OUT OF AFRICA
(and Into the Academy)

Penn’s New Center
for Africana Studies
Wants All Disciplines
to Reflect More
Fully the Diversity
of What It Means
to Be Human

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Photograph of W.E.B. DuBois, from the exhibition, Darkwater: Recital in Four Dimensions, Arthur Ross Gallery.

A column of muffled drums, each stacked on top of the other, rises to the ceiling of the Arthur Ross Gallery. Reflected in one drumhead is the ominous outline of a noose suspended a few yards away.

W.E.B. DuBois, the inspiration for this exhibition, Darkwater: Recital in Four Dimensions—created for Penn’s new Center for Africana Studies (CAS) by Dr. Terry Adkins, associate professor of fine art—once organized a silent drum march to protest lynching across the United States. An early drummer for social justice, DuBois was also one of the first faculty members at Penn to document the lives of African Americans.

More than a century after DuBois penned The Philadelphia Negro, the Center for Africana Studies is examining the question of “how to institutionalize” at Penn “the study of the black body on planet Earth,” says Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, CAS director and professor of sociology. “Our answer to that,” he says, “is by forming an intellectual discourse which perpetuates itself throughout the University” and includes “a more universal discussion about what it means to be a human being.”

CAS, which emerges from Penn’s three-decades-old Afro-American Studies program and its Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture, hopes to feed that dialogue. Its focus includes the study of “the human, cultural, social, political, economic, and historical factors that have created and shaped the African-American and African Diaspora experiences.” (www.upenn.edu/africana).

After DuBois was denied tenure at Penn, at the turn of the 20th century, little activity took place in the fields of Afro-American or African studies on campus until World War II, when African languages such as Bantu, Ibo, and Swahili were taught for their strategic importance. (Kwame Nkrumah GEd’42 G’43 who would go on to become the first president of Ghana, was one of the student instructors.) Though motivated by political and military activities, those courses still served “the higher intellectual purpose of challenging the notion of what languages are taught at the university, and why,” says Zuberi.

But it wasn’t until 1970, in response to student activism, that an Afro-American studies program was set up at Penn; prize-winning writer John Edgar Wideman C’63 Hon’86 served as its first director.

“It’s not unusual for departments and for disciplines to be formed as a consequence of political and ideological movements,” says Zuberi. The Enlightenment and the Renaissance resulted in departments of philosophy, history, political science, sociology, and economics, he notes. “You have the political movement called eugenics, and every social statistics department owes its history to eugenics. [Most] genetics departments owe their origins to eugenics.” Likewise, the disciplines of Afro-American and African studies emerge out of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Pan-African movements.

Though Penn’s course offerings have grown from only a handful in the early 1970s to more than 20 each semester today, the question remains: “How do we institutionalize [these studies] in the space of the academy?” Zuberi asks.

Answering his own question, he continues, “We need to be less afraid of difference and diversity” in the academy. “We need to recognize that to understand humanity does not mean to understand what has happened in Europe [alone]. It also means to understand what has happened in Asia, what has happened in [the Americas], and what has happened in Africa. It is not enough “for a program to call itself economics or to call itself sociology or to call itself anything without understanding the experience of peoples all over the world.”

To this end, the center is trying to recruit additional faculty and to form a graduate program to add to its undergraduate program, all of which could eventually lead to the formation of a department.

Zuberi hopes these steps will “convince our colleagues—and some of them are already convinced—that it is important to not only recruit African-American faculty,” but to “change the substance of the curricula so that it reflects this diversity intellectually.” The Center for Africana Studies sees itself as one source for enhancing that intellectual diversity. “And we always invite faculty to come out to our programming as a way of engaging themselves and other faculty around these important issues.”

The Darkwater exhibition, which ended March 2, is part of a yearlong celebration of African-American Studies at Penn that includes events on literature; society; culture and art; critical theory; and history. In the center of the exhibition space stands a feeding trough filled with luminous black balls that seem to emit energy into two clear, lighted towers of bubbling liquid.
Entitled Postlude, it comments on slavery.

NAACP president and civil-rights activist Julian Bond—whose own grandfather was born into slavery in Kentucky —talked about the continuing consequences of white society feeding at the trough of racial oppression when he was on campus in January to give the annual, CAS-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice.

Opponents of Affirmative Action are truly “color blind,” Bond noted. “They’re blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today. Black people who try to get a job know those consequences well.” He cited a study in which 5,000 resumes —each randomly assigned a black- or white-sounding name—were sent in response to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago. “The resumes from the Emily Walshes and the Brendan Bakers received 50 percent more callbacks than did the resumes from the Lakeesha Washingtons and the Jamal Joneses,” he said. “Black people seeking housing know these consequences, too,” with more than one in five blacks facing illegal discrimination while trying to buy or rent a place to live.

“And black people who face disproportionate arrest and incarceration, they know the consequences, too. One in three black men carries the lifelong stigma of being a felon, thanks in part to this nation’s racially disparate war on drugs.” Imprisonment is “the new segregation; [it] is the new Jim Crow,” Bond said.

Yet removal of “the more blatant forms of American apartheid” during the Civil Rights movement “has now made it too easy for too many to believe that all forms of discrimination have disappeared.” The organizing, mobilizing, and other hard work that Civil Rights activists engaged in during “our democracy’s finest hour” are needed once again—not to place bandages on the problems, he said, but to end them at their source.

Bond told a story about two men sitting by a river. “To their great surprise, they see a helpless baby come floating by. They jump in and save the child, and to their horror, another baby comes down the stream,” and then another. “One of the men jumps in the water a third time and the other man begins to run upstream. ‘Come back!’ says the man in the water. ‘We’ve got to save this child.’

“‘You save it,’ says the running man. ‘I’m gonna find out who’s throwing babies in the water and I’m gonna make him stop!’”

Susan Frith

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03