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Submission: Afro-American studies has right to be department

By Kevin Truong

Feb. 5, 2014 12:08 a.m.


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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