Last Wednesday, the undergraduate Africana Studies Student Committee put forward a proposal and petition for the establishment of an Africana Studies department. We write to you as faculty who are enthusiastic supporters of their efforts.
To be clear, we are not the main writers, ghost writers, editors or even proofreaders of their brilliant proposal. We cannot accept your thank-yous or critiques because they are simply not ours. But we can build on a few of their points on the need for Africana Studies at the University of Richmond.
Africana Studies illuminates depths in what may already feel familiar. For example, in 1730, Bank of England Governor Humphrey Morice argued that “Negroes…are a perishable Commodity, when you have an opportunity…Dispose of them for gold.” As governor, Morice was central to the British role of selling African slaves to the Americas. And one of his preferred locations to sell slaves was the colonial state of Virginia. In Morice’s account, you may see a story that you feel you already know: Virginia was and is racist, Black people are oppressed and White people are responsible.
You don’t need an Africana Studies department to know that chattel slavery was racist. Africana Studies, however, is an area of study that exceeds the naming of violence and blame. It considers what this otherwise familiar story has done to all of us: It has categorized some as more human (as buyers and sellers) than others (particularly as living, breathing commodities). This has implications for what it even means to be human -- one of the most enduring philosophical questions of Africana Studies. What constitutes humanness is a question indelibly shaped by one of the largest-scale events in history: European colonialism.
Our home of Virginia, which was ground zero for chattel slavery, was also a key site for European colonialism. Indeed, by the 1930s, European colonies and ex-colonies covered 84.6% of the land on this planet. Africana Studies is an incredibly promising site for understanding this problem and its afterlife at scale.
The Africana Studies Student Committee writes in their proposal that Africana Studies “is grounded in the lived experiences and intellectual work of Black people” hailing from the U.S. “all the way to the ongoing third world struggle against colonialism.”
As such, Africana Studies would involve a wide range of courses far beyond what many might imagine the word “Africana” suggests. Courses about Frantz Fanon are about France, Martinique, the Caribbean, Indian “coolies,” Algerians and Islam, too. Courses about Audre Lorde are about queer theory and patriarchy, too. Courses about the Black Panther Party are about India’s Dalit Panthers, anti-Vietnam War protests, the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, the Red Guard and the American Indian Movement, too.
All of this means a department that not only speaks to the lives of those with roots in that 84.6% of land, but also to the lives of the descendants of European colonizers. So the department would speak to the lives of all, regardless of their views on colonization.
An Africana Studies department does not necessitate that we focus on one group’s struggles over another. Suggestions have been made for critical race theory, race/ethnicity and other such frameworks to be institutionalized in some capacity. We support all these efforts and do not view them as being in conflict or competition.
One major reason why we support them all is because each brings something different and important to UR. Race/ethnicity is a topic. Critical race theory is a theoretical approach to the study of this topic: this means it is a specific way, among others, to study race.
However, Africana Studies has different theoretical approaches inside of it, and it is also not necessarily about “race,” in a way. This sounds counterintuitive, but hear us out. As the students’ proposal instructs, Africana Studies is “the examination of African and African diasporic intellectual thought on the social, economic, political and cultural conditions of our world.” Africans on the continent and in diaspora are not just subject matter, but theorists of the entire world before, during and after the creation of “race.” Race is not an endpoint for study, but racial violence is one beginning for intellectuals of African descent to imagine alternative worlds. Our students’ proposal illustrates that Africana Studies has value for showing us a world that could be.
As the students have noted, not having an Africana Studies department means that we trail our peer liberal arts institutions. And worse, it means UR students get a one-dimensional education. UR students can graduate from this institution without knowing much of the intellectual work of many of the thinkers of the 84.6% of land violently colonized by Europe.
We hear news of racist incidents on campus on a regular basis. Those who argue that racism in our student ranks (to say nothing of faculty and staff) is a matter of lack of education should be vocal supporters of the proposed department.
We faculty often applaud our students for speaking out, but our love and pride may be meaningless without action. Weeks ago, hundreds of faculty signed a letter in solidarity with students targeted by racial slurs. In this letter, “We promise to do our best to foster an inclusive community in our classrooms...We recognize that the status quo is not good enough,” and we faculty signatories also acknowledge that “we will need to continually consider what individual and institutional changes can be made to make UR a more inclusive, welcoming, and thriving community.”
What if an Africana Studies department is that necessary institutional change? What if the students have already provided a roadmap for us to fulfill our promise? We as faculty can try to ignore that over 450 students have already signed the petition for an Africana Studies department. Or we can make good on our letter with concrete action.
Dr. Atiya Husain is an assistant professor of sociology. Dr. Armond R. Towns is an assistant professor of rhetoric and communication studies. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.