Seeing Gates' Vision

Creating an African Studies track in the Af-Am department is a great improvement

When Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. turned down offers to leave for Princeton last fall, the entire campus breathed easier—thrilled by the news that one of the most respected members of Harvard’s community would remain with us. And now, after 12 years of painstakingly building the Department of Afro-American Studies from scratch, an integral part of Gates’ vision for that trailblazing department finally will be realized. Last week’s announcement that, pending approval from the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the department will offer an undergraduate concentration track in African studies is a boon to the University.

The creation of African Studies as a concentration track means that this important area of scholarly inquiry will get the attention it merits. For too long African studies has been neglected at Harvard, forced to exist only as a coordinating committee for courses in other departments. But within the context of Gates’ department, great resources can be devoted to African studies—to the benefit of those interested in this exciting field. And within the context of the department, a wider range of courses in African studies are surely just around the bend. Especially important will be the first innovations slated for the new track—the addition of several African languages to the Courses of Instruction, which shamefully lacks a diversity of such courses at the moment.

This is also a victory for students and student choice. The large number who, until now, had no rigorous formal framework for their interest in African studies will at last be accommodated. And students within the Afro-American Studies Department will no longer have to juggle concentration commitments with elective courses associated with African studies. With a wider array of possibilities for students and more resources for scholarly work in this field, everyone wins.

For all these reasons, it is critical that the full Faculty approve this change when it comes up for a vote next month. This significant addition to Harvard’s rich offerings is long overdue, and after 12 years of planning and waiting, it cannot come too soon.