Beyoncé at the Super Bowl: A Comment on the African-American Studies Controversy

February 20, 2023

In Diary Norman Finkelstein

Beyoncé at the Super Bowl:

 A Comment on the African-American Studies Controversy (18 February 2023)



I grew up in an all-Jewish middle class neighborhood.  There was only one Black student in all my classes during my four years in high school—the same Black student, Valerie Bacon.  When I headed off to college, I was determined to broaden my horizons.  My first semester began in September 1971, the same month as the Attica prison uprising and massacre.  There were only a handful of African-Americans on campus, mostly from poor urban communities (“the inner-city”), and tensions ran high.  That notwithstanding, I enrolled in the African-American History course.  I was the only white person in the class and—given the particular friction between Blacks and Jews—it didn’t help matters that my last name was Finkelstein.  I cannot say it was a redemptive experience.  My presence was clearly not welcomed; I was terrified to speak (when I summoned the courage, I would hyper-ventilate); and every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I was tormented by the decision whether or not to cut class.  On the other hand, the course readings were substantial: Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black; Stanley Feldman’s Once a Slave, W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and an edited collection of historic documents.  (Yes, I still remember.)  It cannot be said that I learnt much in class.  (The students refused to read Jordan’s book because of the title.)  Still, I went on to take the second semester of the sequence and eventually earned a certificate in African-American Studies.  In the half century since I first took courses in that discipline, it has expanded exponentially and produced an impressive body of scholarship.  I’ve not even skimmed the surface of it, just picking up a book here and there that piqued my interest.  However, the past couple of years I did wade a bit deeper into the literature in preparation for my manuscript on identity politics and cancel culture.


A controversy has recently erupted around a new African-American Studies curriculum designed as a high school advanced placement course.  It is alleged that the curriculum has been denatured by excluding Black reparations, intersectionality, and queer studies in order to accommodate bigoted rightwing objections.  Herewith, a layperson’s random impressions:


1.   It is a feel-good curriculum (not unlike most “studies” course offerings) that celebrates achievements in Africa’s remote past and later in the African Diasporas. As a corrective to invidious stereotypes about Africa, such an approach does serve a salutary purpose.[1]  The curriculum naturally also focuses on the horrors inflicted on Africans during the slave trade, and then slavery and Jim Crow.  Even here, however, the picture is not altogether bleak as the curriculum spotlights African and African-American resistance to this oppression.[2]  The obvious question why American slavery endured for 250 years if forceful resistance was so ubiquitous passes unnoticed.[3]


2.   For all the alleged censorship imposed by the Republican right, it’s nonetheless a distinctly “woke” curriculum. It allocates superabundant space to the contributions of African and African-American women. True, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s nifty coinage intersectionality is not mentioned, but the curriculum does point to “the combined effects of race and gender discrimination … the connected nature of race, gender, and class.”  A miffed Crenshaw objects that the African-American experience can’t be grasped without explicitly naming “intersectionality.”  It’s unclear why.  The notion of overlapping oppressions is as old as the hills, while Crenshaw’s only claims to originality—that Black women suffer from the triple oppression of being Black, women, and Black women; that everyone will be free when Black women are free—constitute self-serving nonsense.  If it doesn’t explicitly reference “queer studies,” still, the curriculum does forthrightly acknowledge that “Bayard Rustin faced discrimination for being openly gay, but nonetheless was a significant advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and leader of the civil rights movement,” while “many Black lesbians … did not see or feel a space for them in the civil rights movement (mostly led by Black men) or the women’s movement (mostly led by White women).”  If the curriculum omits reference to Black reparations, it also has to be said that reparations has not spawned a mass movement in the Black community on the scale of Abolitionism, Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Power movement.  Besides the feminist bias, it’s hard not to notice a class skewing in the curriculum.  Whether from indifference or unease, it is heavily weighted against Black socioeconomics—such as substandard schools, unemployment, inadequate health care, and crime plaguing the Black community[4]—and in favor of Black culture and aesthetics.  These preeminently middle class preoccupations perhaps explain the curriculum’s disproportionate focus on Madame C. J. Walker, “the first woman millionaire in the U.S. [who] developed products that highlighted the beauty of Black people.” Although neither the triumphs nor the travails of the contemporary Black working class rate a single mention, the curriculum does devote a section to “The Growth of the Black Middle Class.”


3.   Except as oppressors, white people have been whited out of the curriculum.[5] It highlights the courageous labors of the Abolitionists, as Frederick Douglass alongside Harriet Tubman rightfully take center stage.  But Douglass himself heaped praise on white Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips, and heaped contempt on those who would diminish them.  In Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, the white Abolitionists emerge as among the period’s heroes.  Whereas, the curriculum makes only a couple of fleeting, nondescript references to white Abolitionists.[6]  It must also be reckoned a wondrous feat to devote a large chunk of the curriculum to the Civil War era and not even mention—be it for good or for evil—Abraham Lincoln.  It’s as if the play Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.


4.   The curriculum is rife with “woke” Black militancy. One full section is given over to “Radical Resistance” to slavery (“through direct action, including revolts and, if necessary, violence”), another to “The Black Power Movement” (“a movement that  … defended violence as a viable strategy”), and yet another section to “The Black Panther Party” (“the party’s calls for violent resistance to oppression resulted in armed conflicts”).  Black Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver rates two mentions for her meditations on “natural hair” and “natural beauty.”  It is an irony that the more that Black middle-class professionals—not least academics—assimilate into the white power structure and all the perks that attend it, the more they affect militant “go-it-alone” poses decrying ineradicable racism and glorifying violent resistance.  The curriculum’s radical posturing amounts to the literary equivalent of Beyoncé in her cute Black Panther beret shaking her booty at the Super Bowl.



[1] The participation of Africans in the slave trade is acknowledged, albeit tinged with apologetics. See EK 1.11.B.2, EK 1.12.B.3, EK 1.13.A.1, EK 2.3.B.1–EK 2.3.B.3.

[2] See 2.14–2.17, 2.23–2.26, 2.5.

[3] To this writer, this emphasis on Black resistance to slavery recalls Holocaust literature, which pretends that Jewish resistance to the Nazis was widespread; it wasn’t.

[4] To be sure, it does include a celebratory section on “HBCUs and Black Education,” and a brief section on “The G.I. Bill, Redlining, and Housing Discrimination.”

[5] No sympathetic white writer is cited in the curriculum.  Incidentally, no white scholar sat on the 13-person Development Committee, and only one white scholar figured among the 14-person Additional Contributors.

[6] The references read in full that “in the 18th and 19th centuries, White and Black antislavery activists circulated diagrams of slave ships to raise awareness of the dehumanizing conditions of the Middle Passage,” and the Abolitionist movement was “led by Black activists and white supporters.”  In the section on the Civil Rights Movement, the curriculum makes passing mention of “Black and White Freedom Riders” and the participation of “four White leaders” in the 1963 March on Washington.