After decades of activism surrounding the University’s lack of dedicated scholarship to issues of race and ethnicity, Columbia approved its first African American and African Diaspora studies department last fall. Here, in light of Black History Month, some of those who made it happen reflect on the push for change in a slow-moving world of academia.
For faculty who came to teach at the Institute for Research in African American Studies, there was a general consensus on Columbia’s narrative of African American and African Diaspora history: The story extends far beyond what was present in the University’s curriculum.
The scholarship of African American and African Diaspora studies traces through a number of unofficial and official pathways, following the teachings of Zora Neale Hurston, BC ’28 and Barnard’s first black graduate, George Edmund Haynes, SSW ’12 and co-founder of the National Urban League, and Marcellus Blount, a well-known scholar of African-American literary and cultural studies and professor, among many others.
The number of students looking to pursue African-American studies as a major grew significantly during the 1960s, but Columbia quickly fell behind peer institutions by failing to create a department that could meet the demand for courses.
In 1993, the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia first formed under Manning Marable, African-American scholar and leading Marxist historian, marking the first step in centralizing the interdisciplinary teachings of African American and African Diaspora studies. IRAAS, however, was unable to offer tenure to professors, and many of the institute’s core faculty pointed to difficulties retaining distinguished professors as a result.
In protest of the University’s general lack of dedicated scholarship to issues of race and ethnicity, four students went on a hunger strike demanding a house for an ethnic studies program in 1996. In the early 2000s, students pushed for IRAAS to offer Ph.D. programs. And in 2007, the Ethnic Studies Report recommended officially making IRAAS a department. At the time, none these efforts resulted in substantive change regarding African-American studies at the university.
But, largely due to the culmination of years of work on the part of various scholars within the institute, Columbia’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to create the department of African American and African Diaspora Studies on Dec. 1, 2018. Although IRAAS will still exist, the department will serve as the first formally institutionalized body for the study of African American and African Diaspora studies at Columbia.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Scholars of African-American history have found their way to Columbia and to IRAAS in different ways, but one thread remains constant: the draw of a community of passionate leaders. Some were looking to contribute new ideas and expertise to a growing field at the University. Others were already established scholars and became attracted to the potential for growth offered by the institute itself.
New department chair and professor of English and comparative literature, Farah Griffin, who later became director of IRAAS from 2003-2006, was among the first recruited by Marable in 1993.
She emphasized a desire to contribute to the movement by offering a feminist humanities perspective—Griffin’s background lies in English and comparative literature—so that all of the different disciplines in African-American studies would be fully represented.
There was also Mabel Wilson, GSAPP ’91, who had the chance to meet with various scholars in the institute as a graduate student in architecture. They included Samuel Roberts, current director of IRAAS, and Kellie Jones, who worked with art of the African Diaspora. She also met Fred Harris, the director of IRAAS at the time, who offered her the chance to be a research fellow at IRAAS.
For Josef Sorett, who already had a Ph.D. in African-American Studies and a specific interest in the religious practices, ideas, and communities of African Americans, IRAAS was the perfect fit when he joined in 2009.
And Frank Guridy, associate professor of history and African-American studies, came to Columbia after an accomplished career at the University of Texas at Austin, which already had a department for African and African Diaspora studies. Guridy saw working in IRAAS as an opportunity to influence the growth of a new program.
GRIFFIN: It was the appeal of being with scholars who shared that intellectual vision of wanting to be engaged with communities outside of the institution; I felt a part of the beginning of this movement of African-American scholarship.
WILSON: I remember going to a lecture of Deb Willis and Margo Jefferson, and I realized in that moment … that I could do the same for architects—why haven’t I heard this history about black architects? It made me see that someone just has to do the work. For me that was the revolutionary moment, and eventually … coming back to Columbia was just a great sight, being right next to Harlem especially. It’s an amazing nexus for many things.
SORETT: It was a great fit. Even if it wasn’t a department, it was a vibrant intellectual community.
GURIDY: The thought of being part of the next generation of scholars who work on the black experience in IRAAS was very exciting to me. Coming here for me was about my own career but also being part of the reconstitution of the history department here and African-American studies here. Many of us in black studies here are interested in being impactful in different ways.
For the four scholars, their first courses on African-American history—both as teacher and student—paved the way for their future leadership in the field.
Guridy’s first class, an IRAAS seminar which details the history of the black experience in Latin America and the Caribbean and its manifestation in U.S. history, reinforced his decision to come to Columbia and teach courses which were not available when he was in college.
Wilson reflected on her experience as a guest lecturer in Sorett’s Introduction to African-American Studies class and noted how being in a space dedicated to discussing race was a particularly impactful moment.
Griffin emphasized that she has always felt it her life’s calling to be in the classroom with students. One of the greatest moments in her tenure at Columbia thus far, according to Griffin, has been organizing the Black Girl Movement in 2016—the first national conference that brought together scholars, activists, artists, and young women leaders at Columbia.
For Sorett, it was coming into the classroom after white police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown.
GRIFFIN: On Saturday, we brought the girls to Columbia and there’s photographs, of hundreds of little girls up to teenagers in Low Library, in Low in the rotunda. Their energy was amazing. And we had all kinds of workshops for them, so it was taking the scholarship to the community and bringing the community to Columbia. [That conference] was really kind of a model to me of what Columbia can do at its best.
