The first weekend in March, more than 200 Post-Its adorned the white walls of the Loria Center. These multicolored sticky notes were the most decorative component of the Yale Asian American Studies Conference, though their purpose was more than aesthetic. Students supporting the creation of an Asian American Studies program at Yale had signed them.
In the display, the Post-Its were interspersed with larger notes containing student quotes about the importance of Asian American Studies. These pages were striking, visually and intellectually.
“I’m shocked to learn that Yale lacks Asian American Studies. I’m the product of two parents who empowered themselves by taking Asian American Studies classes at college in the 1990s … I am part of many generations of Asian American Studies — is Yale?” read one note that was written by a 15-year-old high school student.
Yale’s Asian American Studies Task Force, which advocates for the development of an Asian American Studies program here, had organized the conference: two full days of panels and speeches featuring the nation’s experts in the field. Discussion topics ranged from the arts to social sciences to literature, all through the lens of the Asian-American experience.
The Post-It campaign was provocative and bright, a reflection of the young energy driving the conference. Now, a month later, it has been taken down and stored in the Asian American Cultural Center’s closet. “We’re not really sure what to do with it now,” said Crystal Kong ’18, a member of the task force.
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Asian American Studies at Yale is still coming of age, and the movement pushing for its development has not yet run its course. In other words, Asian American Studies has not yet become an academic institution here — instead, it remains the object of student activism. If it follows the historical trajectory of other ethnic studies departments, however, a gap could emerge between academic study and activism on campus.
Many scholars believe that African American Studies, the product of a social justice movement half a century ago, has undergone such a change.
For Fabio Rojas, author of “From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline,” a fundamental difference separates radicalism from academia. Rojas believes that once social movements are institutionalized — they inevitably become elitist.
He describes the community-oriented beginnings of black studies, and the emphasis on aiding urban populations. However, he went on to say that universities like Yale and Harvard are not for everyone, but rather for elite scholars. According to Rojas, this elitism explains why most contemporary black studies courses no longer focus on social justice: these classes do not encourage students to descend from the ivory tower.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. Ask one of the activists from the ’60s, and they’d be disappointed,” he said.
Matthew Jacobson, chair of Yale’s African American Studies Department, didn’t deny that the department has undergone changes. He lauded institutions upholding long traditions of activism but didn’t count Yale among them.
However, Jacobson and other members of the department don’t believe that their discipline is divorced from social movements. “If you compared the department in ’69 to the department now, you’d find more activism then,” he said. “But I do think there’s something inherently activist about the academic work that we do here, and that’s legible in the teaching.”
Imani Doyle ’17, an African American Studies major, finds that most of her classes don’t teach her mechanisms by which she can effect social change; rather, her professors only offer facts, dates and big names, similar to information taught in the History Department.
Last year, Doyle was pre-med and a potential science major, considering African American Studies but concerned that the major wouldn’t lead to employment. Then, after Michael Brown’s death over the summer in Ferguson, Missouri, she made the switch, and decided to study the history that had led to such events.
American Studies professor Mary Lui teaches the only Asian American Studies course at Yale. Though the class is a history class, Lui also focuses on how that history impacts race relations today. Above all, she wants students to improve their critical thinking skills, allowing them to look at familiar narratives, such as the model minority myth, in a new light.
She encourages students to consider the historical basis of these stereotypes. “I like to think of this scholarship as outward-facing,” she said. “It’s not just a conversation among us; we’re really thinking about how this might be used to make the world a better place, to use a cliché.”
Assistant professor of African American Studies Chris Lebron also believes his work has an impact outside of the classroom. A teacher of political philosophy, he doesn’t train his students to be activists.
“African American Studies departments are political compromises,” he said. “We’re all from different disciplines, but we bring our expertise to a central problem: What does it mean to be brown in this world? That in itself is activism: We have carved out a space in this University to solve an existential problem.”
Lebron also believes he can inspire students to engage in political life. While his intellectual labor is itself a form of activism, it presupposes a distinction between the teacher and the student, the person who inspires and the person who acts. In academia, though the thinkers and the doers may exist side by side and even collaborate with one another, they inhabit different spheres.
Of course, this is only the case for a fully fledged department. Asian American Studies at Yale has not yet reached this point, and the line between critical thinking and political action is blurrier.
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Yuni Chang ’18 serves on the Asian American Studies Task Force, and considers the effort to effect institutional change a form of activism.
