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Submission: Afro-American studies has right to be department


The UCLA Academic Senate is currently reviewing a proposal to convert the Interdepartmental Program in Afro-American Studies into a full-fledged department. If all goes well, we will mark our 40th anniversary with a new name and a new status – the Department of African-American Studies.

Departmentalizing Afro-American studies is an idea that is long overdue. It was discussed when I was a doctoral student here in the 1980s, but back then, an interdisciplinary department devoted to the study of race, culture, power and knowledge was considered heresy.

Since then our enrollments have increased, our graduate programs have placed students in leading doctoral programs and law schools, and we’ve recruited a world-class faculty. And thanks to the tireless work of Professor Mark Sawyer, the principal force behind the proposal, we have won the support of administrators, including Dean of Social Sciences Alessandro Duranti and Chancellor Gene Block.

And yet, since I accepted the post as interim chair of Afro-American studies, I’ve been asked incessantly, “Why departmentalize?” The question is both curious and intellectually lazy. When I ask why history or economics or political science should enjoy departmental status, the common response is that these are “real disciplines” – as if this were self-evident.

And when I point out that other interdepartmental programs – notably Chicano/a studies, Asian American studies and gender studies – have become departments, I get blank stares.

Becoming a department is essentially about equality. Departments can control faculty lines and make faculty appointments, whereas interdepartmental programs must rely on faculty who hold appointments in other departments.

Research and teaching interests, not departmental affiliation, hold our faculty together. As long as we are dependent on departments for curricular offerings, our ability to offer students a consistent and coherent course of study will be severely constrained.

Although Afro-American studies was born of black students’ struggles, we are here to serve all students – just as UCLA is charged with educating and supporting all of our students. We are not here to raise self-esteem or make students feel good or guilty, but neither are we a diversity project. The imperative to transform university culture so it reflects a far richer reality is a task for the entire campus.

Rather, we interrogate the construction of race, the persistence of inequality, and the process by which the category of “black” or “African” came into being as a chief feature of Western thought. Students learn how slavery was central to the emergence of capitalism and modernity, presenting political and moral philosophers their most fundamental challenge.

And we examine how people of African descent tried to remake the world through ideas, art and social movements. These and other lines of inquiry require dozens of disciplinary lenses, including psychology, literature, history, sociology, musicology and gender studies.

Why must we continue to defend Afro-American studies as a legitimate intellectual endeavor? Just look around: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia all have respected and well-endowed departments of African American or African studies. If anything, UCLA lags woefully behind our peers.

“What will it cost us?” This is a common question from colleagues and students who have been told that departmentalization will raise fees. Let me first assuage all fears by disclosing that we are launching our new department by shuffling the lines of existing faculty who have been teaching for the program consistently, as well as recruiting faculty from other departments who situate their work in African American studies.

We lack adequate space and currently have no staff member dedicated solely to our unit. This will change, but in the meantime we persevere on a shoestring budget and the dedication of overworked faculty.

As interim chair and a faculty member who has been instrumental in African American studies at Columbia University, New York University, the University of Michigan and yes, that other school across town, I find concerns about the price of departmentalization offensive.

We are at a university where black students comprise 3.8 percent of the undergraduate population and two out of every three men are undergraduate athletes. We pay to see these black men perform and we pay the football coach $2.3 million and the basketball coach $2.6 million each year to oversee them. But when it comes to teaching our students why college-age black men are overrepresented in our nation’s prisons, we are reluctant to spend the money.

Hopefully our new department will help us see African Americans on our campus as more than the embodiment of Bruin glory, but as thinkers, agents and subjects of scholarly inquiry. And if we’re really successful, our faculty will help us see the whole world with new eyes.

Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of U.S. History at UCLA and the interim chair of the Interdepartmental Program for Afro-American studies.

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  • The_Herman_Cains


  • Carlos Rivas

    Please let me know how I can help…

    -Carlos Rivas, PhD Student in Art History at UCLA

  • Jonathan_9

    Hey, as long as the focus is on actual culture and history there is no reason not to have an Afro-American studies department. I’d only encourage standards be high for the curriculum there. I went to San Fran State, and unfortunately there are still hold overs from the famous 1968 incident teaching in our Afro-American studies department. By hold-overs I mean they subscribe to some of the nonsense theories that were in vogue at the time. Teaching the discredited Stolen Legacy narrative (some faculty still assign “They Came Before Columbus”!) only is to the disadvantage of students. Champion Frederick Douglass, Du Bois , call Garveyism out for what it was. And for God’s sake don’t do a Rutger’s/Georgetown and let someone teach a course on Beyonce or JayZ, yes there may be something to analyze in lyrics or the social/class/culture etc. of hip-hop and its influence on Afro-american culture but there is a way to be academic about it.

    • ladybruin12

      As far as most of us are concerned it has always been about politics. The focus is always on culture and history. I graduated with a degree from UCLA in African American Studies and Sociology and we have classes on the prison complex; we challenge Garvey and Du Bois in countless classes; We look into Afro-Am communities and study health disparities while trying to find solutions; we don’t only study black culture in the US but in latin american and caribbean countries; we study music as a form of history and as a challenge to the racial implications of the dominating class–and that is all while we are still interdepartmental. I cannot wait to see what they can do when becoming departmentalized. It is exciting to think about.

      • Jonathan_9

        I agree, it is exciting to think about what they may do. I’ll admit I am not terribly certain what departmentalization really achieves for any discipline, other than allowing it to define its own goals in major curriculum and it’s own allowance of funds to draw from as opposed to sharing with other departments. I realize that politics play a big part in any campus administrative decisions. UCLA has a good enough track record to assume that the curricula would actually be relevant and based upon scholarly evidence.

