May 2, 2005

Africana Studies Center Celebrates New Building

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The Africana Studies and Research Center celebrated its 35th anniversary and the dedication of a new building this past Friday. Event speakers appropriated and interpreted the significance of Brown v. Board of Education, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. “The goal was to reflect on the impact of Brown v. Board of Education on the Africana Studies Center and larger American society. There was important dialogue about where we should go from here. As an Africana Studies major, it’s important for me to see the connection of the past, present, and future of black people in America,” said Diana Louis ’07.

Keynote Speaker Kimberle’ Crenshaw ’81, Prof. of Law at Columbia and UCLA, interpreted Brown v. Board of Education as having monumental importance for African Americans, but the fight for equality in education is not over. Crenshaw said, “I would call myself part of the post-Brown generation. We were the beneficiaries of the first generation.” The first generation refers to African Americans who began attending desegregated schools right after Brown v. Board. Crenshaw said this generation had to deal with a lot of “outright racism.” The post-Brown generation didn’t deal with as much outright racism, but more subtle inequalities that were just as racist. Crenshaw, who graduated as an Africana Studies major, went on to Harvard Law School. Before matriculating to Harvard Law, Crenshaw met with a very important civil rights’ activist, who she did not name, but who insinuated that she would flunk out of Harvard Law, because Africana Studies was not proper preparation for law school, and she should’ve taken more core courses.

“He couldn’t have been more wrong,” Crenshaw said.

When she arrived at Harvard Law, Derrick Bell, “one of two African American professors out of 70 at Harvard Law took a deanship position in Oregon,” Crenshaw said. Crenshaw and fellow law students appealed to the dean to have Bell replaced with an African American professor who could takeover teaching his course about race and the law. The dean responded, “wouldn’t you like a better white professor rather than a mediocre black professor.”

Crenshaw and fellow students didn’t stand down and formulated a philosophy called Critical Race Theory. Crenshaw said her Africana Studies major had a huge influence on her “knowledge that constructive racial discourse was possible, and [the Critical Race Theorists] demanded it of Harvard.”

Nowadays, “we are at an important juncture that has been termed racial laissez-faire-ism. We’ve been celebrating Brown as an impudiation of Plessy,” Crenshaw said, “this is not true. Symmetry is not the way of measuring inequality.” Crenshaw uses the word symmetry to describe the idea that just because everything looks equal on paper, it doesn’t necessarily translate to reality.

“The selective use of post-modernist theory that race does not exist is a refusal to deal with the materiality of race,” Crenshaw said.

At the dedication ceremony, speakers echoed the sentiments of Crenshaw and spoke about the achievements of the Africana Studies Center and its future. Salah M. Hassan, acting director of Africana Studies said, “the celebration of the completion of the new centers’ facilities coincides with the 36th anniversary of the takeover of Willard Straight Hall, which started the Africana Studies Center.” Hassan outlined the future goals of the Africana Studies and Research Center as the implementation of a Ph. D. program and the support to teach two African languages in addition to Swahili.

During his address, President Lehman said, “This new and improved facility sets Cornell as a leader in Africana studies.”

Many alumni and old friends of the Africana Studies Center were present at the dedication ceremony. Professors James Turner and Robert Harris extended much gratitude to the alums. Turner said, “we’ve been impressed with your devotion.” Turner and many others also commended the support of the University in contributing to the success of the center.

Kassahun Checole, a publisher from New Jersey said, “I have know the Africana Center since ’73 from studying in Binghampton. I am so happy it has grown to this point. The dedication was a wonderful expression of the commitment of the university.”

Like Brown v. Board of Education, the dedication ceremony marked an important milestone in the Africana Studies Center’s history, but as Crenshaw said, “every year there was some sort of threat to the center, but anything worth struggling for was worth being contested. Africana studies created guerrilla intellectuals. We were taught essential tools of survival, the importance of teamwork, and learned to engage in the war of position.”

Crenshaw and other speakers encouraged continuing activism and reminded the audience that a milestone is not a stopping point.

Archived article by Laura Harder
Sun Staff Writer