Afro-Am Studies Grows Under New Leadership

Inside the Departments first in a series on undergraduate departments

In 1989 the Afro-American Studies department had one tenured faculty member.

Student protesters insisted that the promise of the concentration created in 1969 had not been fulfilled, and they occupied University Hall demanding change.

Then-President Derek C. Bok and then-Acting Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, one of the original architects of the department, set about rebuilding the program which has adopted a high profile on campus in recent years and has received national recognition.

"I think they both felt this was one of the failures of their administration," says Professor of Sociology Orlando Patterson. "Bok put everything else aside. The two of them really saw that as the top of their priorities.

Their choice to rebuild Afro-American Studies at Harvard was DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr., who took charge of the department in 1990.


Since then, Afro-American Studies at Harvard seems to have earned the academic legitimacy that it has sometimes lacked in the past: Professors and concentrators see an open, exciting and friendly department with the celebrity cache of visitors like Spike Lee.

And it has attracted more concentrators: The number, now 49, has nearly doubled since the rebuilding began only two years ago.

The department now has seven members including four tenured faculty members, two assistant professors and a lecturer. Only two, Cabot Professor of English Literature Werner Sollors and Lecturer ARTMENTCatherine Clinton, were in the department before Gates' 1991 arrival.

In 1990, DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. came to Harvard to create a department where only one tenured faculty member remained. Today, although not all agree with his vision, few deny he is presiding over the...

"I think it's basically thought he's doing a superb job in rebuilding the department, which has been below its potential," says Gerald Jaynes, who chairs African-American Studies at Yale, where Gates was formerly a professor.

But some students and scholars of Afro-American studies at other schools question the department's, and Gates,' approach, which they say does not reflect all of the perspectives in the field.

Gates is building an interdisciplinary program grounded in a focus on "cultural studies," which draws on scholars from fields in the humanities and social sciences who have developed an expertise in Afro-American studies. Gates and Rosovsky mapped out the structure of the department in 1989, creating a blueprint similar to Rosovsky's original plan from 1969.

The result is a group of professors with varying academic backgrounds but similarities in approach, ideas and conceptions of what Afro-American Studies should be.

"Out outlooks are very similar... I definitely feel like we have a sense of shared mission," says Assistant Professor of English and Afro-American Studies Phillip Brian Harper. "I definitely see the direction shaped by Skip Gates' vision. I also think that's a vision all of us share."

It is an open department, as well, with junior professors made aware of changes and plans to an extent some say is unusual in Harvard's hierarchical system.

"It's tremendously congenial group of people," says Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Afro-American Studies J. Lorand Matory '82 says. "I feel as much at the center of it as many senior scholars do."

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