The History of the Department of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles

Journal of Pan African Studies, December 2017 | Go to article overview

The History of the Department of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles


University of California, Santa Cruz Distinguished Professor Emerita Dr. Angela Davis and Dr. Melina Abdullah (professor and char, Department of Pan-African Studies, CSU Los Angeles) at the 9th Annual Pan- African Studies Forum, June 1, 2016 at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at CSU Los Angeles.

The Department of Pan-African Studies (PAS) is part of a field/discipline of "Black Studies," which includes academic programs that examine the history, culture, politics, economics, and worldviews of people of African descent. Departments and programs include: Black Studies, Africana Studies, African American Studies, African Diaspora Studies, Africology, as well as Pan-African Studies.

The Pan-African approach to the discipline recognizes that although the Black American experience remains central to an understanding of Black people in the United States, teaching and research on the African continent and the African Diaspora must include the study of Black people from every continent, language group, and faith tradition, and especially continental Africans and Africans in the Americas. Simultaneously, PAS is central to the broader academic movement of Ethnic Studies, which includes Asian American Studies, Chicana/o Studies, Latina/o Studies, and Native American Studies.

Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA is the second oldest Black Studies department in the nation, founded out of the student struggles of the late 1960s. PAS was initially established as a program in 1967 and won departmental status in 1969, concurrently to the founding of the oldest Department of Chicano Studies in the nation, also at Cal State LA. As such, the history of the Department in many ways overlaps with the history of the discipline (Zulu 2006, page 103).

Black Studies, as a field, finds its roots in a community, rather than an academic effort. In 1966, the Black liberation movement firmly transitioned from the Civil Rights era to the Black Power era, with Stokely Carmichael delivering his classic "Black Power" speech on October 29, 1966 at UC Berkeley. While not fully articulated in Carmichael's address, Black educational self-determination laid a foundation for Black Studies. Student and community organizing, especially in the Bay Area, included community, political, economic, social, and educational goals informed by a Black Power consciousness. The first Black Studies department and first and only College of Ethnic Studies was founded at San Francisco State in 1968 only after a 5-month long student and community strike, the longest student strike in university history, initiated by the Black Student Union and organized in partnership with the Third World Student Alliance and the Black Panther Party (T'Shaka 2012, pages 19-24). Similarly, the founding of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA was a response to student and community efforts with the Black Student Union and Black Power groups at the center. This history is distinct from that of academic units that are initiated by the university, rather than demanded from it.

That Pan-African Studies was founded out of student and community struggle is key in its positioning as an intellectual effort rather than an academic one. This rejection of an academic positioning is a resistance to "institutional structures that are designed to contain ideas, repress imagination, and indoctrinate the mind," (hooks 2003, page 186). For Black Studies as a field, this has meant that the pedagogical and epistemological approaches must find their home in and be contributory to the larger community, support justice efforts, and understand students as whole and complete people, whose temporary student status is transitory.

Since departmentalizing in 1969, PAS has experienced both growth and setbacks in its development. As a result of the political, cultural, and social gains of Civil Rights and Black Power movement, the Department grew rapidly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. …

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