“It’s a form of erasure that we’re not represented with a program on campus — without one, it’s like Yale is saying that Asian-American stories don’t matter,” she said. She believes the Task Force exists to unearth that history, and that this is a political act.
In the early 1970s, Asian-American students at Yale were also preoccupied with similar social justice concerns. In the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Asian American Students Alliance Archives from the 1970s are records of an active, organized Asian-American student body. The documents include a proposal for a “Third World Floating Counselor Program” (now known as Peer Liaisons), plans to protest the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., and statements of solidarity with Bobby Seale, a leader of the Black Panthers, during his trial.
And, less noteworthy but equally consequential: the carefully drafted syllabus of Yale’s first proposed Asian American Studies class, a seminar called The Asian American Experience.
In its introduction, the 1970 proposal lists reasons why students believed the addition of an Asian American Studies curriculum was necessary. Some students wanted to examine the community “as the springboard from which to judge the following questions concerning Asian-Americans: Are they self-sufficient and able to resolve their own social/political/economic problems? Or, do they need some form of external assistance? And, if so, what kind, when, how and why?”
In an effort to answer these questions through academic study as well as student activism, the Asian-American student body organized a conference — which resembled the conference held four weeks ago — inviting academics and students to discuss Asian American Studies and Asian student mobilization.
Held in 1970, the conference was called “Asians in America”. Verses from “The Wretched of the Earth,” an analysis of colonization by Frantz Fanon, adorn the front page of the pamphlet outlining the order of events. Student organizers intended to advocate for Asian American Studies, while providing a space for Asian-American students to discuss their experiences and the issues facing their communities.
In fact, the original Asian American Studies Task Force organized the conference — Austin Long ’15, only restarted the Task Force last year. Today, the group pushes for the integration of Asian American Studies into the Yale curriculum, and student participation has increased quickly in the last few months, increasing from three or four members to almost 20.
The 2015 conference served a similar, but not identical, purpose to its predecessor’s 40 years ago.
“It was an effort to get people at Yale who have more power — people who actually make decisions — to see and hear what Asian American Studies actually is,” Long said. He believes that students can encourage Yale to invest more energy into Asian American Studies by directly addressing administrators.
Long emphasized the importance of teaching a complete history. “For Yale to say it offers a liberal arts curriculum, it must offer us a chance to research some of the most current fields in which innovative work with race and intersectionality is being done,” he said. Otherwise, Long said, the label is hypocritical.
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Not only does last month’s conference bear resemblance to Asian-American social justice efforts of years past, it also recalls activities that led to the development of African American Studies (then, Afro-American Studies) in the 1960s. Movements for the development of both disciplines emerged at that time, but today, the two fields are not equally represented in Yale’s Blue Book.
African American Studies has changed in the process of institutionalization. In 1968, the Black Student Alliance at Yale — only four years old at the time — determined that the creation of a department was among its most pressing concerns.
Along with the AASA documents, the Beinecke archives include records of the Afro-American Cultural Center, from letters advocating for Afro-American Studies to petitions to then-University President Kingman Brewster for the increased admission of black students.
In letters to the provost, students critiqued the University’s failure to provide black students with adequate financial aid. In other letters, students described feeling isolated at Yale and asked permission to room with other black students. Still more letters reported police mistreatment of black students on campus, or admonished the administration for failing to maintain a productive, beneficial relationship with the black New Haven community.
It was a time of unprecedented advocacy to improve local and internal race relations — it was also the first time Yale had enough black students to form a community.
Some of these issues may feel familiar to Yalies today; others are more foreign. Though students often associate today’s African American Studies department with current social justice issues, several majors interviewed were unaware of the department’s history. In fact, while professors and students are still involved with activism, the department is no longer the object of activist endeavors.
A contemporaneous article titled “How Black Studies Happened” specified that the Yale administration “needed the impetus of student protest” to make significant changes to its curricula. That protest first manifested itself as a presentation by black students to Yale administrators, and then in a symposium on Afro-American Studies at Yale in 1968. In defending their position, black students argued that the program would make them more comfortable on campus and provide an avenue to connect their scholarship to their postgraduate goals. The aforementioned article cited the new tendency among black youth to view education not as a means by which to escape the “ghetto,” but rather as a tool with which to improve it.
In a detailed report, Roy S. Bryce-Laporte, the first director of the African American Studies Department, who was appointed in 1969, explicitly stated that the program must “pursue its development within the context from which it emerged.” Because of this, according to Laporte, the discipline would have specific “political-ideological” components, such as projects to improve the relationship between Yale and the local black community.
