Af-Am Studies Department turns 40

1969 was a year of change: Man first walked on the moon. Popular music saw the Woodstock Festival, and the Stonewall Riots in New York City marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Change was coming to Yale, too — the University’s African American Studies Program launched in September of that year, along with the Afro-American Cultural Center, which stands today, as it did then, at 211 Park St.

Forty years later, alumni and faculty affiliated with the program said African-American studies at Yale has had an outsized impact on the wider African-American professional community. And as the program celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a series of panel discussions, faculty and students said the program’s interdisciplinary perspective has remained relevant and continued to draw in students from a range of backgrounds.

“African-American studies is at the center of our underlying American-ness,” said Elizabeth Alexander ’84, chair of the African American Studies Department, said. “Everything we do and look at [in the department] is a way of understanding the country we live in.”

In 1969, Yale’s program was the first of its kind in the Ivy League. The University added a master’s degree in the program in 1978, and a doctoral program followed in 1994. Both were also firsts for the Ivy League.

The program was interdisciplinary from its start, drawing faculty from different backgrounds to form the major’s teaching corps. Robert Stepto, a professor of African-American studies, English and American studies, joined the program’s faculty in 1974. Stepto said the program was largely an outgrowth of student interest in the area of African-American studies, which cuts across several different disciplines.

“When you look at the composition of the first governing bodies of African-American studies at Yale, you really do see a cross-section of people from different fields and even different countries,” Stepto said.

That interdisciplinary approach continues to this day, said Khalilah Brown-Dean, the department’s director of undergraduate studies. Students majoring in African-American studies, of which there are 14, are required to take both social science and humanities courses as well as select a concentration to focus their study of people of African descent in Black Atlantic societies. The program became an official academic department in 2000, gaining the ability to hire and tenure professors independently of other departments — and, Alexander said, securing the place of African-American studies in Yale’s intellectual framework.

From the beginning, there had always been concerns with how the program would fit into Yale’s campus — and into the lives of its students. When Douglas Smith ’71 majored in African-American studies, complaints were common that African-American studies could not stand as its own field. Smith himself double majored in history and African-American studies, although he said criticisms of African-American studies had nothing to do with his decision to double major.

“That criticism was something that was heard well beyond the context of Yale,” he said. “This was an era in which some of this new stuff was being proposed — African-American studies, women’s studies — it was a common complaint and criticism.”

To this day, two professors in the department said, some students struggle to convince their parents and peers that studying African-American studies is worthwhile.

“Students have dealt with this in different ways,” Stepto said. “Students have come to me and said, ‘This [major] is for my parents and [African-American studies] is for me.’ ”

Quincy O’Neal ’10 said he understands those sentiments, but found “that kind of discourse delegitimizes the major.” When he first came to Yale, O’Neal said, he felt as though he had to double major if he wanted to pursue African-American studies. But now, he said, “I’ve had to find the meat of Af-Am studies and learn that it can stand on its own.”

Today, the department is centrally headquartered at 81 Wall St., one block from Commons Dining Hall, the Bass Library and Old Campus. It’s a short walk from the program’s original headquarters at 493 College St. and reflects the program’s longtime concern with staying relevant to Yale student life.

This year, the department’s directors are reaching out to students through panel discussions celebrating 40 years of alumni and faculty.

“Because African-American studies has been an insurgent discipline that has had to fight for its footing and fight to grow,” Alexander said, “we are always very focused on expanding this beautiful intellectual enterprise.”

Richard Powell GRD ’88, a professor of art history at Duke University, will kick off the panel discussions with a conversation on Oct. 6 about the significance of African-American studies over the past 40 years. Powell will be on campus to receive the Wilbur Lucius Cross medal from the Graduate School Alumni Association for distinguished achievements in scholarship, teaching, academic administration and public service.

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