An anxious Beverly Rutledge, 19, was hunched over her psychology text, furiously highlighting in yellow Magic Marker. Midterm examinations were bearing down on the handful of George Washington University students hidden behind books in the upstairs lounge at the Black People's Union, where wall murals of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. exhort them to keep the faith.
But no one was reading James Baldwin or Stokely Carmichael, or Maya Angelou, or any of the black writers whose works angry college students fought to have included in their curriculums in the late 1960s, thereby spawning the black studies movement. Only six of George Washington's 600-plus students, in fact, signed up for the Afro-American history course offered this semester. The other 17 students in the class are white.
"I don't have the time for it," said Rutledge, a sopohomore biology major who hopes to go to medical school. "If you don't go to the right kind of college and get the right kind of degree, you're destined to be blue-collar. I want something better than that."
"Sometimes better" is what black college students of GW -- and colleges across the country -- frequently say they are seeking as they choose career-oriented courses in business, engineering and the sciences instead of credits and degrees in black studies.
"Who's going to hire me at $35,000 a year with a PhD in black history?" asked Les Butler, 26, a business major who transferred to GW from Howard. "Black students are talking accounting instead of black history as a matter of survival. They're asking, "What can you do with black studies"?
As the 1970s draw to a close, black students are as edgy about the future -- and earning the most salable degrees -- as white students. In this era of economic uncertainty, ideology has taken a back seat to the practical considerations of getting a job.
Sparked by the civil rights movement and fueled in an era of campus unrest -- with scenes of clenched fists, police lines and tear gas -- black studies enjoyed several years of popularity. Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton rallied students across the country to protest for black studies programs controlled by blacks.
Threatened with violence and student strikes, hundreds of universities altered curriculums, accredited Afro-American studies programs en masse and hired a small army of minority faculty members to teach. In a quest for identity, black students banded together, eating at all-black tables and insisting on all-black living quarters.
But now, a decade after the protests, black students are seeking careers, not self-awareness, and black studies programs are fighting an uphill battle.
At the same time, there has been a marked increase in black admission. In 1968, only 6 percent of college students were black. By 1978, the fugure had grown to 10 percent, or more than one million students.
At George Washington University officials responded to demonstrators with a course entitled "The Negro in American History" and 164 blue-jeaned students signed up when it was first offered in the spring of 1969. "Turn on the gas, you've got all the radicals in the same room," one student shouted in jest. Eight years later, when black historian Jim Horton took over the course, its enrollment had shrunk to two.
Statistics on black studies programs nationwide are sketchy. At the peak of the programs around 1971, about 600 colleges offered either courses or degrees in black studies, said Joseph Russell, executive director of the National Council of Black Studies and a teacher at Indiana University.
By the mid-1970s, demand for courses begun plummeting. Even at black colleges like Howard University, the number of students majoring in black studies dropped off from a high of 41 in 1971 to 17 six years later. Several experts in the field estimate that only 200 to 300 schools offer such courses today, although Russel said that a recent survey of state education commissions by the council showed 600 is still accurate.
Whatever the figure, "the overall picture is a decline," said Howard University professor Russell Adams, whose Afro-American studies department now counts 30 majors. "If you're asking for the patient's last words, we probably won't die, though we may be running a fever. We are in a period of entrenchment."
At metro-area colleges like George Washington, American University and Georgetown, black studies have enjoyed a mixed success.
These colleges folded black studies courses into the larger curriculum, rather than setting up separate departments.
American University hasn't offered a black history course for the last three semesters.
At Georgetown, where the number of blacks has increased from 3 to 6 percent (out of 1,250 freshmen) over the last three years, Sam Harvey, director of minority student affairs, said no black student has even requested a special black studies program.
"They want to see their ethnic areas put into the mainstream of campus life, that is, black literature taught as part of the English department, and so forth," he said. "Minorities feel less threatened than in the '60s, when there was a sense that we had to circle the wagons."
The most vocal requests for ethnic courses, he said, have come from Puerto Rican students and other Hispanics who want their heritage given the same kind of attention that black studies received.
Only Howard University and the University of Maryland boast full-fledged departments in Afro-American studies. At Maryland, where 2,500 out of 35,000 students are black, student enrollment is healthy, says AlTony Gilmore, director of the department.
