The Red and the Black: Remembering the Legacy of Jack D. Forbes
“If we have African blood we should be proud of it; it is good, honest, tribal ancestry.” —Jack D. Forbes, Attan-Akamik Newsletter, 1974
“The Future of Minority Studies Conference” held February 24 – 27, 2011, at the College of William and Mary brought together a diverse group of academics from across many disciplines to explore the theme “Subjugated Histories/Decolonizing Practices.” Its aim was to challenge “the hegemony of Western Knowledge/power systems… and to explore epistemic decolonization.” This would relocate the study of marginalized communities, “from margin to center,” to use the words of Afro-Indian cultural critic bell hooks.
I returned home from that exhilarating conference to learn that my mentor and friend Jack D. Forbes, Professor Emeritus of Native American Studies at the University of California Davis, had walked on a day prior to the conference on February 23, 2011. Forbes, who was of Powhatan-Renape/Delaware-Lenape descent, worked tirelessly as a renowned author, activist, and academic to uncover the subjugated histories of marginalized peoples by embracing the “bottom up” approach to American history also embraced by many late twentieth century academics.
At the time of his death, many paid tribute to Forbes and his illustrious academic career, which spanned over five decades. Such tributes were primarily focused on his contributions to the field of Native American Studies. Yet, Forbes’s contributions extended far beyond this discipline. His commitment to interdisciplinarity, which incorporated best practices from the disciplines of history, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and literature enabled him to transverse disciplinary boundaries with ease. His passion for examining the nuances and complexities of the early European and later the American racial project broadened his research interest beyond Native American Studies to include Latin American Studies and African American Studies. Regarding the latter, Forbes’s contribution to African American scholarship went unmentioned by those memorializing an illustrious life now gone; we must correct this gross oversight. Hence, on this third anniversary of his passing and in commemoration of African American Heritage Month, I believe it is fitting that we pause and pay tribute to the legacy of Jack D. Forbes whose life work celebrated the confluence of African and Native peoples of the Americas.
After completing a doctorate in History and Anthropology at the University of Southern California in 1959, Forbes went on to help establish the Native American Studies Program at the University of California Davis and other universities. His 1966 publication An American Indian University: A Proposal for Survival helped to build the momentum of the tribal college movement and gave rise to D-Q University in 1972, the first American Indian college in California and the second tribal college in the nation. As a result of Forbes’s unyielding commitment to indigenizing the academy, today there are approximately 35 tribal colleges, which are responsible for the enrollment of at least one-third of the post-secondary American Indian population in addition to numerous Native American Studies departments and programs nationwide.
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