Last Saturday evening, toward the end of a two-day symposium commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the African and African-American studies department (AAAS)—an event filled with stories and music, memories of struggle and achievement, and with searching discussions about the future of the field—Cornel West put into words an uneasiness that had been tugging at the celebrations all weekend long. “We’ve got to recognize,” said the professor of the practice of public philosophy, “that this golden age that we’re talking about coincides with a catastrophic age for black, poor, and working people.”
West was speaking as part of a panel on scholar-activism, but there was broader resonance in what he said. The previous evening, Farah Jasmine Griffin ’85, chair of Columbia’s African American and African Diaspora studies department, had delivered a keynote address articulating a similar contradiction. “The rise of right-wing populist nationalism, naked white supremacy, and neo-fascism throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia,” she said, “has been especially striking just as the knowledge produced by African-American studies has informed contemporary movements against mass incarceration and state-sanctioned violence against people of color.”
Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Clowett professor of government and African and African-American studies, spoke of the department’s founding as a “watershed moment in what, frankly, remains an ongoing project of building a truly inclusive scholarly community.” Later, Sangu Delle ’10, M.B.A. ’16, J.D. ’17, an entrepreneur and activist for health care and clean water rights in West Africa, described his arrival at Harvard, with its African studies concentration, as the culmination of a dream he’d had since he was a five-year-old boy living in Ghana. “But let’s face it,” he cautioned: “It is not a given that what we celebrate today will continue. These gains can go away tomorrow with a different [University] administration. It is not enough for us to sit and rest on the charity of those in power; we need to sustain and hold onto those gains.”
And yet, those gains are also real and remarkable. The student movement to push for what would become AAAS began days after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968, with an advertisement placed in the Harvard Crimson demanding courses and an endowed chair for a black professor. Within weeks, a 10-member ad hoc committee was established to negotiate with the University for a department of African-American studies with the power to appoint and promote its own faculty and set its own curriculum. In 1969, after mass protests and months of tense talks, the faculty approved the department’s founding. In 1972, the first class of 14 students graduated with degrees in Afro-American studies.
During a panel discussion moderated by Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., alumni and professors who took part in the founding spoke about those early days. “I did not appreciate sufficiently the political importance of what we were doing,” said Henry Rosovsky, the former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who released a report in 1969 calling for a black studies department and research institute. “This was a hell of a lot more than just an academic program.” Jeffrey Howard ’69, Ph.D. ’80, a member of the ad hoc committee, recalled, “We wanted to be seen and recognized as an important part of American society. And the department seemed to be a vehicle for that.” Sociologist Orlando Patterson, who joined the faculty in January 1970, recalled arriving on a Harvard campus full of noise and excitement and promise.