Beyond Politics: Afro-Am Diversifies

Susan Dawkins '89 was talking to a judge in her hometown about her aspirations to be a lawyer last year, and the judge asked her what her concentration was. Dawkins told the judge, "Afro-American Studies," at which point he asked her why she, a Black American, would choose a concentration that he considered to be redundant. Today, Dawkins has added on Government to her Afro-American concentration after often having to defend the legitimacy of a degree in Afro-Am.

After almost 20 years as a Harvard department, Afro-American Studies still draws second glances in many non-academic circles. Many of its approximately 20 concentrators are joint concentrators, and all five of its professors hold joint appointments. An inter-disciplinary department, Afro-American Studies has undergone many changes, including a dwindling number of professors and growing number of concentrators. Its courses are cross-listed under the specific concentrations to which they are related. And people still question whether it is legitimate.

Born out of the turmoil of the 1969 riots, the Afro-American Studies Department is becoming more and more intellectual, leaving its political roots behind. "People think the Afro-American Department is more politically than scholarly motivated--which is really a misconception," says current department chairman Werner Sollors, professor of American Literature and Language and of Afro-American Studies.

Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies and Sociology Roderick J. Harrison, who participated in the 1969 riots which brought about the establishment of the Afro-American Department, agrees that the department has taken on a much more scholarly atmosphere. He says, "This change has probably been good since there is simply no way that it could have been the kind of department students wanted and still have established itself here."

The combination that the University has devised to please both sides is rather unique. Unlike many other colleges, Harvard offers a full-fledged degree in Afro-American Studies, as opposed to a smattering of courses. The department goes beyond the curricular, as many of its professors are leading research experts in the field, and the University hosts a number of educational programs through the W.E.B. DuBois Institute.

The department is also growing in both size and scope. While the department is currently searching for specialists in the field of visual art, DuBois Professor of History and of Afro-American Studies Nathan Huggins, who came to Harvard in 1980, stresses the irreduceable importance of history and literature in Afro-American studies, both of which the department offers several courses in.

Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies Carol O. Herron, who came to Harvard this year to augment the department's literature offerings, this spring taught a course on Afro-American poetry. Herron, who previously studied Latin American epic fiction on a Fulbright Award in Mexico, is an expert on Milton and the epic. "My work involves showing the way in which the Afro-American epic has developed in America with African, American and European sources," she says.

But Afro-American studies would be incomplete if they were restricted to history and literature, Huggins says. He cites the need for an ethnomusicologist in the department, saying, "It is hard to imagine someone studying Afro-American life, history and culture without exposure to its music, because it is such an important element in the culture."

Sociology provides a link to politically-related Afro-American studies. Harrison, who specializes in sociology, says that while the Afro-American Department embraces a very intellectual approach, the subject itself can not be looked at without investigating the political elements as well.

Even with this disparate and broad approach, Afro-American Studies has yet to gain popularity among the student body, because many students call it unpractical. Therefore, students decide to double-major. Says Dawkins, "It is hard to legitimate Afro-Am studies to the outside world--to both Blacks and whites."

David Lattimore '88, who majors in Afro-Am and economics, says, "Afro-American studies falls conceptually low on an academic priority list. But this is reflective of society's prejudices, not of an understanding of the intellectual field." While Lattimore says he likes Afro-American studies more than economics, he adds it is just not as practical as the more popular department.

Catha Worthman '89, a white student majoring in Afro-Am, says she receives a wide range of reactions when she tells people her concentration, "It really varies. The reaction is usually dependent on the person's politics."

Most students who major in Afro-American Studies say that in no way is it less rigorous than other concentrations. Dawkins, however, says that Afro-American concentrators tend to be more relaxed than those in other departments. "They are not really as intense as those in government," she says. "They're more compassionate, especially with the reserve readings, they're never all out at once."

Because the department centers on the issue of race, having a mixed student and faculty composition is essential to a well-balanced approach to the field, professors and students say. "It is as if God sat down with a magic wand and made classes 50 percent Black and 50 percent white, with a slight preponderance of women," says Sollors, who came to Harvard four years ago.

While students say that the mix of Black and white students tends to create an added tension during discussions, they agree that the diversity also generates awareness of unexamined perspectives.

Lattimore says, "Having white students in a class about Black issues often brings up topics at a simple level--it makes you look at things from the fundamentals." Citing the integrated population of concentrators, Herron says, "I don't know if it's a Harvard phenomenon or what. But, I think Afro-American studies is exciting and intellectually challenging and I think that everybody is interested in it."

Being a white student can have its disadvantages, Worthman says. "I am not as personally informed as other students, but I would not major in it if I felt at all uncomfortable with the subject matter."

The racial mix of students reflects the make-up of the professors in the department. Out of five professors this year, two are white and three are Black, including Herron, who is the only Black female professor at the College. Each professor brings a different perspective to the discipline, which is affected by the experiences of his or her own race, Sollors says.

The department attempts to combine the perspectives of Blacks and whites, because disciplines concerning living subject matter are most effectively studied through varied approaches, Sollors says. As a result, one can acquire a feeling of an "insider-outsider" analysis for many of the areas of study.

As a white professor in the department, Sollors admits there are some drawbacks to not being Black and an Afro-American expert. "Looking at it [Afro-Am] from the outside, you are particulaly prone to see larger cultural patterns and the connectedness of the fabric of Afro-American life to modern life in general," he says. "But, there is always the fine tuning of the field that becomes most apparent from being a part of Afro-American life, particularly in the realm of literature."

From the student perspective, Dawkins says, "White professors tend to ignore the social implications of literature." Yet others say it is not color that matters, but expertise. Herron admits to "being a classicist" and adds, "I don't like prolonged periods of working with texts that are apt to bring up what is emotional in myself." Authors such as Alice Walker tend to tie themselves up with intense emotion where classic writers like Homer lend themselves to a more intellectual reading of the text, she says.

As all Afro-Am courses are cross listed under the specific concentrations to which they are related, cross-listed under Afro-Am are several courses that could actually be classified as African Studies, including Religion 1901, "Introduction to African Religions;" Government 1220, "Government and Politics in Africa;" and English 167c, "Black Writing in South Africa." The lack of an African Studies Department at Harvard forces the Afro-Am Department to take the responsiblity for courses relatively unrelated to the Black experience in America.

Some professors say that the African course offerings detract from the focus of the department. Huggins agrees, "It is hard enough to deal with Afro-American subject matter than to have to address the quite dramatically different culture and lifestyle of Africa." Many professors and students agree that Harvard should offer more courses that deal strictly with Africa, to create an interdisciplinary concentration.

The one problem that both professors and students cite repeatedly is that the department is too small at this point to accommodate the growing number of concentrators. Six positions are open for professors, and only two professors will remain after this academic year. The department is conducting a search for qualified professors. "My tutorial is far too big. There should be two professors to split the 10 students in sophmore tutorial," Dawkins says.

Professors explain the small size of the department by citing the subject's relative lack of popularity. Harrison says, "The main emphasis on any department's size rests on the importance or expanding nature of it." Thus, during the 1960's and the Civil Rights Movement, Afro-American Studies was by necessity a more popular field of study and a larger department.

But, professors add, the department's current small size should not be seen as undermining the importance of Afro-American Studies today. As history itself is perceived in dualities, it is impossible to study American history without looking at Afro-American history, as each is an integral part of the other, Huggins says. He adds, "Afro-American studies is important because it is a central way of viewing American life."