“There’s been a dramatic transformation,” says Professor Tina Campt. “There’s been the transformation of going from nothing to something.” She’s talking about the Africana Studies Program, which she directs—and which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In two decades, Africana studies has gone from being a major with little financial support—formed in response to black students’ demands for programming that addressed the issues they faced—to a thriving program on its way to becoming a full-fledged department. Along the way, Africana studies has seen major milestones.
Under the directorship of Kim F. Hall, Lucyle Hook Chair, professor of English and Africana studies, from 2006 through 2010 the program initiated student research trips to Ghana and Charleston, S.C., began offering a minor, formed the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies (CCIS), and acquired new and expanded offices. In addition, the program hired three senior faculty, including Campt, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. These sweeping advances reflect the College’s faith in the program. Unlike many other schools, Africana studies at Barnard focuses on the African diaspora as a starting point for a holistic look at interconnected black communities across the globe; integrates gender studies as a core component of the curriculum; and focuses on the local as well as the global.
In November, Africana studies used its 20th anniversary as a springboard to honor one of Barnard’s most renowned African American alumnae, playwright and poet Ntozake Shange ’70, as its second Distinguished Alumna in an ongoing series. A screening of Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Shange’s Obie Award-winning choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, preceded a panel discussion about the film and Shange’s work. Professor Monica Miller led a conversation between Soyica Diggs-Colbert of Dartmouth and Shange, who offered candid thoughts about the film.
But the real celebration took place in February, when Shange returned for a two-day conference. “We wanted to honor Ntozake Shange and her contribution as an incredibly visible and prolific Barnard alumna, and also celebrate the fact that we’re still producing outstanding black women artists and thinkers,” Campt says.
Choreographer Dianne McIntyre led a conversation with Shange; Barnard students, under the direction of music producer and Barnard Center for Research on Women Alumnae Fellow Ebonie Smith ’07, performed excerpts of Shange’s work. The following day, speakers and panelists including Stanford Professor Jennifer DeVere Brody, Columbia Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, and several other scholars, discussed her multifaceted works and their cultural and artistic significance.
“This is one of the strongest places in the country for doing Africana studies,” Barnard President Debora Spar said in the conference’s welcoming remarks. “Africana studies at Barnard is vital, it’s growing, and it’s really core to much of what we do here.”
Ntozake Shange’s contribution to the celebration, literally and symbolically, was monumental. “People came with their original copies of her work, those first editions,” says Yvette Christiansë, professor of English and Africana studies. “People who remembered going to the first staging of for colored girls came. Young women came who had created their own work in response, and in the creation of their own work began to learn how to reread Shange.” The conference, Christiansë says, highlighted questions about how knowledge is transmitted and why there’s a need to continually revisit lessons we’ve already learned—the same questions that drive the program year-round.
“We thought that it was singularly appropriate to celebrate our twentieth anniversary by reflecting on the work of an artist who challenges and inspires us to reflect not only on how far we have come, but who commands us to think about where we want to go now,” Campt said during the conference.
Africana Studies is currently moving toward departmentalization, which, when implemented, will be a major step that will confer additional visibility and legitimacy. Campt hopes to partner with more schools and with organizations in Harlem and abroad. “A public celebration is also a public commitment to keep working,” Christiansë says. “It’s a public commitment to claim, ‘We are here.’ The closing to that claim is, ‘We are here to stay, and we are here to grow.’”
—by Jessica Gross
—Photographs by Samuel Stuart