Harvard’s New Chapter in Black Studies
A neglected African studies program finally gets a departmental home
By Ronald Roach
From afar, it seemed that Afro-American studies at Harvard had taken a nasty tumble when two of its best-known scholars announced their resignations in early 2002, and its venerable chairman, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., let it be known that he stood perilously close to leaving the department he had been building for more than a decade. Although Gates’ colleague and close friend Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah attributed his departure to personal reasons, Dr. Cornel West made it known that the private rebuke of his scholarship by Harvard president Dr. Lawrence Summers had made it professionally unsuitable for the popular philosopher to remain at Harvard (see Black Issues, May 9, 2002). While Gates anguished over the departures and the alleged mistreatment of West until December 2002 when he announced he would stay, a new direction for Black studies at Harvard began taking shape that fall. By this past May, the direction became apparent when the Harvard faculty unanimously voted to approve the expansion of Afro-American Studies into the African and African American Studies department.After 34 years of being relegated to the purview of a coordinating committee, African studies was given what it most sorely needed — a departmental home. The expansion will give prominence both to Africa and the African diaspora, the past and ongoing movement of African peoples and cultures throughout the world.“It was an unanimous vote. The faculty believed in the rationale of African studies being in a department,” says Dr. Emmanuel Akyeampong, the chairman of the Committee on African Studies and a newly appointed professor in the expanded Black studies program at Harvard.“We as a university are now going to be taking on African studies in the way we take on Asian studies or Latin American studies or have traditionally taken on European studies,” Harvard’s president Dr. Lawrence Summers told the NewYork Times. While proponents of African studies in American higher education hail the expansion as a positive development, they have been as equally likely to wonder aloud why it took an institution of Harvard’s stature so long to anchor African studies within a department. Over the years, the university is said to have attracted a core of highly regarded Africanists in fields ranging from economics, government, medicine, music, anthropology to visual art. Through the African studies committee, these scholars were largely empowered to dole out research grant funding to students and to oversee an undergraduate certificate program in African studies. “It’s surprising that Harvard hadn’t established a program in African studies in the way Yale and other universities have,” says Dr. Beverly Grier, the president of the African Studies Association and a faculty member at Clark University in Wooster, Mass. The lack of a departmental anchor meant that African studies scholars at Harvard long labored under more isolated circumstances than Africanists in high-profile programs at schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, Boston University, Yale University, the University of Michigan, New York University, Indiana University, Northwestern University and the University of North Carolina, where African studies either was pursued in a stand-alone department or co-existed with Afro-American studies in a department. By Harvard merely having in place a Committee on African Studies, courses on Africa were scattered throughout departments within the Arts and Sciences division and in its schools, such as public health and the Kennedy School of Government. The arrangement made it virtually impossible for interested faculty members to establish an African languages program, a necessary component for African studies to be established in or as a department, according to officials.However, one of the most anticipated developments of the expanded department is that starting in the 2004-2005 academic year, undergraduates will be able to major in African studies as a concentration within African and African American studies. Previously, students taking courses on Africa could only qualify for a certificate. “That’s going to be an exciting opportunity for our students,” says Dr. Lawrence D. Bobo, a professor of sociology and the acting chair of the African and African American studies department. “Increasing numbers of undergraduates have been enrolling in African studies courses. And rather than being limited to earning a certificate, they will be able to get a degree,” he adds, noting that more than 1,000 students are taking the courses annually. The New DealIn the mid-1980s, not long after Dr. Ali Asani, a professor of the practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture, joined the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Religion departments at Harvard, he decided to teach Swahili in response to students who had expressed interest in the east African language. A Kenyan native of Indian Muslim descent, Asani had grown up speaking Swahili and recognized his fluency could be of great benefit to students who were spending summers in east Africa to conduct research. “I proposed a course in addition to my workload. And I had a very negative reaction from the administration,” Asani says, noting that it was argued that the absence of a departmental home meant that Swahili couldn’t be taught at Harvard. Asani managed to get the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department where he was teaching Arabic to accept the Swahili course.“There had been lots of attempts by the (Committee on African Studies) to get something more substantial going. Basically, there was no movement on African studies from the time I started teaching Swahili to last year,” Asani says. Under the aegis of African and African American Studies, an African languages program is being established under the direction of Dr. John Mugane, a newly appointed professor in the expanded department. Mugane comes to Harvard from Ohio University where he taught in the African languages program at the Athens, Ohio-based school. In addition to Swahili, Hausa, Gikuyu and Zulu are being taught as departmental offerings.Akyeampong, who in addition to holding a professorship in the expanded department is a tenured history professor, recalls that it seemed highly unlikely African studies was going anywhere in the aftermath of the Cornel West controversy last year. Akyeampong had succeeded Appiah as the African studies committee chair and it appeared certain the African history specialist would continue to face an indifferent Harvard administration as did past committee chairs. On leave that fateful 2001-2002 year, Akyeampong believes the West controversy created the perception that Harvard was a hostile place for Black studies, and he says it played a role in the