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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Harvard Celebrates 50 Years of African and African American Studies

A part of the symposium was held in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
A part of the symposium was held in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. By Michael Gritzbach
By James S. Bikales and Kevin R. Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s African and African American Studies department celebrated its 50th anniversary at a two-day symposium Friday and Saturday, which boasted a global guest list of pre-eminent scholars in the field.

AAAS was founded in 1969 following student demands for such a department. Activism for the creation of the department surged in April 1968 in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

The celebration began with remarks from AAAS chair Tommie Shelby, who said though the department has faced “missteps, disappointments, crises, and setbacks,” the demands of the original student activists “continue to be satisfied and even greatly surpassed today.”

“My colleagues and I are grateful to those who pioneered this effort, and we sincerely hope they are proud of what we have done with their legacy,” he said.

Several professors involved in the founding of the department attended the event, including Sociology professor Orlando H. L. Patterson and former AAAS professor Ephraim Isaac. University administrators involved in the department’s development — including former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky and former University President Neil L. Rudenstine — also attended.

Current prominent faculty members, including Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo, University Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., History department chair Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Philosophy and AAAS professor Cornel R. West ’74, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, also participated in the two days of programming.

“Through its profound commitment to the multidisciplinary study of the global African diaspora in all its richness and complexity and even contradictions, the Department of African and African American Studies has become an unequaled leader in its field, to the enormous benefit of the Harvard community and the wider world,” Gay said in her remarks.

The celebration featured multiple panels, including discussions on the founding and early days of AAAS, scholar activism, and alumni experiences.

Farah J. Griffin ’85, African American and African Diaspora Studies department chair at Columbia University, and Wale Adebanwi, director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University, delivered the keynote addresses on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Friday’s events included musical performances by the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College and the Yosvany Terry Quintet, as well as the presentation of artist Dell M. Hamilton’s exhibition “The Extraordinary Commission: Student Activism and the Birth of Afro-American Studies at Harvard.”

Saturday’s faculty panel on scholar activism discussed the extent to which black scholars have a responsibility to advocate for black people outside of academia.

Princeton University African American Studies professor Imani Perry, one of the panelists, said she does not consider herself a “scholar-activist” but believes that, as a professor, she has a responsibility to address the ways that academia may perpetuate inequality.

“To be a person of conscience in this career demands a commitment to disruption,” Perry said. “So, at the very least, I can try to undo the ways that I participate in injustice.”

In an interview after the symposium, Shelby said the programming was meant to celebrate the department’s “extraordinary” achievements, but also to foster important discourse on ways to improve.

“I think it did manage to be appropriately celebratory, reflective,” Shelby said. “What I wanted was, yes, celebration, but also dialogue with our peers in the field to think about places where we could be better.”

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at kevin.chen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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