“The concern with black liberation, its definition and strategies of development toward it as an end must be the dominant ethos of the program,” he wrote.
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Despite his assertion that he does not teach activism, Lebron does maintain that the African American Studies Department lends itself to social justice. “When something like Ferguson happens, we get to talking right away,” he said. He compared the African American Studies Department to the Sociology Department, which wouldn’t engage in the same kind of “public conversation.”
Lebron was not speaking figuratively: in September 2014, members of the department sat down to plan “Ferguson and Beyond: Teach-In.” Though the event was postponed twice, it eventually took place last Tuesday.
Danielle Bainbridge GRD ’18, a PhD student in African American Studies, WGSS and American Studies who helped plan the teach-in, was present at the initial meetings.
“We wanted to answer the question: What is our value added to the Yale community in this moment?” Bainbridge thought her department needed to step outside of the classroom to properly address the events of Ferguson.
To Lebron, the reconciliation of activism and academia would aid the former, encouraging intelligent action over reactionary responses. He finds that activists tend towards the latter.
This was the philosophy behind the teach-in. In many ways, it was a public demonstration of the activism Lebron and other professors already perceive in their classes. But on Tuesday evening Sudler Hall hardly felt like a demonstration; instead, professors, policemen and community and student activists all took turns addressing the audience, and explaining the ways in which they had each responded to Ferguson.
The lectures in the event varied in subject matter: Daphne Brooks, professor of African American Studies and theater studies, examined Ferguson protests as a type of performance. She used phrases like “assuming positions of vulnerability” and “gender politics” alongside photographs of protesters.
On the other hand, many speakers took a different approach to the problem. Alexandra Barlowe ’17, social justice chair of BSAY, spoke about the organizing work she’s done with regard to Ferguson this year, including the recent Unite Yale demonstration. In her address, she explained the importance of protest rather than its nuance; it was closer to a call for action.
“I think teach-ins are a great part of social justice and movement work, albeit usually in a much less academic setting,” she said. “I think it would have been great to have seen more organizers on the panel to make things more concrete.”
However, Bainbridge didn’t have the same doubts about the teach-in. She appreciated the academic environment, since she thinks millennials tend to focus on action that yields immediate results. While she doesn’t deny the relevance of prompt action, she is more interested in addressing long-term race issues in America.
Given the two cancellations, the turnout was heartening: Sudler Hall was full. For Bainbridge, this proves that interest in race-related activism isn’t a short-lived phenomenon.
“The classes we’re teaching in Af-Am and American Studies are all at capacity,” she said. She thinks that student interest in the history of the issues demonstrates a refreshing and valuable commitment to what she calls the “long-haul.”
The attendees broke off into smaller discussion circles after the panel. The teach-in provided academic information and the space and time to process it, an opportunity to learn as well as think about the material.
To Bainbridge and others who planned the teach-in, the long-haul approach is what still links ethnic studies to activism. Educators’ contribution, according to her, was the conversation itself, and not necessarily any particular response. “We were interested in an open conversation, to sit and listen and think of solutions. The creation of a space in which that can happen is itself a radical act.”
In some ways, this is a new definition of activism. While Lebron and other professors describe “inspiring” students as political involvement, the teach-in participants broaden perceptions of social justice in an academic context.
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“Activism is really hard to define,” said Chang. Sometimes, she thinks existence as a marginalized person is activism — she considers working in the Task Force to be “fighting for herself.”
She believes there’s a limit to academia’s contributions to activism. On the one hand, she acknowledges the value in studying one’s own history. But on the other, she cannot divorce academic study from elitist institutions. She wonders if the inaccessibility of such education isolates students from the underprivileged communities that they study and claim to help.
Of course, Chang does not intend to discredit the movement for Asian American Studies — but she does see the disconnect that many scholars describe, particularly as it relates to ethnic studies.
Rojas is particularly conscious of this gap. To him, academics, due to their investment in their own prestige, were not the best proponents of activism.
And yet, despite this cynicism, many students and professors believe in the reconciliation of the two efforts despite their apparent difference. “We’re trying to train students in rigorous methods of questioning and analysis with the hopes that when there’s an injustice and people gathering on the green, our students are out there among them,” said Jacobson.
Most scholars would not claim that academics — regardless of whether they tend towards the intellectual or the activistic — can entirely solve any social justice issue. But many ethnic studies departments, including African American Studies and Asian American Studies, are a means to an end, the end being a better university for students of color.
And in Kong’s own words, “The biggest thing Yale can offer as an institution is its Blue Book.”