Black Studies, African Studies, Pan-African Studies, African American Studies—for Professor of Sociology and Black Studies Dipa Basu, whatever the title, Black Studies is fascinating for this very reason, it is named. According to Basu, the case is often made that routine ways of learning particularly at the high-school level are grounded in “White Studies,” which is simply not named. So what Black Studies provides is a toolkit by which to examine— through the lens of blackness—history and the way groups, social problems and institutions are studied.
“Black Studies is a discipline that denaturalizes power, debunks mythologies about the African Diaspora and demystifies power relations,” Basu explained. “And it’s also interdisciplinary—it troubles the boundaries of different disciplines.” She views Black Studies as a radical approach because it speaks to power by questioning what the object of our study is: Who is speaking on behalf of those people? Why aren’t those people allowed to speak for themselves? In other words, it truly renders visible the invisible.
Similarly, Basu has observed the significance of invisibility in her study of black entrepreneurship. Since levels of self-employment are often indicative of an immigrant group’s success, her research began with critiquing theories of entrepreneurship first in England and then in the U.S., where she incorporated her interest in the hip hop music industry. “Even though they don’t have much human or social capital, I thought it was interesting how young African American people, particularly men, use a kind of sub-cultural capital. They use their knowledge of music, aesthetics and networks to build businesses up,” Basu said. “If you look at the resources available to entrepreneurs, the resources young African Americans bring are different comparatively to those other groups might bring in order to succeed in business.”
Basu believes what is so often overlooked in entrepreneurial research and the sociology of entrepreneurship is this almost invisible type of entrepreneurship that is about social networks and equally essential to doing well in business. One of the dangers she notes though, is that as the general population begins to see the demonstrated value of social networks, they start to assume if certain individuals like Russell Simmons, who co-founded the hip hop label Def Jam, are successful then why can’t everyone else achieve the same. “It’s great that some black entrepreneurs have done well but if we really look at the power dynamics we see that Def Jam, for instance, is actually owned by a multi-national corporation,” she noted.
Basu reveals that recently she has started to use a different set of theoretical tools to look at entrepreneurship from much more of a political economy view. “I think the work is important because a lot of hip hop research has looked at the cultural representation, at the lyrics, looked at the videos, but I think a cultural critique has to be based in a material context and a certain history,” she said. “I think it is important to not only look at the way that the text is analyzed and how it’s analyzed by different audiences, but also to look at who really controls it. Who has the power to say we’re going to sell this and not this, or we like what you’re doing but you have to change it to fit a certain market sector?”
As a South Asian woman in the field of Black Studies who has lived in many different places throughout the world, Basu asserts that Black Studies is also important to her because it goes beyond a focus on African Americans in urban spaces to encompass discussions ranging from the globalization of hip hop to blackness in Central and South America. “We’re having a conversation, should it be called Black Studies, African Studies, African Diasporic Studies, etc. What does this labeling represent?” Basu questioned. “For myself, it is a vehicle to critique, to engage and to trouble the way we think about knowledge and the objects of knowledge.”