Africana studies blends academics with social justice
by Michelle Simmons
October 3, 2011
“The professors have been really great about building a community and working with us,” says Grace Perry ’11. “The exhibit is a perfect example of that. Each of us was given our own creative freedom in terms of what we wanted it to look like.”
Not long after Lynn Johnson joined Dickinson’s faculty in 2004 as assistant professor of English with a focus on African-American literature, she began talking with colleagues about launching a major in Africana studies.
The idea had been floating around campus since 1968, when the first black-studies program was inaugurated at San Francisco State University and former sociology major Komozi Woodard ’71 co-taught a black-studies course at Dickinson (see Page 14).
“So many of the new [Dickinson] hires from 2004 on were specialists in Africana and Caribbean culture,” Johnson says. More Africana-related classes were being offered, which meant a curriculum could be built around existing courses.
Study-abroad programs in Cameroon and Tanzania already were among Dickinson’s global-education options. The college’s Community Studies Center was launching its Comparative Black Liberation Mosaic, a semesterlong program that would take students to Mississippi and South Africa.
The time was ripe, and Dickinson added Africana studies to its roster of majors in 2008.
“As part of the planning process, we polled students who had taken courses or expressed interest,” says Johnson, who chaired the department from 2009 to ’11. “The buzz had been going around. Students were facilitating and recruiting others into the major before we did.”
Grace Perry ’11 was among the first to declare the major. “Africana studies, black studies—whatever you want to call it—came out of the civil-rights era, and that’s one of the underpinnings of the discipline,” she says. “I chose Africana studies because it’s not just about gaining knowledge for the sake of gaining knowledge; it’s about using it for social-justice purposes. It’s about your actually having to get up and do something with it.”
The department was further enhanced in 2009 with a $1.5-million gift from anonymous donors to endow the Distinguished Chair in Africana Studies. Its incumbent is Assistant Professor Patricia van Leeuwaarde Moonsammy, whose research focus is the intersection of music, dance, social activism and the politics of representation in the post-colonial Caribbean.
“The program reflects an integrated approach to the study of Africa and the African diaspora,” explains Jeremy Ball, associate professor of history and chair of Africana studies. “One exciting component is the opportunity to invite leading scholars and artists to campus to highlight current academic debates, ideas and cultural production.”
Some of those scholars include Tricia Rose from Brown University and Sonia Sanchez, one of the founders of San Francisco State’s black-studies program. In 2009, the department presented its first Africana Studies Conference, which featured acclaimed Atlantic slave-trade historian Marcus Rediker as keynote speaker.
The department also has partnered with student organizations to curate an exhibit on African-American performance artists, co-sponsored a black-history series with several departments across campus and held a joint research symposium with the Latin-American, Latino & Caribbean-studies department.
“We’re expanding our global component as well,” adds Johnson, citing plans for two new Mosaics, one on the Atlantic slave trade in Ghana and South Carolina and another on expressive culture and carnival in Trinidad.
Meanwhile, students have been conducting independent research on black alumni and recently curated an exhibit, Making Black History at Dickinson (see Page 24). In May, the program welcomed its first crop of alumni when six majors graduated.
“With the inception of Africana studies as a solid department, we now have an institutional focus on black history and culture,” says Perry, co-curator of the exhibit. “I think I can speak for the other graduates when I say how much this department has meant to us. We’re the pioneers of it.”