Africana Studies Welcome Letter, September 2023
Greetings and welcome to a new academic year!
It is my joy to welcome you back on behalf of Africana Studies. I spent the first weeks of my summer re-reading Toni Cade Bambara’s tour de force, The Salt Eaters, for our Black Feminist Book Club. Students and faculty from Africana Studies, our partners at Frugal Bookstore, and many others in the US and abroad joined us to pore over this brilliant and moving novel. Our discussions broached crucial topics like healing, community, activism, Black women’s labor, and so much more. Talking about this book in community was the perfect way to kick off the summer. It was an important reminder that holding onto community and healing is a choice we can always make when confronted with the question, do you want to be well?
Visions like Bambara’s are especially important when we consider the different forces at work that might undermine our collective wellness. As I enter my third year as Director of Africana Studies, it is not lost on me how urgent the work of our field feels in this current moment. Black Studies—the field at the origin of Africana—is being challenged on many different sides. Since 2021 Republican political leaders in 44 states have proposed legislation or policies restricting how race and racism are taught in the United States. Additionally, the Supreme Court’s overturning of affirmative action, and the College Board’s stripping African American Studies AP of core concepts like intersectionality, Black feminism, Black queer theory, abolition, and structural racism, underscore the dire need for Africana Studies. As Justice Ketanji Brown wrote in her pointed dissent to the SCOTUS decision, “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” We need ethical, conscientious, and visionary approaches to the critical study of anti-Black racism as well as teaching, research, and community engagement that will not succumb to forces that do not want us to be well.
Our programs from the past year reflect such a commitment. We began fall 2022 with a film screening of Gessica Généus’s powerful film Freda set in 21st century Haiti where artists like Généus refuse to allow political unrest to thwart their truth-telling and creativity. Thanks to impassioned Boston city-councilor-at large Ruthzee Louijeune, we also partnered with Mayor Wu’s office to make this a community event for which many members of Boston’s robust Haitian community showed up to watch the film and meet Généus. Later on in December we welcomed soccer legend and racial justice activist Lilian Thuram to campus. Thuram spoke in a packed Fenway Center to an audience that included over 100 local Boston high school students eager to learn from him. Last year we also hosted the second annual bell hooks symposium where scholars like Pulitzer Prize winning critic Salamishah Tillet, activist and Combahee River Collective founder Demita Frazier, and Brown University professor Kevin Quashie reflected on the theme of Black Feminism, Black Freedom. During each of the events, the support of our students, faculty, community members, and administrators here on the Boston campus made the difference.
This year is noteworthy because it marks 50 years since an African American Studies Department was founded here at Northeastern University. I have been thinking about the legacy of people who have had an impact on advancing Africana Studies at Northeastern like the innovator Dr. Ramona Edlin, who was the founding chair and is well known in the field for having first coined the term African-American. I am also thinking about what it means for us today that feminist trailblazing author Ntozake Shange who was once a Visiting Professor at Northeastern in the 1970s. Fifty years later we have a cohort of energetic and productive faculty members whose teaching and research touch all parts of the diaspora—Dr. Layla Brown’s class on Afro-Latin American Studies, Dr. Richard Wamai’s research public health in Kenya, and Dr. AK Wright’s class on abolition being offered in the spring are but a few examples of how our faculty are intervening in this rich and diverse field. Looking forward to this year we will celebrate our 50th anniversary with a lecture by Dr. Keisha Blain whose work as a historian and public intellectual exemplifies how Africana Studies can help to build a better world. We are also eager for the third convening of the bell hooks symposium with the theme, “Black Feminist Worldbuilding: Visions and Futures.”
Describing The Salt Eaters, Farah Jasmine Griffin writes that “it never loses sight of the goal of freedom for all Black people. The protagonist is healed not in order to retreat, but in order to continue in struggle.” That vision of Black freedom is similar to what the Black students at Northeastern had in mind fifty years ago when they made demands for classes about Black people and increasing the number of Black faculty. It is the same desire I see in the work of our Africana Studies faculty, students, and community members who lead the way in continuing the struggle today. So as we enter another year I am holding onto that vision and drawing inspiration from the ordinary and extraordinary people propelling it forward.