November 13, 2020

GUEST ROOM | RE: ‘Africana Department Refuses to Support Creating Caribbean Studies Minor’

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The decision of the current leadership of Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center not to consider the students request for the creation of a Caribbean Studies minor or to even create a committee of scholars to examine the possibilities indicates a major way in which they are failing to represent all the interests of the faculty and students in the Department and in Cornell at large. The ASRC director’s letter to CSA dated Oct. 5, which is now public, says explicitly that “the faculty have now met and carefully considered your request.” By these means I indicate that the decision was not unanimous or uniform and that the entire faculty did not endorse this dispatching of the CSA request.  

The Africana Studies Department in its founding operated with a sense of geographical coverage of Africa, the Caribbean and African America, under the rubric of Africana, generated by robust student support. Africana Studies evolved out of Black struggle and engagement, particularly the well-documented activities of 1968 and 1969. Students all over the United States were at the forefront of asking that the universities they were enrolled in be more attentive to the fact that the curriculum was Eurocentric and that there was a need for Black Studies. Those in the unit now (faculty, staff, students) benefit from that struggle and the hard work that went into creating Cornell’s Africana and similar programs and departments across the United States. 

Since its inception fifty years ago, the field has grown substantially from the early available scholarship on the African-American experience and the studies of the history of the African continent to a groundswell of work on a range of African Diaspora communities in Europe, Latin America, Asia, North Africa, Brazil and definitely the Caribbean. While the Department has added one African-American and one Caribbean-American junior scholar to the faculty in the last two years, we have not really grown. As a result, there are critical sub-fields missing. Caribbean Studies today is not just studying the “islands” but also includes the circum-Caribbean and the Caribbean coastal countries of South America, (the Greater Caribbean) replete with Afro-Latin American communities and definitely the larger Caribbean Diaspora in the U.S. and Europe. If we want to fully represent Africana Studies, then, these missing areas must also be considered in a project of expansion and inclusion of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Studies areas of  the African Diaspora minimally.

Students concern for Africana’s remoteness was not just the physicality of its location though that was an issue but, in my view, the fact that the Department was not meeting their needs, hence the CSA and the #DoBetterCornell petition which includes items relevant to Africana. The recent Anti-Racist demands of Cornell faculty, students and alumni, which Africana as a department did not sign (though individual faculty, graduate students and staff did) requested cluster hirings and several items which would benefit Africana. There are several missing areas in African American intellectual history so much needed to ground all students in some of the important currents that define the experience of African Americans in the U.S. which are absent from the current department’s offerings.  I would therefore suggest an African American Studies specialization as well within the Department and even a Black Women’s Studies specialization. All of these will expand the department’s possibilities and provide more students, move the unit away from constraint to expansion and provide better coverage and an amazing and dynamic array of research areas that would create new generations of scholars.

I am clear that my position is a minority position among faculty. I expressed these ideas being articulated here at that meeting in which this decision was made and made a follow-up request for at least a committee to study the CSA request which was also rejected. However, as a former president of the Caribbean Studies Association (2015-2016) and the one currently teaching the introductory course Caribbean Worlds it is impossible for me to acquiesce to a less than equitable handling of the current Caribbean Students Association (CSA) request for a minor. It is important to say as well that I am the faculty advisor for CSA and in that capacity supported their petition though this was generated completely by student initiative, with several other requests specific to their passage through the University.

The fact is that CSA’s petition for a Caribbean Studies minor points to several gaps in Africana’s offerings. Missing is the entire Afro-Latin geographical and cultural field heavily represented in the circum-Caribbean coastline of South America, not to mention Brazil which has the largest African-descended population in the Americas. There is no Brazillianist in the Department. In my view then, a student group’s request for an area of study, such as this, should help us think about how best to advance our absent coverage in these areas; how best to meet the needs of the students; how best to return our department to being the leading one in the country which it was initially.  

The current director’s and department’s controlling logic that Africana means studying Africa and the African Diaspora as an interconnected field is fine as an ideological construct that we all support. But along with an ideological framework (or even guided by it) this is an intellectual field and, as such, there is room for specializations which minors are, providing students a means to do advanced and particular work and study as they go on to graduate school or to related places of employment. We can note relatedly that several departments have minors which actually expand the reach of the field and broaden the possibilities of students and provide more majors and minors and above all excitement for study which we should never squelch in students. Graduate students at Cornell in a range of departments have repeatedly asked for a certificate or minor in Africana Studies that can support their scholarship as it provides them with a usable credential as they enter the job market and enhances their work in their various disciplines.

At present, there are at least three faculty members in the Africana graduate field (along with three others in the Department itself) and others in other units across the University who can provide direction and actual coursework for such a concentration or minor and further enhancements in terms of our offerings. In this time of rethinking curricula for anti-racist pedagogies and offerings, Africana can also use this space to be transformative and innovative in this regard. A good way to restart this conversation would be a cross-University committee with various interested faculty and students supported or sponsored by the Dean’s office. Since the initial impetus for Africana Studies was student demands for Black Studies, current students’ attempts to advance and broaden the available studies in the Department should be supported and advanced, not rejected. 


Carole Boyce Davies is a Professor of Africana studies and English and the H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.