Forty Years Later: African American Studies Still Flourishes

By Ronald Williams II

The 40th anniversary of African American Studies at Berkeley is a milestone to be celebrated in every possible way. It is not only a celebration of an academic department but of a movement and the many people who made it happen and have kept it alive. Grounded in the broader national and global struggle for human and civil rights, the institutionalization of Black Studies at Berkeley created the space for African Americans (and other hyphenated Americans) to be included in the university curriculum. In the process, it changed the fundamental character of higher education forever.

Since its inception in 1970, African American Studies at Berkeley has continued to alter the very fabric of university life and teaching. The women and men of this field have integrated the study of the African Diaspora into the university in a way all people can participate and feel a part of. Over a span of 40 years, the Department has evolved into an academic unit that is respected as a model among departments nationally. That is, it has become an interdisciplinary, multi-racial intellectual center that hosts, attracts, and produces some of the most diverse, complex thinking, scholars and scholarship in the world.

As an international center for global Black scholarship, African American Studies has hosted and produced numerous academic, cultural, and political superstars known for their work on campus and beyond. Its faculty has included three recipients of the Berkeley Citation (June Jordan, Barbara Christian, and Reginald Jones), one recipient of the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award (Barbara Christian), and one recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence (Charles Henry). The Department has also been a draw for many creative artists and intellectuals who have done stints at Berkeley over the years including James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, Gordon Parks, Ishmael Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Julianne Malveaux, Joanne Braxton, and numerous others.

Black Studies at Berkeley has come along way since its first thirty courses were offered in the spring of 1970. Over the years, its faculty has also pioneered substantive programs and initiates that have made the Berkeley campus more diverse and inclusive. These have included the Black Cultural Center and partnerships with the Office of African American Student Development. Reaching across the campus, African American Studies played a central role in the creation of the American Cultures Requirement and continues to teach a disproportionate number of the American Cultures courses.

A trailblazer in African Diaspora graduate studies, the Department’s graduate program, when it was established in 1997, was only the third in the world offer a course of study leading to the Ph.D. in African American Studies and the first to focus on the study of the African Diaspora. Since its inception, the graduate program has enjoyed a nearly 100% placement for its Ph.D. graduates—a figure to be rivaled among Ph.D. granting programs.

But Black Studies at Berkeley continues to be so much more than just an academic department. It has also provided unparalleled connections to the local community. It has brought the surrounding community to campus and brought the campus to the surrounding community. It was bold actions–like those made by Professor Troy Duster in allowing Black Panther Party Leader Eldridge Cleaver to teach on campus–that infiltrated the curriculum in ways that engaged the local community. Surely this action posed a vehement challenge to the notion that the Ph.D.-donning professional intellectual is the only person capable of producing knowledge. The Department’s connections to the local community have been sustained by individual and programmatic efforts including June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, Break the Cycle, and the annual Black Graduation. In fact, the Black Graduation continues to serve as a national draw for high profile African American speakers.

The 40th anniversary of Black Studies at Berkeley presents a unique opportunity to chronicle more than four decades of efforts to create stable academic unit in the face of daunting challenges both within the university and without. Together, the African American Studies faculty, staff, students, and allies have conquered the challenges of academic racism, helped prove to the world that Black people are, in fact, worthy of study, and stood at the forefront of discourse on nearly every social and political issue impacting African Americans locally, regionally, nationally, and globally over the past 40 years. Surely this is worthy of celebration.

This essay was originally published in the April 9, 2010 issue of The Daily Californian. It is reprinted with the permission of The Daily Californian.

Ula Taylor contributed to this article.