St. Clair Drake, the grand old man of black social studies, was enjoying a crackling laugh of satisfaction, revenge and pride. All around him at a conference on diaspora studies at Howard University this week, was proof that the day of excluding blacks from African studies was over.
This incisive and jocular man, with his untamed shock of hair, is the celebrity of the conference, called by the university's history department to study the dispersal of African peoples around the globe. Drake has been the forerunner in several interlocking fields: urban studies, with his classic book, "Black Metropolis," in the 1940s; African studies, with his early interest and personal ties with the African continent; and black studies, his work on worldwide race relations fiving a framework for the programs of the late 1960s.
"In the 1950's," said Drake, "only a few blacks were in the field -- Lorenzo Turner, E. Franklin Frazier and St. Clair Drake. Only one other black was an active scholar, William Leo Hansberry.
"Huge sums of money went to Boston University, UCLA. Howard got a minimal amount," said Drake. "Now I take immense pleasure that the black scholars are taking the initiative and the worthy, white scholars are invited."
He pulled himself to the edge of the couch in the lobby of the Harambee House hotel. "My assessment of 'Metroplis' -- well, it should be withdrawn from circulation. You have to take it as the way it was around the Second World War in Chicago. It's a period piece." said Drake, who lived and studied in Chicago during the late 1930s and '40s. His co-author, Horace Cayton, chose the black upper class to live with, while Drake chose "the thiefs and robbers."
Looking back now, Drake feels the book stuck too close to the anthropological approach of "caste and class," and lacked an in-depth study on black culture. "It was too narrow a frame," said Drake. "We did discuss associations, clothes, but we spent too much time on the ritual of life, especially among the upper class, instead of saying whether they lived at the expense of the lower classes."
Yet he remains proud of its contributions, and he updated it in 1962 and 1971. "It was the only study, so it was studied by default."
Constantly checking his watch because he didn't want to miss too much of the conference, Drake, 68, explained that his shift from urban scholar to Africanist wasn't an evolution, or a rejection, but a fulfillment of an early desire. "My father, who was from Barbados, was a preacher and a Garveyite, so we talked about back-to-Africa movements in our home, we gave money for missionaries," said Drake, who grew up in Suffolk, Va., and studied biology at Hampton Institute. "At Chicago (where he earned his Ph.D.), when I had to put down an area in anthropology, I said Africa."
Research grants for overseas studies, despite support of black scholars by the Rosenwald Foundation and others, didn't open up until the 1950's. By then Drake's interest in Africa was fully aroused, mainly by his meetings with Nkrumah, the first leader of independent Ghana, and Padmore, his political adviser.
"During that summer of 1947 it was more Padmore than Nkrumah. His charisma," recalled Drake, sneering at the use of the word for a Marxist intellectual. "But suddenly I had run into a person who had a fascinating life history, a sense of humor, devotion to the cause of African peoples everywhere, and a cynical detachment from the cause."
Drake's face and head, enlarged by a full, snowy beard and a long, wayward salt-and-pepper Afro, dominates his short, broad frame. Right now, as he recalls this period, he seems electrified. And, since he has been wearing an Afro since the 1940s, he probably looked the same way when he and Padmore spent their days in the London movie theaters discussing history.
For most of the 1950s and '60s, Drake cut a wide path, researching in Great Britain and West Africa, teaching in Ghana, Liberia, and at Stanford and Columbia Universities. In 1961, he was instrumental in smoothing the way for the first Peace Corps team that went overseas.
"My role wasn't that important that's another one of those myths," said Drake, who was teaching in Ghana, the site of the first Peace Corps group. "Kennedy and Nkrumah signed the agreement, Nkrumah saying the U.S. could send the Corps if he got a hydroelectric deal. Then Nkrumah had the newspapers stir up a little controversy by saying the Corps were government agents. So Shriver asked me to go out and see what was happening.
"Nkrumah never planned to stop the Corps. The involvement worked to my detriment because all the government people said, 'he knows all these progressives,' and all the blacks thought I was an agent."
When asked to reassess black studies, the academic outgrowth of the black-power movement of the late '60s, Drake again demurred about his impact. "I don't think anybody but the students played a role in shaping those programs." However, he was sought after by Harvard, Vassar, San Jose and Santa Barbara to start their programs. Stanford was familiar and close to his children, and his appointment there was touted as "a tremendous catch" by the university. Now most of the programs are on the wane.
"By 1974 black studies had become depoliticized and the universities began to emphasize upgrading and legitimizing it as a discipline. But none of the colleges were ever really interested in black studies. They survived because a black constituency demanded it and now often have the functions of bringing in speakers, holding festivals," said Drake. He named a dozen that are well-funded and seriously supported by the administration and students. "But most of the smaller institutions never gave the programs money for growth."
The newest trend, said Drake enthusiastically, rising from his seat and looking for his wife so he could get back to the conference, has been the emergence of women in the field. Beverlee Bruce, the director of Howard's College of Liberal Arts honors program, hugged him warmly during the conference. "A woman is head of the program at Harvard, I was replaced by a woman. And that's good, because the guys wouldn't fight so hard with a woman."