Of the 700 Maryland students who signed up this fall for a variety of courses in Afro-American studies, 90 percent are black. Gilmore attributes the program's success to its status as a department and its ability to court prospective majors with a choice of practical curriculums.
Elsewhere, however, black studies programs are becoming frequent targets of the budget ax, as administrators, feeling the double pinch of inflation had shrinking university endowments, cast about the campus for easy prey. Once the darlings of foundations, black studies programs now often take a back seat to the needs of environmental interest groups.
As a hybrid, emerging discipline that is considered a blend of history, sociology, literature and psychology, Afro-American study wins few allies among turf-conscious academics in rival fields. It often suffers at the hands of critics who view black study as an illegitimate discipline not worthy of departmental status -- a sort of glorified study of family roots.
"This isn't a study of family roots," snapped Russell Adams, "but of the nation's roots and the seeds which sprouted the tree, and the latest acorns on the tree. We don't just look in the mirror, but at the black-white relationship close up. The emphasis is equally on Afro' and 'American."'
Nonetheless, many black faculty members hired to teach black studies during tis peak years are being passed over for tenure. Bitter fights have erupted for black professors at the University of North Carolina, Maine's Bowdoin College and elsewhere.
"The ranks of black-professors have been decimated," said professor William Nelson, vice chairman-elect of the National Council for Black Studies and chairman of the black studies department at Ohio State University. That school has managed to buck the trend, with 22 faculty members and 80 course offerings. Still, he said, "there is the feeling that black people are unqualified to be on campus, both as students and as faculty. All the old forces of racism have reared their ugly heads on campus again."
The bottom line is that the times -- and students -- have changed.
George Washington University senior drama major Toni White, 21, daughter of a retired D.C. archivist and president of the Black People's Union, wants to go to law school, marry, have children and earn money " -- and plenty of it."
Ten years ago, the student group she heads was heavily involved in campus protests. This year, the Black People's Union sponsored a fashion show. It was a smash.
Sitting beneath a Venceremos Brigade protest poster from another decade -- "I don't know what it means, I just put it on the wall to take up space" -- White worried that apathy among black students, which is shared by the campus as a whole, could spell the end of her 150-member group, and slowly erode the gains blacks have made nationwide. 'Students are too wrapped up in their own concerns." she said.
At George Washington, a largely white, bustling urban campus of so many commuter students that it has been dubbed "the McDonald's of adult education," many of the 600 black students say they often feel swallowed up, splintered, or cut off from one another amidst the part-timers, the 1,200 foreign students (mostly Iranian engineers) and the general ebb and flow of the school's 12,000 students.
It is easy to forget who you are, several black students said over a pitcher of beer one recent evening at George Washington University's Rathskeller. The campus radio station rarely plays black music, they said, and for blacks -- who can't afford to live or party off-campus, there is hardly any place to hang out.
"When you see how hard it is to change the system, it's a natural reaction to give up, to feel like you're beating your head against the wall." sighed senior Brian Brown, 21, the only black student at the table who had taken Horton's Afro-American history course.
"Once you see other blacks making personal advances, joining the system, it's easy to say, I'm going for myself. I'm going to get that house in the suburbs, two cars in the garage and donate $10 a year to my favorite black organization as a token of my concern.'"
Nor is black solidarity promoted by the sniping that goes on between black students at George Washington and those at Howard, who sometimes accse GW blacks of "selling out" by attending a virtually all-white school.GW blacks counter by saying their degree is worth more in a virtually all white world.
"It's a bad rap," said Brown. "It always boils down to what degree of assimilation we should accept."
Toni White, a graduate of Bethesda's largely white Ursuline Academy, says that assimilation sometimes makes it hard to appreciate one's heritage of suffering.
Nor is it very surprising that White says she has yet to experience any prejudice because she is black. "But I know it's out there, and I plan to be ready for it,' she said.
After all, freshmen in the class of 1984 like Pauline Chukwuosha, whose heroine is Barbara Walters, were still in diapers when four black children died in the Birmingham church bombing. They were second-graders when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. And many don't know who the Freedom Riders were. They are the first to admit that the civil rights movement, along with Vietnam, might as well be ancient hisory.
"Maybe I should be more concerned," shrugged one black student who doesn't feel the need to further black studies in college after participating in a high school black history week "But I'm not."