GURIDY: I had eight students in that class, and they were all students of color. And at least half of them were of [Afro]-Latino heritage; seven of the eight were women; I think at least three or four of them were from New York, from the Bronx. And as a Bronx native who is of an earlier generation of those students, I was like, this is why I’m here. I’m here to teach students like that. It was one of those things where I saw a younger version of me, in a class that was not available when I was in college.
SORETT: The toughest time was maybe in the fall of 2014 after coming back from leave right after the Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin hearings and right at the start and the aftermath of Ferguson. To see the students really wrestle with these questions, try to figure out what it meant, many of whom who had come of age under the sort of aspirational Obama presidency like we’ve arrived, many students were shocked.
WILSON: To bring in questions around race is often difficult, so to kind of shift gears and be in a class that specifically is around black life, history and to slot the work I do into that was a completely different kind of audience for my ideas, and it was exhilarating.
The need for a department truly came to light in response to an increasingly contentious national political climate in the mid-2010s, according to the four scholars, who also cited it as sign of the potential for change and a signifier of broader cultural issues that scholars had been discussing for decades.
Guridy noted how many hires who came Columbia during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, including himself, seemed to respond directly to the political climate.
For Professor Sorett and Professor Wilson, the impetus leading to departmentalization was clear: the election of Donald Trump.
Griffin stressed how the the election also pointed to questions that scholars and activists noted long before the Trump election.
GURIDY: I think the Black Lives Matter movement and its manifestations around here played a role. My sense is that people understood with all the mobilization with police from Trayvon Martin. That signaled that something had to be done institutionally in response.”
WILSON: I think one of the more difficult moments from a personal perspective for me was the election of Donald Trump—that shattered a perception of the nation that I had held onto as a child of civil rights. I was born in the ’60s, and there was a certain perception around women’s rights and equality and civil rights and opportunity, that that world that my parents had inhabited was over. [But] with the election of Trump and what we’ve seen in the last two years, that isn’t over.
It’s deeply ingrained in the DNA of the nation, and understanding that from many perspectives disciplinarily, and training people to do that work, and opening people’s eyes and creating that consciousness requires a kind of consolidation and framework of a department to have a space to initiate those kinds of conversations.
GRIFFIN: It is meaningful that the department emerges at a time when in many ways our country seems to be going backward. The study of African American studies and African Diaspora studies represents a kind of beacon that [shows] one, dark times don’t always last if people work to change them, and that two, there is an alternative way—there is another world worth fighting for.
On Sept. 28, 2018, the University Senate unanimously voted in favor of establishing a department of African American and African Diaspora studies. Though not all four faculty members were at the Senate meeting, they could recall the exact moments they heard the news.
WILSON: I was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture at a conference so it was really exciting. I was super excited. It seemed like the appropriate place to hear that news.
GURIDY: I was at the Senate meeting, and I was there. There was a bit of disbelief, because when people are advocating for the institutionalization of fields that have been marginalized, you kind of expect the worst. Even though we were confident in our proposal, there was still an element of surprise. It was great—I was there with professor Griffin and Edmundson—seeing that unfold.
We looked at each other when the vote came through, and there was a sense of excitement, but what solidified it was when it came on Twitter. When it appeared on Twitter, it acquired this form of legitimacy, like now it’s part of the record. It goes from part of the chatter to becoming official.
GRIFFIN: That was an extraordinary moment for me. By the time it got to the Senate, I felt like I had that support. When I was standing up there, it felt like I was standing up there with something that my colleagues had invested their time and energy in. It was a culmination of what felt like a very long journey.
The other thing incredibly meaningful to me [about the Senate meeting] is that it took place in the Forum on 125th Street. 125th Street in Harlem is very special to me personally, but also to the study of black life in America, because it is one of the capitals of the African diaspora. These are the streets W. E. B. Du Bois walked, and where some of our greatest intellectual heroes, James Baldwin and [Ann Petry], walked. How meaningful it is that this vote took place in that historic space.
As a department, African American and African Diaspora studies now has the ability to hire and tenure professors itself, offer more courses to students, receive more funding, and increase the overall presence of African American and African Diaspora studies at Columbia. Among the biggest upcoming changes is the creation of a Ph.D. program for the department, which is a topic of conversation for the upcoming work facing members of the new department.
SORETT: We’ve been talking about Ph.D. program, furthering graduates’ education. I think there’s a lot of excitement within the department for that.
GURIDY: You don’t just include diverse bodies because that’s the moral thing to do; you create institutions that attract people who are diverse either in their scholarship or in their ethical, racial, sexual, gender background, who then are going to be able to become part of this Columbia community. So the fact that now you have a department that will facilitate that process; it will radiate beyond our department as well.
GRIFFIN: I’m most excited when I’m sitting around a table with my colleagues, thinking, ‘Wow, we did it; we built this.’ I love being in their company. All this started out as a vision and a dream, and we built it together. What we’ve done, for me, that’s evidence of what we can do.
Staff writer Shubham Saharan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article included two instances of misspelled names, as well as misattribution of a quote. Spectator regrets these errors.