When Kim Hall became director of Barnard’s Africana Studies Program in 2006, she was its only tenured faculty member and ran the program entirely out of her cramped office on the fourth floor of Barnard Hall.
“The program had kind of been neglected by the college and ran into problems with leadership,” Hall, now a professor of English and Africana studies, said.
The program, which has found success in recent years, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week with events dedicated to the works of Ntozake Shange, BC ’70, a poet whose work grapples with race and gender.
English Professor Monica Miller was interested in the program when she joined Barnard’s faculty in 2001, but she said that the curriculum was scattered.
“When I first came here, the Africana Studies Program was in a lot of trouble,” Miller said, citing a lack of successful faculty. “It also had a lot to do with diversity issues at the college,” she added.
The program went through a period of rapid turnover and, according to Miller, was held together entirely by advocacy of faculty members and students that wanted to see it succeed.
“It shouldn’t have been that hard to be studying African-American and African diaspora culture,” Miller said.
“My experience at Barnard was challenging for me,” Shange said. She tried to transfer out because there was no Africana program when she was a student.
Still, she said, “I was heartened by my stay here. For the first time, I felt intellectually validated.”
“My experience here was wonderful and terrible,” she added.
Finally, Hall was hired to revitalize the program, changing the curriculum to incorporate women’s and gender studies.
With the help of the administration, Hall organized a cluster hire that brought in professors Celia Naylor, Yvette Christiansë, and Tina Campt, who took over as director a few years later.
“There was a really energetic group of faculty and students that wanted the college to pay more attention to Africana Studies and rebuild it,” Hall said.
Faculty members who have seen the program evolve said that the 20th anniversary celebration event is about thanking the students who helped make the program succeed.
“Because the program was one, like many Africana and African-American studies programs across the country, that was lobbied for and fought for by students, we wanted Barnard alums—in particular, alums that were associated with this program—to see how much has happened in the last 20 years,” Miller said.
On Thursday night, alums returned to Barnard to watch an original performance by current students inspired by Shange’s work, organized by Ebonie Smith, BC ’07 and an Africana studies major.
Faculty will discuss Shange’s work in relation to the program’s curriculum at a conference with noted scholars on Friday.
“We’ve developed a very clear specialization in Africana gender studies, and the scholars that we have here now make us the strongest place to do that in the country. It’s time for the students to get a sense to that,” Hall said.
“There’s a sense that Africana has a home at Barnard, which it didn’t really have before,” she added.
The program has plans to keep expanding. According to Campt, faculty members are working to elevate the program to department-level status.
Campt credits this recent development to the program’s ability to educate students outside their major and really play a role in shaping the entire Barnard curriculum.
“That’s where we’re seeing our impact as being the broadest,” Campt said. “If we continue to do that, then I think we’ll be an extremely successful department.”
Student attendees said they appreciated how Shange had impacted the department.
“I think she’s really important because she shows how much influence there was on the need and want to have an Africana Studies program,” Zai Gilles, BC ’14, said. “It just shows how influential politics are on building different departments.”
“It shows that we need to keep fighting to maintain these programs,” Dina Tyson, BC ’13, said.