the nomenclatural diversity and dynamism that is part of Black liberatory struggles, a diversity and dynamism that makes redefinition a way to assess the social and its transformations. Not only has this nomenclatural diversity become a signature feature of African American studies; it has also provided a diversity and dynamism to other fields as well. Consider, for instance, the ways that categories such as “double-consciousness,” “intersectionality,” and “racial capitalism” have animated discussions across a wide variety of fields and disciplines. This vibrancy can be taken as a sign of Black studies’ ability to generate frameworks for a number of histories and social struggles. Ture and Hamilton’s passage also points to the inseparability of intellectual and political articulations of Black radicalism.
Redefinition has been a mode of social, self, and cultural reflection all at once in Black intellectual and activist practices. In addition to addressing the need to redefine historical periods such as Reconstruction, slavery, American colonization, civil rights, and segregation, Ture and Hamilton point to the subjective itineraries of redefinition: “There is a growing resentment of the word ‘Negro,’ for example, because this term is the invention of our oppressor; it is his image of us that he describes. Many blacks are now calling themselves African-Americans, Afro-Americans or black people because that is our image of ourselves” (Ture and Hamilton 2011, 37). Here, the authors promote the multiplicity of terms—“African-American,” “Afro-American,” “Black”—without the need to establish a signal and universal category. In this way, our use of “African American” in the title of this volume is a reference to this critical assertion—that the “African American” in African American studies is part of a critical nomenclature that includes and expands the category “Black” as a way to radically assess and meet the exigencies of historical periods.
At the same time, we understand the category “African American” as evidence of a problem rather than a resolution. For instance, the category—even as it signals a connection to an African diaspora—announces its own U.S.-centrism. In many ways, we inhabit an academic world in which the “American” part of that diaspora is hegemonic and overwhelms the meanings of Blackness and the understanding of Black social formations. What is lost in that moment is the diasporic capaciousness and antivanguardism promoted in the category “Black.” The circumstances of global migration and the increased global visibility of Black communities in Canada, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa necessitates a reconceptualization of Black studies beyond the limited terrain of the U.S.
To some extent, the shifting nomenclature used to describe the discipline reflects the growing attention to Black communities outside the United States. While the first dominant term, “Black studies,” of the late 1960s suggested a field of scholarly inquiry unconstrained by national boundaries, “African American studies,” which grew in popularity from the 1990s, constricted the implied sites of inquiry. In the twenty-first century, many academic departments and programs have moved toward “African and African American Studies” as a way to explicitly engage both the continent and its descendants in the U.S. Many other programs have adopted “Africana Studies” as an even more inclusive term that captures people of African descent globally. Though not always reflected in the terminology, the field of African American studies has never been solely concerned with what unfolds within one country; the expanding transnational interests, however, are reflected better with the term “Africana.” We present the limitations of this volume, therefore, as a provocation for work that transcends those limitations.
If we take seriously enough what the entries in this volume reveal about keywords for African American studies—that they constitute a vocabulary for reimagining the work that we do—we will end up not with a stable definition of African American studies but rather with its explosion. To call this volume Keywords for African American Studies is not an attempt to make exceptional our situation in this hemisphere but rather to indict the conditions of our knowledge production in this hemisphere, to mark our own complicity with the neocolonial exercises that make the very idea of America possible, not least the operations of education and linguistic and cultural hegemony. “America” is of course not the horizon or limit or necessary condition for our thought; but, on the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that it does provide a unique set of conditions for keywording as a practice of Black thought and Black living. Indeed, the problem of “America” is the very problem that rearranges language itself, perhaps especially the language of scholarship and teaching, keywords and all.
With that tendency toward rearrangement in mind, we offer this volume as a snapshot of our collective present and our collective possibility.