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Taking Flight Internationally

As the new director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a specialist in Latin American history, Dr. Ben Vinson strengthens the center’s internationalist orientation.

While it took more than three decades for Johns Hopkins University to approve a Black studies program in its arts and sciences division, faculty members and administrators at the elite Baltimore-based research institution created an academic center by wisely drawing upon its base of scholars in African and African Diaspora studies. Established in 2004, the university’s Center for Africana Studies has brought to the forefront a strong and timely academic focus on the African Diaspora.

The center’s energetic first permanent director, Dr. Ben Vinson III, is a specialist in Latin American history. His appointment in July 2006 has given even greater strength to the program’s internationalist orientation.

“I saw an opportunity to really insert a Latin American perspective into the larger debate and the larger discussion around the evolution and transformation of Black studies. I have always been someone who has looked at Latin America through a distinct racial lens — through the lens of Blackness,” Vinson says.

Although the Diaspora focus is not new to Africana studies, it emphasizes that international considerations are strongly shaping Black studies at U.S. institutions. The presence of young scholars with African Diaspora expertise and research background, such as Vinson, signals that Black studies is undergoing a generational shift where scholars trained in African Diaspora studies find themselves highly prized and recruited as much as their colleagues in the African-American fields.

“That’s where the trends in the scholarship are going — it’s more internationalist and more comparative. Much of the really exciting work intellectually is being done through that lens of comparative analysis,” says Dr. Manning Marable, the director of the Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia University.

For their part, veteran university scholars affiliated with the Center for Africana Studies have greeted the center’s establishment with obvious pride after having worked hard for its establishment. They praise current university administrators, students and supportive faculty members who helped
reverse the faculty resistance that previous administrations had encountered when the school had considered launching Black studies as an academic program between the 1970s and 1990s.

“I think (the Center for Africana Studies is) a major victory for the institution, particularly for the student body, because the fight for an Africana studies department had been in the works since the 1960s. And there had not been a sincere response until four years ago when the center was established,” says Johns Hopkins sociology professor Katrina Bell McDonald.

McDonald is affiliated with the Center for Africana Studies as an executive board member.

“I think as it is presently constructed and operating the benefits to the university are enormous … It has started off on the right track, the right foot as it were, and is doing extremely well,” says Dr. Franklin Knight, a long-time history professor at Johns Hopkins and an Africana studies executive board member.

Eager to see the Center for Africana Studies beef up its African-American studies course offerings, both scholars and students at Johns Hopkins currently await search results by the respective department chairs in coordination with Vinson to hire an English department faculty specialist in African-American literature and a history department faculty specialist in African-American history. As is the custom with academic programs and centers, the Center for Africana Studies depends upon academic department hires for the faculty members expected to add new courses appropriate for Africana studies. Through a few core Africana courses as well as cross-listed courses from the sociology, political science, history and anthropology departments, undergraduates can either major or minor in Africana studies.

Currently, some 20 faculty members spread over several departments teach the courses that are listed as Africana studies classes this semester.
“I think one of the things that will be important to keep your eye on for the next few years with us hopefully is to see if we’re successful in attracting faculty in various disciplines that teach in Africana studies,” Vinson notes.

Dr. Adam Falk, the dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, explains that the vision for the Center for Africana Studies derives from faculty members who saw African and African Diaspora studies as a foundation for Black studies. As Falk sees it, “part of the motivation was to take advantage of the strengths that we already had here that instead of building something entirely new we wanted to build on the things that we already did very well,” he says.

“And African history, there’s no question, was one of the real strengths at that time and still is here at Hopkins. So there was a strategic decision as well to connect this center to Africa,” Falk notes.

“If you look throughout the humanities and the social sciences what scholars are realizing is how critical it is to think in the comparative, transnational frame and to think across disciplines, and across continents and across time periods to really understand the interesting developments in politics, literature, and history and so forth,” he adds.

Marable, who is the founding director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS), says that Black studies programs at major research universities are increasingly embracing comparative approaches, which are focusing on people of African descent in the Americas and the Caribbean. That comparative approach includes African-American studies, which has traditionally been the basis of Black studies at U.S. universities and colleges. Marable notes that it’s not as common for programs, such as Johns Hopkins, to pull together African studies, the study of the African Diaspora in the Latin America/Caribbean and African-American studies under one entity.

“A number of elite African-American studies programs have expanded to include Africa and the best example of that is Harvard. They have greatly expanded the size of their department and have something like 26 faculty members, which is the largest in the country. (Embracing African, African Diaspora in the Latin America/Caribbean, and African-American studies is) hard to do because it requires a large number of faculty to do it well,” Marable says.
There are roughly 300 U.S. colleges and universities that offer at least a bachelor’s in Black studies, according to Dr. Charles E. Jones, the president of the National Council for Black Studies and associate professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University.