        It is mostly a matter of my own experiences and those of my classmates at SFSU that cause me to feel it necessary to advocate against teaching certain narratives, even knowing it may not apply to UCLA. I realize the narratives I take issue with, for the most part fall under the Afrocentric narrative and as such may not even fall under the curriculum of African-American. It is difficult to put into words how disheartening it is watching classmates on your own campus being taught things that have been very well contended or dis-proven and taking that curricula in as truth. In many cases these students are genuinely interested in their ethnic history, and the Afrocentric narratives of Martin Bernal and Ivan Van Sertima is a terrible disservice.

        On the music-related courses commentary, I suppose I could have elaborated. I did not mean in any way to write off the value of studying music in African-American culture, there is a wealth of information there! I suppose as a history major I am a bit quick to judge contemporary music culture as more self-indulgent. I am more of the opinion that slave songs, gospel, the all too neglected ragtime, Motown, soul and even 90′s hip-hop would be able to produce more substantive courses–the significance of those genres/periods appear to me to provide more easily read social, class and racial implications than contemporary artists who are more relevant mostly in terms of commercialization.

  • William Conwill

    RDGKelley slams this one out of the park! 10 years after I came to the U of Florida to help shore up and develop the AfAmStudiesProgram, and seeing all the political, departmental, ideological, financial, etc., grandstanding that he describes up close in the State that brought “Stand Your Ground” and “I Hate Loud Music and Black Male Teens Who Talk Back” into the spotlight, I applaud his statement. Watered-down calls for a “multiculturalism that’s not really multicultural” (“Can’t we all just forget about what really happened and just get along to get along so we can just get along without you reminding us?”), and the university-as-business push for self-supporting sexy (bottom line: no Amiri Baraka/Angela Davis types up in here up-in-here; full seats, in whatever sells–classes emphasizing appreciation of pop culture/hip-hop/no critical reading, etc) departments are still very heavy demands.

  • Birgitta Johnson

    BRAVO Dr. Kelley, bravo 1000 times. #UCLAEthnomusicologyMA/PhD 2002/2008 #AssistantProfessorOfEthonmusicology&AfricanAmericanStudies@U.ofSouthCarolina

  • kwame_zulu_shabazz

    Peace to you, Jonathan.

    You have subtly shifted your argument. You originally lambasted Van Sertima’s work and made a strong paternalistic claim that his book has no place in a university classroom. You stated thus:

    //Teaching the discredited Stolen Legacy narrative (some faculty still
    assign “They Came Before Columbus”!) only is to the disadvantage of

    Now you concede that Van Sertima “has value,” but you take issue with how Afrocentric works are taught (by the way, while I embrace it, Van Sertima never liked the term “Afrocenric”). “Guns” is a highly acclaimed book–I seem to recall that it won a Pulitzer (!). I don’t imagine that Diamond’s presentations to students are any less biased than Van Sertima’s. Thats where white supremacy comes in.

    Jeffries and Van Sertima are lambasted and Diamond receives prestigious awards. We should be mindful that black scholars are challenging CENTURIES OF WHITE BIAS masquerading as scholarship. Moreover, as I noted in my initial post, Posnansky, a white, highly regarded, UCLA emeritus was clearly biased. When I challenged him in class his solution was to suggest that I drop the course (which I did).

    From what I can recall, Van Sertima never claimed that Olmec culture
    wasn’t indigenous rather he said the Olmec’s were influenced by
    seafarers from Africa. Whatever the case, Van Sertima’s was an impeccable scholar, he didn’t run away from critics. Again, critique is a normal part scholars do.

    You said:

    //Other than the significance of it being a result of the back to Africa
    or reactionary affirmation of racial pride and identity (regardless if
    one views it as accurate or not) I am unsure how Afrocentrism,
    especially with it’s focus on Egypt really relates to African-American

    But there is nothing “reactionary” about “back to Africa.” It was/is a: 1) racist tactic of white supremacists AND 2) a reasonable response of the black victims of white terrorism. As far back as 1829, African Americans have demolished the claim of African inferiority on its on terms. David Walker pointed out that Egypt was “civilized” AND African.

    That is to say, white supremacy was built on the claim that the whole of Africa was “backwards.” Any evidence to the contrary undermined the dubious claim of white superiority (this underscores the importance of “Black Athena” and the many Afrocentric works of Diop and others that preceded it). Ancient Egypt presented unambiguous proof of the fallacy of that claim. Besides the general point of debunking generalized African inferiority a more provocative argument is that Egypt civilization traces its origins to the South.

    I took a class with Appiah, I was underwhelmed by his arguments against Afrocentric scholarship. He hardly noticed that Harvard was established and is maintained by the principles of Eurocentric thought (and slave capital). Ever so slowly, Afrocentric scholars are winning the debate on ancient
    Egypt. Scholars are conceding ground on the African-nesss and, yes, even
    the “blackness” of ancient Egypt. See, for example, the conference “Egypt in its African Context” held in Manchester England:

    Ok, I think we have derailed this topic enough. YES, UCLA absolutely needs a African American Studies DEPARTMENT!!! kzs

    • Jonathan_9

      Haha, this type of derailing was why i was a bit short on elaborating my position in my first post. I enjoyed discussing the topic though, Kwame! Like all disciplines there is always room forr improvement, I don’t deny there is a bias and narrative in the history, and a colonial/racial issue with it. if youd like to discuss further, email me.JONATHAN.SO13@gmail. We can agree that Afro-american studies is needed.

      • kwame_zulu_shabazz

        Agree, Jonathan. I appreciate the dialogue. kzs