In the late spring of 1968, as Columbia attempted to regain its footing after the explosive student protests tied to the Vietnam War and campus expansion, a movement that would become a controversial issue was emerging at Barnard. At the request of his department chair Leroy C. Breunig and in response to the recent call for African Studies at the College, Barnard French professor Serge Gavronsky, CC '54, was then drafting the syllabus for the first course on the Columbia campus to treat African topics. That fall, Gavronsky taught the pilot course of "Negritude," in which he exposed students to the Caribbean and African Francophone writers who turned to a shared black heritage as a means of combating French imperialism. "I inaugurated what would become Africana Studies," he said in an interview last week, linking the origins of Barnard's current program in diaspora studies to the French department. The study of Africa—which lacked serious institutional support in American universities until the 1960s—grew into a national trend. At Barnard, departments introduced courses on the African novel, cinema, and major texts, as well as a class on the West African oral raconteurs known as grillots and grillotes. More than 40 years later, despite an increase in scholars of Africa and the presence of established student programs at both Barnard and Columbia, African Studies at the University remains in flux. On the one hand, Columbia has built up its resources on Africa to a level that thickly veils a Eurocentric past, dispersing outlets for African studies among varied schools and centers. Students can attend lectures at the Institute of African Studies; take advantage of opportunities in the departments of French, English, history, and Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures; master Swahili and Wolof through the Language Resource Center; or apply skills learned at the Mailman School of Public Health to benefit community health in Africa. Yet on the other hand, without a department for African Studies and only a loose hub—the Institute—to unite the bureaucratically scattered pieces of Africa's past, the University's Africanists, budding diplomats, and novice enthusiasts confront the pressures of an interdisciplinary model. Although this model allows for a multifaceted approach, it is also a perennial dilemma at universities, where pressures from the administration to define a focus can blur the borders between disparate disciplines. Trying to fit African studies into MEALAC There are currently several ways to study the trends of African civilization and migration at the University. Columbia College students can pursue a major in regional studies centering on Africa, Barnard students can major in diaspora-driven Africana studies, SIPA Master of International Affairs candidates may concentrate on regional studies in Africa, and graduate students in all programs may work toward a certificate in African Studies in addition to a separate graduate degree. Somewhat vaguely, the Institute of African Studies serves as a meeting point for all of these scholars. While numerous professors expressed contentment with the setup, the division of resources in a specific topic has triggered problems at other Columbia institutes. Since these resources originate in individual departments, joining them creates combinations that, though structurally feasible, are philosophically questionable. For instance, there has been alarm over the placement of the Institute's leader, West African historian Mamadou Diouf, in the Middle East and South Asia-focused MEALAC department. "There is a push across the country to lump Africa, the Middle East, and Asia," said Kim Hall, English professor and director of Africana Studies at Barnard. This pattern reflects the internationalization of university life, a trend Columbia exemplified with the debut of its Global Centers in Amman and Beijing last month. Whereas one group of professors stresses the importance of understanding the interaction of world regions, others worry that a comparative approach—like the one seen in MEALAC—groups distinct countries and languages into a monolith and leaves little room for detailed consideration. "One should not ignore the risk that this is to hijack everything African and connect it with the Middle East," said philosophy and French professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne, acknowledging this danger. Bachir Diagne, who was educated in Senegal and teaches French courses on Africa, nevertheless favors the incorporation of African Studies into MEALAC because it "is correcting the colonial situation." Traditional schools have long neglected to identify the strong connections between Arab North Africa and black West Africa, which is their shared belief in Islam and the use of Arabic to record science, literature, and past events. "In terms of scholarship, one could be an Africanist without knowing anything about Islam," he said, explaining that the division between these two regions "had rendered the intellectual history of West Africa totally opaque." Abosede George, a professor of African history at Barnard, commends the breadth of options in spite of potential risks. "More programs are better than fewer," she said, adding that Columbia could not plausibly collapse diaspora studies, continental studies, and American studies into one program. Reversing a Colonial Past Globalizing African studies may do more than bring Columbia up to speed with its peer institutions. "Global studies seems to be an important element in future reincarnation at Columbia," said Diouf, who arrived from the University of Michigan to reopen and stabilize the Institute in July 2007 after it underwent a revolving door of directors, a drop in finances, and a shutdown in 2006. "We are not interested in an insular understanding of African studies." Diouf's comment points to the imperialistic heritage of African studies, a scar of the past which involved faculty apparently hope to conceal. African Studies was born in part with a view to political ends. For example, Yale first housed its African language instruction in the Divinity School, likely for missionary work. After years of lingering in that vein, the field came under the umbrella of area studies. These disciplines emerged during the Cold War, when the American superpower—estranged from the European partners who once supplied the White House with academic knowledge on nations—was pressed to do its own scrutiny of regions susceptible to the spread of communism. Now, as African studies struggles to make a presence at American universities, its scholars aim to stray from historical tendencies. Indeed, the continued view of African scholarship as an isolated political tool could conjure bad associations for some. "The colonial past says that Africa is only valuable in the resources you can mine out of it," Hall said. "The utilitarian idea of Africa does not lend itself to thinking about Africa as an intellectual resource." Stabilizing at Columbia, maintaining at Barnard Although founded in the 1950s, a time when the U.S. government actively endorsed area studies, IAS currently serves as the launch pad for expanding the field at Columbia. Hosting conferences, preserving a library collection, and handing out certificates, IAS raises awareness of the Columbia scholars and researchers whose work concerns Africa. As much as Diouf wants IAS to spark communication, it may in fact misrepresent the unity of the University's Africanist community. According to George, many people with training similar to hers fail to partake in the collaborative efforts of IAS. "There are fields that have had people working on African issues with little awareness of the dialogue among the segments," she said. Diouf agreed, citing the "challenge" of successfully merging constituents from Public Health, SIPA, Barnard, and the various parts of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Yet all aspirations of forming a department of African studies such as the ones at Brown and Howard Universities are what Diouf called "fetishistic." "For the time being, it's good this way," Bachir Diagne said of the current format. "There are people who make sure that Africa is a big part of their department," rather than bonding together to form a separate department. Even in Barnard's well-seated curriculum, faculty have resisted the conversion from program to department—which would guarantee Africana studies tenure-granting and hiring abilities. The program instead relies on the labor of professors from other departments, including English, dance, human rights, and anthropology. "Barnard is much more integrated," Hall said. Africana studies there has a sizable number of majors each year, is in the midst of planning a minor, and has its own designation for courses on Africana subjects. Diouf does not completely oppose locating African studies in a more established context. He and other Columbia professors, along with the aid of Barnard faculty, have already submitted a proposal for the development of a major at Columbia. This would require students to fulfill core course requirements and then resort to other departments in order to fortify their knowledge of a particular area such as West African politics, oral history, or Swahili literature. "The next step is a jointly organized venture which will enable us to add something more important," he said of his intentions to keep the arrangement interdisciplinary. "If we all come together, we will have the full picture."
Columbia Spectator Staff