Challenging anti-Black racism has two sides. It requires attacking those habits and institutions that do violence to the bodies and souls of Black folks daily. It also requires cultivating habits and institutions that allow for Black life to flourish. On many campuses, including Villanova’s, Africana Studies programs have a crucial role to play.
Amid the racial turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black students on university campuses across the United States used protests and direct action to demand that the academy support the study of the Black experience. At Villanova, students occupied the dean’s office.
Born of the struggle against the exclusion of Black people and ideas from intellectual life, Africana Studies is unlike Irish Studies, Russian Studies, or Middle East Studies. At the core of Africana Studies is the analysis of domination. The paradigm of domination is master standing over slave, and the Middle Passage offers up domination in laboratory conditions.
After slavery was legally abolished, the battery of norms, habits, emotions, and institutions that made such a perverse system possible remained: anti-Blackness. Racial domination manifests in Blacks’ vulnerability to police violence and prison, health and economic disparities, and the microaggressions that cause daily psychic trauma. Africana Studies scholars name the connections between these forms of anti-Blackness and their shared root in slavery.
Africana Studies courses expose students to Black history, art, literature, and music, affirming the value and beauty of Black culture while always routing that cultural analysis through questions of domination. What are the machinations of power that seek to distort and repress Black culture, and how have Black folks ingeniously evaded the forces of white supremacy? Centered on the analysis of domination, Africana Studies challenges other academic disciplines to reckon with the way their scholarly norms are contaminated by anti-Blackness.
The student activists whose demands gave rise to Africana Studies called for these programs to be responsible not only to scholarly peers and university administrators, but also to the Black community: Black students, Black staff, and Black university neighbors. While their scholarship is to be rigorous and their teaching compelling, Africana Studies scholars must listen to community members’ needs and report back to community members on how their scholarship responds to those needs.
Africana Studies program leaders at Catholic universities recently penned an open letter calling for more support. Currently, Villanova’s program cannot hire faculty; we depend on the generosity of colleagues in other departments to teach courses that count toward our minor and major. While hiring more Black faculty across campus is essential and urgent, and supporting diversity initiatives for student life is also important, these cannot replace the need to resource and institutionalize Africana Studies. Indeed, when Africana Studies is strong, it will be easier to recruit and retain Black faculty and students.
The history of Africana Studies teaches us that increased support for programs will only happen in connection with a mass movement. Today, inextricable from the demand that Black lives matter is the demand that Africana Studies matters.
Associate Professor and Director of Africana Studies Program, @NovaAfricana
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