EXCERPT from Journal of Black Studies
Renowned Black psychologist Kobi Kambon did the majority of his life’s work at a Historically Black College/University (HBCU). While it is important to recognize and acknowledge the history, culture, strength and resilience of HBCUs, there is also a conflicted reality that some scholars experience working at these institutions that present a set of issues that challenge the type of academic life to which many scholars aspire. W. E. B. DuBois (1973) discusses how he was marooned to HBCUs for most of his teaching life and John Hope Franklin (2005) addresses in his autobiography “the straightjacket confinement of pursuing a career exclusively in historically black colleges and universities” (p. 8). Both Du Bois and Franklin allude to heavy teaching loads combined with various administrative duties as contributing factors that led to an environment not conducive to research and scholarship. In addition to these conditions, there is also a perception that many HBCUs are reluctant and often antagonistic toward Black Studies and/or Black Studies related curriculums. Brisbane (1974) argues that during the era when Black Studies programs were being formally institutionalized as a discipline at many of the Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) across the United States, many HBCUs were hesitant to establish programs. According to Brisbane, the HBCUs argument about their reluctance to establishing Black Studies programs consisted of the following: (1) the institutions alleged financial problems, (2) the assumption that only a militant faction advocated Black Studies and (3) the ‘bourgeois mentality’ of the staff which was committed to working within the system (Karenga, 2002).
Interestingly, Kambon almost became a casualty of this particular brand of Negro conservatism that Brisbane and Karenga describe. Kambon and Na’im Akbar corroborate an interesting story about how Kambon came to accept the position at FAMU when Akbar had been “forced” to take a position at Florida State University two years earlier. Akbar (formally Luther Weems, Luther X) was born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida and grew up around the corner from the FAMU campus. After obtaining the Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Akbar had always dreamt of returning home and teaching on the campus that he grew up on. Akbar had applied for a FAMU psychology position in 1978. However, when some of the more conservative FAMU administrators looked at his resume and saw the name change, they apparently shied away from hiring a person named Luther X/Na’im Akbar whom they likely perceived as being a “radical” Black Muslim. This was not as transparent an issue two years later when they hired Joseph A. Baldwin who would later change his name to Kobi K. K. Kambon (personal communication, September 10, 2010). In an interesting twist of fate, the very concept of cultural misorientation (the over-identification with European culture among people of African descent) that Kambon would develop and articulate so eloquently throughout his career, was apparently an influencing factor that contributed to him obtaining the position at the institution that became his academic, intellectual and spiritual home for thirty years. Kambon willingly accepted the challenge of pursuing his life’s work at an HBCU. He comments:
I had always desired to do my work within the confines of our community at an HBCU. I had always felt very strong that ‘African Excellence’ in any area of endeavor should first and foremost be demonstrated within the context of our community, not outside of it…So my commitment when I set out in my career was eventually to demonstrate through my own life that excellent work on behalf of African people could and should be done within an African or predominantly African context, which in my case meant an HBCU. (Kambon, 2011, p. 7)
In the spirit of ancestors who carved out enough free space to build communities where Africans could grow and develop with limited intrusion from whites, he chose FAMU as the site to structure a contemporary version of an intellectual maroon community (Hillard, 1995).
The FAMU Psychology Department (Kambon, 1996a) is an extension of the emancipatory vision that Du Bois (1973) employed while at the Atlanta University Center and that Herman Canady (1939) attempted at West Virginia State College concerning the important role that HBCUs could play in the scholarly investigation of the African experience in the Americas. While Kambon did not initiate the thrust for Black psychologists to advocate a systematic study of the psychological experiences of African descent people, he is perhaps the first and the most successful at integrating an African-centered perspective at an HBCU. Relative to PWIs, FAMU is significantly lacking in laboratory equipment and space, library resources, and major financial backing. Why would such a scholar stay at an HBCU and work under these less than ideal conditions? Kambon takes the stance that as an African-centered scholar, he was going to catch hell in academia where ever he was, so why not just stay home (in the African community) and catch hell with your own people since that is where the first phase of the African liberation struggle has to take place anyway (personal communication, September 10, 2010).
The Black Psychology Theme Week exposed FAMU students and the Tallahassee community to heavy hitters in the African-centered movement such as Bobby E. Wright, Na’im Akbar, Wade W. Nobles, Asa G. Hilliard, Francis Cress Welsing, Marimba Ani, Jacob Carruthers, and Amos Wilson (Kambon, 1996). These events contributed to creating a space where students, faculty and other scholars were allowed to be and know their cultural selves. The FAMU Psychology department serves as an intellectual incubator for numerous students, who after being trained, nurtured and developed at FAMU, proceed to give birth to new ideas and make contributions to the growing body of African-centered theory, research and practice. Establishing this type of intellectual space within the ebony towers of an HBCU was not an easy task. Yet, Kambon was able to help create an African-centered psychology department at an HBCU where Black students feel free to examine and explore the Sakhu (Nobles, 2006) or what Du Bois famously referred to as the Souls of Black Folk (1989).
Brisbane, R. (1974). Black activism. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.
Canady, H.G. (1939). The psychology of the Negro. In P.L. Harriman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology. Washington, D.C.: Philosophical Library.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1973). The education of Black people: Ten critiques, 1906-1960. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1989). The souls of Black folk. New York: Bantum Books.
Franklin, J. H. (2005). Mirror to America: The autobiography of John Hope Franklin. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Hilliard, A. (1995). The maroon within us: Selected essays on African American socialization. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.
Kambon, K. (1996). Africentric Pedagogy in Psychology: The FAMU Model. In D. A. Azibo (Ed.), African Psychology in Historical Perspective. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Kambon, K. (2011). African-centered critical thinking: A model for African American mental–intellectual liberation. Unpublished manuscript.
Karenga, M. (1992). Introduction to Black studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore.
Nobles, W. W. (2006). Seeking the Sakhu: Foundational writings for an African psychology. Chicago: Third World Press.
DeReef F. Jamison is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research interests include the intellectual history and diasporic connections of Africana psychology and the psychology of race and racism.