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Af-Am To Merge With African Studies

By Rebecca D. O’brien, Crimson Staff Writer

The Faculty Council approved an initiative yesterday to combine the Department of Afro-American Studies and the Committee for African Studies into one department.

Pending a vote of the full Faculty next month, the African and Afro-American Studies Department will be open to concentrators in the fall of 2004.

The move reflects an expanding interest in African studies among students and professors and brings a long-awaited merger one step closer to realization, department administrators said yesterday.

“It is a major development at Harvard; many of us think it’s long overdue,” said an ebullient Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., chair of the department of Afro-American studies. “Just as the formation of the Afro-American studies department led to a rebirth of the field, we hope that the formation of this as an undergraduate program will bring a lot of attention to African studies. It needs all the attention it can get.”

He said he has been pushing for this initiative since he arrived in Cambridge in 1991.

Gates, who was seriously considering an offer from Princeton University last fall, said yesterday that the administration’s commitment to the merger was a “key factor” in his decision to remain at Harvard.

“It is possible that, had I left, the momentum that we had built up might have been delayed a bit,” Gates said. “I wanted to do this. It was all part of a plan to revitalize Afro-American studies that [Former African Studies Chair K. Anthony] Appiah and I had in 1991.”

A Long Time Coming

Gates, along with African Studies Chair Emmanuel Akyeampong, presented the proposal to the Faculty Council yesterday after a year of discussions with professors and administrators.

Both said that the name change was a formalization of a process that began in the Afro-American studies department more than a decade ago under the auspices of Appiah.

“We have been thinking about this program for the last several years. When [Akyeampong] became chair of African studies [last spring], he and I began very carefully to plan the creation of a track within Afro-American studies specifically for African studies,” Gates said.

But Akyeampong said that recent changes in the University were crucial to the success of the proposal.

The two met with Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby last fall to discuss the future of the department and committee and were pleased with his support of the idea.

Kirby was not available for comment.

“This probably could not have happened until this year,” Akyeampong said, speaking yesterday from Gates’ office after the Faculty Council’s overwhelming approval of the proposal. “This is the result of a commitment by the president, the provost and the dean of the Faculty to seeing a strong program in African studies.”

But it was not only the amenability of the administration that has led to the success of the proposal: changes within the fields of African and Afro-American studies make this an opportune time for the initiative.

“The fields are changing,” Akyeampong said. “There is a strong link across the Atlantic, a shift in the way that Africa works now and how African-American history is studied.”

At the same time, Gates said that student and faculty interest in the field has grown substantially in recent years—last year alone, 1,000 students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences took courses that had African content, Gates said.

“There are hundreds of students, lots of senior theses, lots of Faculty members who are Africanists,” Gates said. “The whole question was to find a way to formalize this.”

Both Gates and Akyeampong said that Harvard was poised to be a leader in the field because of its resources and the strong base of faculty that already exists here.

“People have always felt that Harvard could be so prominent in African studies,” Akyeampong said. “It is very likely that, two or three years from now, we could be the premiere center for African studies.”

Drawing from several fields at the University—including sociology, anthropology, economics, art history and music—the interdisciplinary concentration will probably be divided into three subfields, Afro-American studies, African studies and some combination of the two.

Akyeampong said that the proposal was presaged somewhat by the formation of the Africa Initiative—a multi-disciplinary research and training program sponsored by the Committee on African Studies that was submitted to the provost’s office last fall.

The five-year teaching and outreach program in Africa garnered an interest in the field among professors from across the University’s many schools.

The new department will probably focus on sub-Saharan, central and West Africa, but will also offer courses on Northern Africa, which is usually associated—at least politically—with the Middle East.

As Gates and Akyeampong headed off to celebrate at an Ethiopian restaurant last night, Bethany L. Hoag ’06 greeted the news with similar elation.

Hoag, who works for the Committee on African Studies, says that she came here hoping to pursue the field—she spent two years in an international school in Swaziland before coming to Harvard this year.

“When I first started working at the office, people were talking about it as if it were a wish,” Hoag said. “I didn’t realize anything was in the works. I am really excited.”

Gates and Akyeampong say that they expect languages to be the first new additions to the department.

Swahili is currently the only sub-Saharan African language taught at Harvard.

An information session for sophomores and first-years interested in the new department will be held on April 28.

Other universities with African studies programs include Columbia, Michigan State, Stanford University and the Univeristy of California at Los Angeles.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at robrien@fas.harvard.edu.

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