decisions of two prospective graduate students in African history not to enroll at Harvard last year. In the fall of 2002, Akyeampong submitted a five-year plan to Dr. William Kirby, the newly appointed dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, which proposed an expansion of African studies and programs. Kirby, an expert in Chinese history and culture, suggested that Akyeampong and Gates get together and discuss their shared visions for African studies, according to Akyeampong. “I knew that an African studies department had been a dream of Skip Gates from the time that he had arrived at Harvard,” Akyeampong says. Gates, who is on leave in 2003-2004 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was traveling and unavailable for comment.With Kirby’s blessing and the backing of Summers, Gates and Akyeampong developed an expansion plan that would win the support of the Harvard faculty. The unanimous support that came with the expansion of Black studies in 2003 contrasted sharply with the rancorous and divided support the Harvard faculty had given to the creation of the Afro-American studies department in 1969. The lack of full faculty support for Afro-American studies has been said to have proven disastrous for the department’s stability and ties to other departments until the early 1990s when Gates was hired to build it to prominence. “When the Committee on African Studies was started in 1969 it was established so as not to have any overlap or coordination with Afro-American studies,” Akyeampong says.Akyeampong credits Gates for making hires within Afro-American studies he believes proved instrumental to the eventual expansion. Ghana native and philosopher Appiah, anthropologist Dr. James Lorand Matory, African art expert Dr. Suzanne Blier, music expert Dr. Ingrid Monson and linguist Mugane were the scholars in Afro-American studies whose work in Africa and the African diaspora most anticipated the department’s expansion, according to Akyeampong.“What is striking is that we didn’t have to look outside of Harvard to find a model for a marriage between Afro-American and African studies. We looked inside,” says Akyeampong. “There’s a great deal of goodwill between the Africanists and the Afro-American specialists (at Harvard). There’s going to be no need for squabbling over resources,” notes anthropologist Matory. It’s been suggested that Gates’ fund-raising success with Afro-American studies shouldn’t be overlooked when contemplating why the Harvard faculty and administration shifted its stance on African studies. Since 1991, Gates has raised more than $40 million in endowment funds for Black studies at Harvard, according to officials. “There are funds to be drawn upon,” Matory says. As for now, the Committee on African Studies will continue to exist but its role will be to organize the study of Africa beyond the faculty of Arts and Sciences. The committee will coordinate collaboration among faculty and students working on African topics across the university. Currently, Africa-related courses are offered by the schools of business, divinity, education, government, law, medicine, public health and continuing education. Enriching the BlackStudies Matrix In addition to African studies, the social sciences have taken an increasingly more prominent place in Black studies at Harvard. The appointments of political scientist Dr. Michael Dawson in 2002-2003, and linguist and hip-hop expert Dr. Marcyliena Morgan and cultural anthropologist Dr. Marla Frederick in 2003-2004 endows Afro-American studies at Harvard with a heavy social science flavor in contrast to the field’s traditional emphasis on the humanities. Also added to the mix in 2002-2003 was science historian Dr. Evelynn Hammonds whose research on race, health and medicine brims with public policy implications. Much has been written about Morgan who is teaching classes on hip-hop and linguistics. From the University of California at Los Angeles where she was a professor, Morgan brings along a hip-hop archives to be based at Harvard, which includes T-shirts, videotapes of the early hip-hop artists practicing their craft in basements, and an extensive collection of CDs by artists such as Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur.A former faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Hammonds says it’s incredibly rewarding to join an African and African American studies department from a discipline that has not traditionally been part of Black studies. “I’m very happy to be in the African and African American studies program because people in the department take very seriously the study of race. I was very isolated at MIT. I had no community of scholars to work with around the issues that interested me,” Hammonds says. Dr. Jennifer Hochschild, a professor of government who is part of the African and African American studies department, says she joined a Black studies department for the first time in her academic career of more than two decades after leaving Princeton University in December 2000 for Harvard. “I was interested in joining (Afro-American studies) to build up the social sciences side of it,” Hochschild says. “The aim of Black studies at Harvard is to get as equally strong in the social sciences as in the humanities. There’s still much to be done,” says Dawson, who oversees the recently established Ph.D. program in the department. Dawson says there’s interest in making appointments in African and African American studies of a scholar in psychology and in economics. The department has a total of 25 faculty members. Dr. Lemuel Berry Jr., the executive director of the National Association of African American Studies, says that while wealthy schools like Harvard can devote resources to areas where scholarship is growing, such as in African diaspora research, most Black studies programs are constrained by economics that pays far closer attention to student demand.“Even successful programs that have limited numbers of students are vulnerable in the current environment of deep cutbacks in higher education,” says Berry, who serves as the vice president of academic affairs at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine.The establishment and survival of Black studies programs depends a great deal upon powerful individuals and groups in higher education to champion them as worthy intellectual pursuits, Berry says. He notes that of the 250-plus Black studies programs in American higher education, less than 50 of them actually lead to a degree in the field. The question “I raise is why are there so few Black studies departments,” he says.Berry sees the expansion of Black studies at Harvard as an example of an empowered Afro-American studies program taking on the cause of African studies. “I don’t have a problem with African studies finding a home with Afro-American studies. The reality is that Black studies needs more champions,” he notes.
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