Harvard's New Chapter in Black Studies: A Neglected African Studies Program Finally Gets a Departmental Home

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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 New York 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 standalone 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. …