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Africana Studies

  • Armond R. Towns
  • Atiya Husain

In Spring 2020, five undergraduate students submitted a proposal for the creation of an Africana Studies department at UR. In addition to a proposal, the students created an online petition to demonstrate their peers’ interest. The petition received over 500 signatures from current undergraduate students (and nearly 800 total signatures total), suggesting that the five students who submitted the proposal were not alone. At a liberal arts school that prides itself on tailoring its education to its students, or student-centered learning, this FLC is designed to take seriously student demand for Africana Studies. According to the student proposal, Africana Studies is “the examination of African and African diasporic intellectual thought on the social, economic, political and cultural conditions of our world,”[1] largely absent from classes at UR. We concur with the student definition, and have designed this proposal to further investigate the relevance of Africana Studies to UR.

The Topic

In a presentation at Yale University in 1967, Harold Cruse argued that the historical function of the university for people of all races was to increase one’s social status. Indeed, the university has been a space where people from particular political and economic backgrounds can potentially better themselves, largely politically and economically. However, in the middle of upheavals throughout the country (civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, LGBTQ rights, the women’s movement, etc.), Cruse argued that the function of Black Studies was necessarily different from the social-status goals that the university currently provides. The function of Black Studies was instead social utility: the ability to take what one learns in the classroom and be better adept at addressing the aforementioned upheavals, both locally and trans/nationally.

UR has long had much to offer students in terms of social status. But in the wake of research reports conducted by Dr. Lee and Driskill on the historical link between racial slavery and UR’s campus,[2] and in the wake of killings of unarmed Black people by white police and vigilantes,[3] UR has little to offer in terms of social utility when it concerns anti-Black violence. Although UR is currently limited in this way, we believe that the function of social utility mirrors the stated goals of the liberal arts as a whole, making Black Studies a fit at UR that this FLC will explore.

There has been a relative silence on the part of most faculty in support of the student proposal (if not silent support, then out-right dismissal of the proposal as “divisive” in some cases). The implication for all students is that divisiveness does not lie in the current disproportionate focus on Western European- and US-based forms of knowledge; no, the true divisiveness occurs when Black students propose to learn about the lives and knowledges of people of who look like them. In other words, at the same time that universities are being attacked as bastions of overly liberal thought, Black students on this campus are being told that their interests are the true attacks against inclusivity—not only by their fellow students but by faculty and staff.

As the students have argued, Africana Studies is not exclusionary or self-serving, but an essential part of fulfilling the university’s most basic mission. Further, Black people have played a major role in shaping this university. Lee’s and Driskill’s report has already empirically shown this. We live in a city that is haunted by racial slavery, and we remain 50 years behind our peer institutions that formalized Africana Studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, in the wake of the novel coronavirus, the university is rightly concerned about how to fill classrooms, and over 500 of its own students have already made it clear that Africana Studies can assist with such a goal.

Goals

Led by Dr. Armond Towns and Dr. Atiya Husain, this FLC’s primary goals are three-fold. First, to enable faculty, students, and staff to understand the history of Africana Studies at other liberal arts institutes. We will research curriculums, missions, histories, and goals of multiple Africana Studies programs and departments. Second, we will use this research as a basis to think about how such curriculums, missions, histories, and goals could apply to UR’s specific context and existing strengths. And finally, we will hold a symposium in Spring 2021 called “Black Studies in the 21st Century University.” The symposium will be based both on the UR student proposal as well as the 1967 Yale symposium mentioned above. We seek to invite a host of interdisciplinary Africana Studies scholars for a one-day, university-wide event that will include two keynote speakers and 4-5 presentations on the importance of Africana Studies at the university level.

In the process of meeting these goals, we will create a proposal for an Africana Studies program. Admittedly, this is not what the students asked for; they want departmentalization. However, students have been told by administrators that the only way to get a department is to create a program first (which is not in the faculty handbook). Still, in close consultation with the faculty senate and the steering committee, this FLC will conclude with the development of an Africana Studies program proposal put forth by faculty.

University Mission

If the university is dedicated to the values and vision of its Strategic Plan, then the alignment of Africana Studies with UR’s Strategic Plan writes itself. As of right now, there are six values of the Strategic Plan. One is “student growth,” whereby the university is committed to “personal and intellectual development of all students” via close mentoring and small classes. Africana Studies provides an underexamined area of intellectual development not offered in any substantial way at UR. Relatedly, the “pursuit of knowledge” is an important value of the university, dedicated to “intellectual curiosity” and “promotion of a vibrate intellectual community that encourages thoughtful disagreement.” Africana Studies begins as a challenge to the foundation of much of Western knowledge, speaking to the thoughtful disagreement that the university purports to value. “Inclusivity and equity” is also an important area of the university that is consistently touted on brochures and media. It calls for the “thoughtful and respectful engagement with a broad diversity of perspectives and experiences essential to intellectual growth,” which sounds a lot like what Cruse called social use above. Africana Studies speaks to the broad perspectives and experiences that are promoted as necessary for growth, but do not yet exist here.

Another value is “diversity and educational opportunity,” which commits to “fostering a diverse community of students, staff and faculty.” As is representative of the students who have signed the petition, Africana Studies draws in a diverse group of community members who will have a place to think that many feel is not available now. In addition, the university values an “ethical engagement” to consider the “consequences of our ideas and actions, and meaningful engagement with our local and global community.” Again, Dr. Lee and Driskill have shown us the ideas and actions of the university in a city with a large Black population; and Africana Studies can be a way to create more mutually beneficial engagement. Finally, “responsible stewardship” includes the trust that the university places in previous generations of students, alumni, parents, and other community members.[4] It is important that those generations see that the type and form of education valued at UR changes with the times, which is a central component of any good Africana Studies education at other institutions. This FLC seeks to address each of these calls and to broaden the university for the better in the process.

Impact

If it were not for the novel coronavirus, the 2020 student proposal for Africana Studies would have arguably gone down as one of the more impactful events of the university campus for the year. It sparked debate at the administrative and student level. There are few positive events that happen on campus that pull that much cross-university discussion. This FLC builds off that student momentum to continue the conversation where it left off. It will be a way for students to continue their work and materialize it in both a symposium and a program.

Recruitment of Members

Student members will be one group recruited for this FLC. Five student authors remain at UR, and they major in a wide array of fields: Business, RHCS, American Studies, IDST, and Jepson. It is, of course, this broad array of majors that illustrates the problem of not having Africana Studies: no matter the major, some students feel that they cannot get the type of education they seek at UR. The FLC will also recruit primarily faculty and staff from Arts & Sciences, the library, and the Jepson Leadership School.

[1] Corbin, Fortson-Brown, Greer, Shaw, and Tann, “Africana Studies at the University of Richmond,” February 2020, https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeGb6sXQOWM4pHyxDQCCBS8MuzA-tvUth0L58syDTyNfoHPvg/alreadyresponded

[2] Lee and Driskill, “A Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond,” December 28, 2019, https://president.richmond.edu/inclusive-excellence/report-pdfs/burying-ground-report.pdf

[3] McLaughlin, “What We Know About Ahmaud Arbery’s Killing,” CNN, May 12, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/11/us/ahmaud-arbery-mcmichael-what-we-know/index.html

[4] University of Richmond, “Strategic Plan: Mission, Values & Vision,” https://strategicplan.richmond.edu/mission/index.html