After 15 years, the field of black studies is still battling for academic legitimacy, and the battle has produced a deep split in the ranks--between those who say, in effect, "If you can't beat them, join them," and those who counter, "But if you join them, you beat yourselves."

The second message was sounded fervently by historian Vincent Harding at a two-day conference of black studies scholars that ended here yesterday.

"We cannot understand the black studies movement without understanding that it grew up out of that whirlwind known as the black struggle of the '50s and '60s," said Harding. "The struggle for the future of a people is inextricably tied to the struggle for the past of a people." The creation of black studies, he added, was a statement by blacks that "we will declare war on any interpretation of ourselves which does not fit with our understanding of our place in this land." Black studies is "at its heart a challenge to white power itself, for all power is ultimately based on the capacity to define reality."

But in recent years, Harding warned, black studies has become less of a "movement" and more of a "discipline" as teachers and students have become preoccupied with making "marketable commodities" of themselves. "The last time black people were marketable was on the slave blocks, and we don't ever intend to be marketable again," he said.

Several of Harding's colleagues took issue with him, albeit deferentially, arguing that whatever their grievances against the white academic establishment, black studies programs need to put more emphasis on "quality control" and "intellectual productivity," as the University of Illinois' Gerald A. McWhorter put it. McWhorter called the conference's attention to a severe decline in the publication of books with a black studies focus, down from a high of 450 a year in the early '70s to fewer than 200 a year in the late '70s.

Russel L. Adams, chairman of Howard University's Department of Afro-American Studies, which sponsored the conference, recalled that he once asked one of his conterparts at another school about his academic credentials. "Well, I'm 44 years old and black, and I've been black for 44 years," answered the man, whose only teaching experience had been in secondary-school math. Adams said there has been "a lot of fraud in terms of background," and many of the schools which have hired black studies teachers "did not particularly care about qualifications as long as they could look at the face and cite the race."

Michael R. Winston, director of Howard's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, said it would be "a very serious error" to think "there's no room for conventional scholarship in black studies." Slave diaries, census data and other important bodies of primary material await the attention of dedicated black scholars, said Winston. "There are persons who are going to be activists and there are persons who are going to be scholars," he said, "and not all scholars are going to be activists."

The black studies (or Afro-American studies) movement came into being in answer to the demands of student activists in the late '60s and early '70s, and reached a statistical peak a decade ago, with more than 500 formal programs nationwide. What most of these programs had in common was their treatment of African and Afro-American history as a continuum, their interdisciplinary attention to history, sociology and culture and an emphasis on the hiring of blacks to define and teach the subject.

Only 275 programs (including 65 or 70 full-fledged departments) have survived into the '80s, and despite disagreements on other questions, many of those attending this week's conference -- titled "Black Studies: A 15-Year Assessment" -- shared the view that their field has entered a state of near-crisis.

"We're in hard times, we're in times when America's most intractable problem of human relations is being seen as invisible," said Howard's Adams. Even black institutions and black students are suffering from "social amnesia," he said, adding that he has heard young blacks ask, "Is it Malcolm X or Malcolm the Tenth?"

"There seems to be a feeling even among students at predominantly black colleges that perhaps black studies is not essential to where they're going," said James E. Turner, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. Today's students, black and white, are more job-conscious and more interested in courses that will make them employable, Turner said.

"Those institutions which for a while were pushed off their a---s" by the activism of the '60s are now trying to "move back toward orthodoxy," said Turner. He and others deplored a tendency to merge black studies with the study of other minorities--for example, Puerto Ricans. But Johnetta B. Cole, associate provost for undergraduate education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, delivered a ringing indictment of the way black studies programs have treated black women. The role of black women generally has been lumped with a perfunctory discussion of the black family, Cole complained, while in their hiring practices, black studies programs have mimicked black activist groups, generally regarding a woman as someone fit to be a "minute-taker in the meetings -- never the chair."

Most black studies programs lack the status of full departments, with the result that teachers can get tenure only through joint appointments with a "traditional department which is in fact a white-controlled department," said Turner. And many white academics persist in believing that black studies can never be a serious academic field, because, he said, they think its proponents "don't understand or appreciate the discipline of objective discourse."

But traditional scholars who consider themselves objective and who denigrate the standards of black studies colleagues are ignoring their own political commitments, said Ronald W. Walters, professor of political science at Howard. "You can go on the shuttle between Boston and New York, the financial center, or Boston and Washington, the political center," he said, "and find Harvard professors taking their expertise to the establishment." So it is only right, he said, that a black scholar should make his expertise available to "the survival of his own community."