by Roderick A. Ferguson
As the longest-standing interdisciplinary field, African American Studies has laid the foundation for critically analyzing issues of race, ethnicity, and culture within the academy and beyond. This volume assembles the keywords of this field for the first time, exploring not only the history of those categories but their continued relevance in the contemporary moment. Taking up a vast array of issues such as slavery, colonialism, incarceration, sexuality, gender, feminism, war, and popular culture, Keywords for African American Studies showcases the startling breadth that characterizes the field.
While it is indeed cliché to argue that every book is a collective effort, it is certainly the case where anthologies are concerned. In grateful acknowledgment of the collective process that has yielded this volume, we wish to thank the following people. Eric Zinner has been an exemplary editor, providing support for this volume throughout our time with it. Associate editor Lisha Nadkarni and editorial assistant Dolma Ombadykow have been attentive facilitators of the project as well. We would also like to express our gratitude to the anonymous readers for their careful and detailed engagement. Our deep and heartfelt thanks must go to our brilliant and impeccable research assistant, Sarah Buckner. It is not an exaggeration to say that we can honestly divide our experience with this volume in terms of “before” and “after” her engagement with it. Most of all we wish to thank our colleagues—the contributors—whose dedication and contributions have warmed and inspired us.
Our intention in the Keywords for African American Studies, as articulated in the introduction, is to explore the terms, categories, and concepts that undergird and delineate the contours of black studies as an intellectual imaginary and as an experimental project within the U.S. academy. This project recognizes and scrutinizes the malleability of our world as well as the words that continuously evolve to describe it. This volume functions as an essential resource to complement and add depth to the critical work in which students and scholars engage Africana studies. Unlike a dictionary or encyclopedia, this book functions with a very specific utility for the classroom as a way to explore and understand the ways in which terms critical to black studies intellectually animate the field. Students see how the concepts and frameworks used to explore phenomena across disciplines are rarely static, but in conversation with each other. Knowledge is infinitely unfolding and Keywords provides an important resource for understanding that process.
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.