The neglected continent
The University should establish an African studies major
In February 1969, roughly 1,000 University students gathered at the Rotunda. The assembly marked the final act of a three-day protest against what many viewed as the University’s racist atmosphere. Among the students’ demands was the establishment of a black studies program, Assoc. History Prof. Claudrena Harold reports in an article on black studies at the University.
The Board of Visitors approved an interdisciplinary major in African-American studies the next year.
Nearly half a century later, the push for an African studies major at the University owes much to student interest and involvement. But there are important differences between the clamor for African-American studies programs in the 1960s and 1970s and today’s calls for an African studies concentration.
The late-20th-century black studies movement was strongly politicized — even radical, as sociologist Fabio Rojas declares in his book on the history of black studies as an academic discipline. Indeed, the University’s own black studies movement came amid a larger tide of student activism.
Calls for an African studies program remain politicized to a degree. Arguments for an African studies major that invoke recognition and identity are worth taking seriously. But the University should not institute an African studies concentration in an attempt to solve social and political problems. Rather, the College should create an African studies major because, academically, it cannot afford to do otherwise. If the University wishes to frame itself as a globally conscious school, it must not neglect Africa.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, black student activists attending primarily white universities drew energy from the afterglow of the civil-rights movement. The civil-rights movement did more than inject confidence in black students eager to stake a claim on their communities. It also gave rise to groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which lent structure to student mobilization efforts.
Black student activists across the country carried out strikes and protests at dozens of campuses, including the University. The creation of a black studies program was often just one of multiple demands student activists put forth. Many of these demands aimed at dispelling racist behaviors or eliminating application fees for low-income students.
In short, the calls for black studies programs were part of a social movement, not an academic one. Intellectual and political aims were, for these students, intertwined. Though some activists saw black studies programs as a way to racially diversify the academy and expand scholarly attention to include black experiences, for most students black studies programs addressed a social problem first, an academic problem second. In a racial climate still reeling from the civil-rights movement, learning about African-American life was not a detached intellectual exercise but an opportunity to heal racial fractures. And for black students, African-American studies programs were markers of inclusion and recognition. They offered opportunities for self-understanding that had previously been denied to black undergraduates.
Today’s African studies debate, in contrast, is largely an academic movement with a social component. Students are still doing much to lead the charge. The University’s African Studies Initiative — a group of students devoted to increasing enrollment in the school’s African studies minor and promoting the study of Africa — held a forum Monday evening with the Black Student Alliance. Students and faculty mulled over the current state of African studies at the University. The panel’s main thrust, however, concerned the prospects for an African studies major. Though the University launched an African studies minor in 2007 and offers an interdisciplinary major in African and African-American studies, African studies remains a weak point.
The fact that students are pushing for an African studies major points to the debate’s political dimension. If the momentum behind the program was purely a matter of academic calculation, we’d leave it to the provost’s office.
An African studies major may well have good political consequences. If the University can produce graduates who can serve as global citizens and contribute intelligently to international law, commerce, public service and more, the positive impacts of an African studies major might be felt far beyond Charlottesville.
Global citizenship, as it happens, is a pressing concern for the University, which prides itself on being globally oriented. A lack of an African studies program is a serious omission. The College offers majors in American studies, East Asian studies, German studies, Jewish studies, Latin American studies and Russian and East European studies. But study of the continent that we all originally hail from is merged with African-American studies. The combination of African and African-American studies suggests a distinctly non-global perspective on African affairs. This impression is probably unintentional, the result of bureaucratic wrangling. Nonetheless, we cannot view all of African experience through the lens of black Americans, and our curricula should reflect that.
The University should work to launch an African studies major within the next five to seven years. Doing so will require hiring a few key faculty members. But because the African studies major will almost certainly be interdisciplinary, the school could merge African-studies hiring with regular departmental hiring. Bringing on a few Africanists will not only pave the way for a robust African studies major. It will also enrich the academic departments that are short on Africa specialists.
Demystifying Africa is not just a political cause, but also an academic need. Neglecting African studies does a disservice to black and non-black students alike. Such an important part of our world deserves more of our attention.