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Symposium to honor James Newton

Symposium to honor James Newton

UD's Department of Africana Studies and the Office of Institutional Equity will host a symposium celebrating the legacy of James Newton, a founding director of UD’s Black American Studies program and professor emeritus of Africana Studies.
 
Special courses offered in Winter Session

Special courses offered in Winter Session

The Department of Africana Studies offers two special courses for Winter Session 2023 - AFRA 372: Philosophy of Hip Hop, and AFRA 205: Contemporary African America Issues – Black Delaware.
 
Monica Coleman named new Cochran Scholar

Monica Coleman named new Cochran Scholar

Monica A. Coleman is the new John and Patricia Cochran Scholar of Inclusive Excellence, which recognizes excellence, creativity and commitment to inclusiveness on campus and beyond.
 
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Degree of the past, present and future

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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.


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​“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.​

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​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 information.”

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.​

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​“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.” ​

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​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 studies.

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.”​

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​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 gaps.”

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 worth knowing.​

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​​ Article by Artika Casini, photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson
Published November 30, 2022​

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