Over the past year, Vinson has enthusiastically plunged into making the center a highly visible and active academic and research entity. The center played host to a number of conferences and workshops. In October, the center was scheduled to host the 30th anniversary commemoration of the well-known Callaloo literary journal.

Vinson has inaugurated the Diaspora Pathways Project, a research initiative aimed to interpret the shifting landscape of the African Diaspora, particularly as it relates to the greater Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area. One of the chief goals of the project is “to assess the role of transnationalism and international migration upon contemporary Black life,” according to Vinson.

“This city has gone through remarkable transformations. It is historically one of the largest areas of free Black life during the early slavery era. It’s one of the early centers for NAACP activity; it has an interesting political history in terms of Black participation; and it has an incredible enriching Black church history. And a lot of the historical materials have either been understudied or not been collected and preserved,” Vinson says.

One notable effort falling under the purview of the Diaspora Pathways Project is the collaboration between Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore-based Afro-American newspapers. This past summer, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the university a three-year grant of $476,000 to facilitate opening the 115-year-old newspaper company’s historic archives to access by scholars and the public.

As director of the Center for Africana Studies, Vinson is well aware that he’s taking a leadership role that’s likely to prove a significant one for helping shape the Black studies discipline. His record as a researcher and scholar has won him considerable admiration from faculty and administrators at John Hopkins University. Vinson is well liked for his affable charm and modesty.
“He’s a very charismatic and a dynamic individual. The deans love him,”
McDonald says.

His scholarly reputation rests largely upon his research and writings on colonial-era Mexico, the African Diaspora in Latin America, and relations between African-Americans and Latinos. His published books include Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico and Flight: The Story of Virgil Richardson, A Tuskegee Airman in Mexico. His current book project is an assessment of the Mexican colonial caste system.

Prior to Johns Hopkins, Vinson taught at Pennsylvania State University as an associate history professor. He’s also taught history at Barnard College. He has held fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, National Humanities Center and the Social Science Research Council. He earned a doctorate in history from Columbia University in 1998.

Vinson’s arrival at Johns Hopkins has coincided with other recent high-profile hires of minority faculty members in the arts and sciences division. Three African-American faculty members have joined the political science department in recent years and they have affiliations with the Center for Africana Studies. In 2006, Dr. Michael Hanchard arrived at Hopkins from Northwestern University where he had been director of that university’s Institute for Diasporic Studies and a professor of political science and African-American studies. Hired in 2005 as a full-time faculty member, Dr. Lester Spence, had previously held joint appointments in the political science department at Johns Hopkins and the African and the African-American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis.

A political science department hire in 2004, Dr. Floyd Hayes III, the coordinator of the Africana studies undergraduate program and a senior lecturer in the political science department, says he hopes the presence of Africana studies helps spark interest in other departments, such as philosophy and economics, to consider scholars who have expertise in Africana studies.

“There’s a real need to expand and be visionary as we do that. I want to be optimistic that we will move in this direction,” Hayes says. McDonald says the center’s creation represents for her, the only Black woman on the arts and sciences faculty for much of her time at Johns Hopkins, “one of the most hopeful moments I’ve had” since joining the university in 1994.

“It’s exhausting work, but absolutely necessary. And I’ve only been able to stay at Hopkins as long as I have on the hope that something like (the Center for Africana Studies) would work at some point,” she says. “There was always a ray of hope given the people I was working with that we would be able to get to this point — of having a viable program of interesting people,” she says.

McDonald believes the center will make it possible for Johns Hopkins to hire additional minority faculty members. “We know how important it is to have a center such as this to attract people of color, particularly scholars of African descent, to give them a space where they might settle in better than the department into which they were recruited,” she notes.

“So we’re in the process of trying to strongly direct two new hires out of the English department and out of the history department such that again they end up enriching the program we have in place already at the center.”

Knight says another reason the center benefits Johns Hopkins is due to its potential to help facilitate outreach to the Baltimore community, especially to the city’s majority Black population. “What I find most exciting about the center is its collateral activity — it is an outreach center. It’s already established contact with the Baltimore Museum of Art, with the Reginald Lewis Afro-American Museum, with local communities,” he explains.

“And this is a tremendously valuable activity. It’s not related to the university directly, but it enhances the outreach of the university to the community in which it resides, and for which it remained somewhat aloof for far too long,” Knight says.

–Ronald Roach

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