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“People would ask, ‘What are you going to do with an Africana
studies degree?’ I’d answer, ‘What can’t I do with it?’” says Kobe
Barker, who now works as an outreach coordinator for the Mitchell Center
for African American Heritage in Wilmington, Delaware.
This knowledge was never meant to survive. It wasn’t even supposed to exist.
An academic field that emerged from the Civil Rights movement of the
1960s, Africana studies would challenge, from its very inception, the
prevailing narrative that has for centuries defined and dominated modern
Western thought: our understanding of ourselves.
What does it mean to be human, the discipline asks, and what truths
can be found in the humanity and brutality of others? Why does racism
exist and persist on a global scale, and what distinguishes its American
form? How have oppression and resistance morphed over time, and does
our interpretation of the past (and, inevitably, our present) change
when re-examined through a different perspective?
To ask these questions honestly, and to answer them through an
intentionally Black lens, is to explore a field so psychologically
expansive it could dismantle racism itself. “History is a tool for
understanding our lives,” says Department of Africana Studies Prof.
Kathryn Benjamin Golden. “It’s also a tool to change our lives.”
Thus, this “fugitive body of knowledge,” as Golden calls it, feels
particularly relevant now, nearly three years after a global pandemic
disproportionately ravaged communities of color and the repeated,
televised killings of unarmed Black Americans led to worldwide cries for
racial and social justice.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
“My parents were among those people in 1968 advocating for Black
Studies, and they still couldn’t understand me choosing to major in
Black people,” says Prof. Monica Coleman. “But Africana studies is our
history. It’s not taught from a legal or political science perspective,
but from the perspective of people of African descent. We explore
religious innovation, cultural formation, resistance and so much more.”
“There is an inherent link between academic work and the community,” says Prof. Wunyabari Maloba, chair of UD’s Department of Africana Studies. “Africana studies is never a passive intellectual experience.”
Born from the student protests of the late 1960s, the discipline
burgeoned at predominantly white institutions across the country, paving
the way for scholarship around other marginalized groups, including women’s studies, Jewish studies, Latin American studies, East Asian studies and more.
In the spring of 1968, members of UD’s Black Student Union occupied
the student center for two days, presenting a list of demands that
included hiring more Black faculty members and creating an academic
program devoted to the Black experience. In response, UD’s Black
American Studies Program (now the Department of Africana Studies) was
established in 1971. Under the early leadership of James Newton, an
award-winning artist and revered mentor who passed away in the spring of 2022,
the program became a department in 2006 and established a graduate
program in 2020, welcoming its first graduate cohort last fall.
A native of Kenya, department chair Wunyabari O. Maloba has taught
a seminal course on the history of Africa. “We’re creating a forum to
discuss complex questions,” he says. “Classes are open and welcoming.”
“We’re seeing many more non-Black students attracted to our classes
with genuine interest,” says Maloba, the Edward L. Ratledge Professor of
Africana Studies and History.
This mirrors national discourse. The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, as today’s college students were coming of age.
Still, “students walk in with misconceptions of Black life, culture
and history,” Maloba says. “We help them with questions they’ve never
encountered before, and they’re amazed by the complexity and depth of
In a Department of Africana Studies course (abbreviated AFRA in the
course catalog), UD students could be learning about enslaved flight and
resistance, otherwise known as “marronage,” from Golden. As an expert
in resilience, survival and the role of women in orchestrated
resistance, she particularly enjoys the “aha moment” her students
experience when they connect dots across the globe, such as Haiti’s role
in inspiring Black abolition movements and revolts in America.
“Africana studies is a tool to combat racism and systemic
oppression,” says alumnus Michael Dickinson. “It’s like an addiction
program: The first step is admitting you have a problem.”
Or they could be learning about art in African American history from
Prof. Colette Gaiter. The unique focus on visual and material culture
helps distinguish UD’s Africana studies program from others, and
Gaiter’s classes include visual literacy, Black art, and artist
activism. Students look at how art tells stories of oppression and
struggle as well as celebrations of Black joy.
