Out of Africa

Tukufu Zuberi

The director of the new Center for Africana Studies wants to broaden the scope of Afro-American studies at Penn.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

At the Oct. 24 dedication of the Center for Africana Studies, new Penn faculty member Michael Eric Dyson gave its new director, Professor of Sociology Tukufu Zuberi, an interesting sobriquet, calling him “the Barry White of academe.”

What did he mean by that? “You’ll have to ask Michael,” Zuberi said. Since we weren’t able to do that in time for this article, we’ll offer our own guess.

Like White, Zuberi has a presence you can’t miss when he enters a room. He speaks in a voice that conveys at once an intense passion for all things out of Africa and a warmth that transmits his hope that you, too, will acquire some of that passion.

When he joined Penn’s sociology department in 1989, he was still known as Antonio McDaniel, but he changed his name to reflect his African heritage. And with his ties to Penn’s African Studies Center, which he headed from 1999 to 2000, Zuberi has plans to turn the center he now heads into an intellectual hotbed of research and thought on peoples of African descent, no matter where they now live.

Q. What changes have you seen in the field of Afro-American studies in the last three decades?
This is one of the most exciting times to be involved in Africana studies, because you have programs forming all over the country. Almost every one of our peer institutions already has a degree—a graduate degree. They are offering Ph.D’s.[at] Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell and Columbia. So it is about time that the University of Pennsylvania takes it seriously. The field has gained tremendous respect intellectually. There is a more enlightened academy at this point.

Q. You mentioned that in your college years the focus in Black Studies was on political activism—that in fact the discipline was born of political activism. Does that sort of activism permeate the field as much as it used to?
The thing you have to understand is that many disciplines were formed in this way.

Statistics was formed this way. Eugenics, a very racist political movement, was the precursor to the establishment of most social statistics in the world—and the establishment of statistics departments in universities that look at human beings rather than just mathematical statistics. Sociology, economics and history all trace themselves to a political movement called the Enlightenment, the political movement called the Renaissance, the political movement called moving out of the dark ages. It is all a matter of timing. The fact that the Center for Africana Studies comes out of that political movement is nothing to feel distinct about.

What we have is a revolution in terms of the perception of people of African descent on planet Earth, This revolution includes national liberation movements in Africa, in Latin America and all over Asia. But also it is a consequence of the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement in the United States. These movements demanded that African Americans and African people, wherever they are in the world, be considered human. They challenged the academy’s own notion of its mission. If part of our mission is to understand what it means to be human and how to make that experience better, then nothing could be more appropriate than the formation of the Center for Africana Studies. It is a logical consequence of the development of human intellect.

Q. There is a school of thought that says that it is impossible to really understand what American culture is without understanding black culture.
I think that is definitely true, but I would take it a step further. You cannot understand American culture without understanding many experiences, many cultures and many kinds of histories. In fact, to understand America, one must be able to situate it in world history.

Part of the problem is that in America, people are illiterate of the experience of the world. The fact that we are citizens of a global world is becoming increasingly obvious to everyone. For African Americans, it has been obvious since the slave trade. We should recognize that you have to have a global education in order to appreciate a global reality.

Q. Why did the Afro-American Studies Program become the Center for Africana Studies?
We’ve combined the Afro-American Studies Program and the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture into one program. [The name change] takes advantage of several clusters of intellectual strength that we have on campus. We have one of the strongest programs in African-American religion, in music, and in fine arts. We have practicing artists who are also in the academic world and they teach courses and they supervise students as part of our program. This dynamic is growing in very interesting ways. We even have an artist-in-residence, Louis Massiah, this year. We have our traditional strengths…in English…in history…in sociology. So our traditional strengths are there and we’re beginning to broaden out.

Q. Why does African-American studies matter?
The revolution called the Black Studies Movement, the Afro-American Studies Movement, was cataclysmic in that it transformed our assumptions about the need to simply study Western society in order to know civilization. As a consequence of that revolution, the importance of understanding and studying African-Americans and the African diaspora was put straight up front.

Q. Would you say that Black Studies was, so to speak, the godfather of ethnic studies in American universities?
There is no doubt about it. The need to study and understand issues that pertain specifically to women…the need to have an appreciation of gender studies were a consequence of this struggle. And so, Latin-American Studies and Asian-American Studies come as a consequence of this kind of opening of the door and then everybody rushes in to transform the space.

Q. You were in college in the ’70s. Were you involved in any movements to set up Black Studies programs?
I went to the college that Lee Everett went to [San Jose State University]. Lee Everett being the 400-meter runner who set a world record back in the 1968 Olympics. [It was] John Carlos’s university, Harry Edwards’ university.

So we had, by the time I got there in 1977, an Afro-American Studies program. It was a pretty strong program. It was a period of activism and our activities were focused around very political issues like…Zimbabwe… South Africa…Angola.

Q. I have the impression that our program was especially strong in the humanities. You are a social scientist. Is this a signal of a change in direction?
Our program has always been strong in the social sciences as well. We have 24 faculty associated with the Center and a significant number are in the social sciences. There are [also] many social scientists who are working in African-American Studies who are not African Americans here at Penn.

The thing we have to overcome is the appearance of a lack of presence of African-American faculty at the University. And we definitely need to change that. There are many qualified individuals who should be attracted to the University of Pennsylvania because of both its location and the kind of opportunities they have for engaging with centers like the Center for Africana Studies.

Originally published on December 5, 2002