Prof. Jeffrey Richardson teaches a popular course in environmental
justice, helping students understand the ecological, humanitarian and
global impact of resource extraction, environmental degradation and
wasteful consumption. “Africana studies helps people understand the
world,” he says. “They expand their knowledge of the Black world and the
world as a whole.”
Maloba teaches a seminal course on the history of Africa, where he
covers the continent’s beauty, richness, culture, philosophy and,
critically, the Atlantic slave trade: its extensive negative impact on
Africa; its enduring link to Western economic development; and its
influence on global racism, discrimination and exploitation.
“Until class, students view Africa as the land of poverty and
savages,” he says. “That connection is always there in the mind. If you
look down on Africa, you look down on African Americans.”
And yet, “Africa is the birthplace of humanity,” Richardson notes.
“The attempts to exclude this understanding of our history have been
significant, successful and devastating, from the growth of White
supremacy and economic exploitation to the erasure of Black
contributions to world civilization.”
As recipient of the annual James E. Newton Student Award, 2022
graduate Imani Games (left) vowed to continue the mission and vision of
the late Africana studies professor for whom the award is named. “This
is only the beginning,” says Games, a staff assistant to Senator Tom
Carper. “There is more work to be done.”
During her first introductory course, Prof. Jorge Serrano would
often leave five minutes at the end of class to ask students, “Is this
enough? Do you want to leave now?” Some students opted for the early
dismissal, but Games never did. “I finally stood up and said, ‘No, this
is the first time I’m learning about my history’.”
“Not only are we talking about history I never learned, the history
we learned in AFRA is contemporary — it provides context for things
happening now, from mass incarceration to protests,” adds Kobe Baker,
who graduated in 2019 with joint degrees in anthropology and Africana
As outreach coordinator for the Mitchell Center for African American
Heritage, Baker takes the museum’s mission and programming across
Delaware and particularly enjoys sharing the state’s robust Black
history with others. Few know that it begins in 1639 with Antoni Swartz,
the first enslaved African on Delaware’s shore.
“Black History Month was the extent of my knowledge,” says Mary Grace
Colonna, a fellow 2019 alumna who minored in Africana studies after
taking her first introductory course. “It became clear I had a great
amount to learn and unlearn.”
Years after graduation, Mary Grace Colonna still keeps all of her
Africana studies notes. “There are very few times in life when you’ll
have access to this wealth of knowledge,” she says.
“That’s part of what makes it so
captivating — the fact that it’s never taught,” says Michael Dickinson,
who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in history from
UD in 2011, 2013 and 2017, respectively, and now teaches African
American history at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The world made
more sense as I took more of these classes.”
That is, indeed, the goal.
“What do people do with Africana studies?” asks Prof. Monica Coleman.
“They discover what they don’t know about Black people and fill the
This gap-filling might benefit a health sciences major who will
interact closely with Black populations. Or someone like Colonna, who
wanted to work in politics but “didn’t think it was responsible to
represent people without learning their history and knowing their
culture.” In her first job as a legislative aide, Colonna managed
constituent services for a racially diverse district and quickly
learned, “To serve people, you need to be able to relate to them.”
Strengthening racial relationships is a powerful byproduct of
Africana studies. But its main goal is to help students question the
assumptions they hold about life and the wider world.
Ultimately, the goal for all students is to ask better questions,
much like the ones Emily Wheatly pondered on a European vacation. The
2013 alumna holds joint degrees in political science and history and had
taken numerous classes with Maloba before flying overseas.
Struck by the grandeur and beauty of the architecture before her, she
paused and remembered the ways in which resource-rich African nations
had been bled dry for Western and European gain. “Where did this marble
come from?” she asked herself. “Where did these jewels originate?”
It’s a question few would stop to consider. But for those who study
the world and its people — past, present and future — it’s an answer
Article by Artika Casini, photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson
Published November 30, 2022