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Africana Studies program celebrates its 20th anniversary

Kim Hall, photo by Dorothy HongBarnard’s Africana studies program, the multidisciplinary study of Africa and the Black Diaspora, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and recently joined the American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies departments to make up the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies (CCIS), a collaborative exploration of race and ethnicity, along with gender, class, and nation.

After Kim F. Hall, professor of English, who holds the Lucyle Hook Chair, and professor of Africana studies, came to Barnard in 2006 with a mandate to strengthen the multifaceted program, she worked together with former provost and dean of faculty Elizabeth S. Boylan to do a cluster hire—bringing in tenured faculty who would strengthen the Africana studies program and make a lasting impact on the College.

The three new faculty members—Professor Tina Campt, who took over from Hall as director of Africana studies, Professor Yvette Christiansë, and Associate Professor Celia E. Naylor—arrived at Barnard in the fall of 2010. In addition to being renowned scholars and dedicated teachers, they have established new courses of study not previously part of the curriculum.

Although her career in academics had taken Hall to several prestigious institutions—University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, Georgetown University, and Fordham University—she had always wanted to teach at a women’s college because she attended one as an undergraduate. Her academic focus includes black feminism, critical race theory, slavery and depictions of race in literature. She is currently working on a book about the sugar trade in seventeenth-century England from the perspective of literary analysis. “Barnard students are phenomenal,” says Hall, who also teaches courses in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “The Africana students are so hungry for an interdisciplinary and transnational approach to their education. They bring spark to the classes.

When Hall joined the Barnard faculty, the College was looking for a sense of direction for Africana studies. Because it is a program and not a department, faculty members were often doing a delicate balancing act between their roles in Africana studies and the departments through which they had or sought tenure. “There seemed to be an agreement that we needed more tenured faculty and more faculty who had contractual responsibilities to Africana studies,” Hall says. “The year I got here Liz Boylan started that process by writing into faculty contracts that there would be some teaching responsibility for Africana studies where applicable.”

Hall wrote the proposal for the cluster hire. Professor Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, reconfigured the Difficult Dialogues Faculty Development Seminar to focus on Africana gender studies. This provided the funds and space to identify potential candidates and informally bring them to campus.

The fields of the three new instructors complement each other and work well with the existing teaching staff. Women’s, gender and sexuality studies, history and English—the tenure homes for the three—participated in the hiring process. It was vitally important to Hall that each had a genuine passion for teaching undergraduates. “We have a really vibrant community [as well as] people who are working together and willing to get behind a vision for Africana studies. In terms of gender and African Diaspora, we now have pretty much the strongest faculty in the country,” affirms Hall.

During her interview with Barnard President Debora Spar, Tina Campt told a story about her first time on the campus nearly three decades earlier. “I applied to Barnard and got in. It was my top choice,” she says. “I came for the prospectives weekend. I walked into Barnard Hall and I burst into tears because I thought this was too big a city. I ended up calling my godmother who lived in Queens and saying, ‘Come and get me.’”

Campt opted for Vassar and then earned a master’s and doctorate in history from Cornell University. Before coming to Barnard, she taught at Duke University, the University of California Santa Cruz, and the Technical University of Berlin. Although her training is in history, she has always taught in interdisciplinary programs. Today, she takes great delight in the fact that her office is on the second floor of Barnard Hall overlooking those once intimidating front gates.

Campt participated in the Difficult Dialogues seminar and discussed the research that informs her new book, Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe, which centers on family photography of black Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century. “That was my first experience sitting around the table with art historians, religious-studies scholars, African Diaspora scholars, American-studies scholars and gender scholars all together,” she recalls. “Among liberal-arts colleges, Barnard is leading the way in trying to cultivate scholarship and scholarly communities that are not just within departments, but that give the liberal-arts education a different way of reaching and training students.”

She loves the curiosity and creativity of Barnard students and embraces the challenge of explaining why something is not only important but also relevant. Most of her courses involve gender and the African Diaspora. Campt finds the faculty interaction of CCIS incredibly enlightening. “We get to combine our research strengths with our teaching in a way that allows us to collaborate with other scholars and learn from them,” Campt says.

Associate Professor of History Celia E. Naylor is a historian whose courses include “Introduction to African-American History,” “Black Feminism(s)/Womanism(s) and ‘Black Sexual Politics’ in Contemporary U.S. Popular Culture,” and “Introduction to the African Diaspora.” She authored the book African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens.

Celia Naylor, photo by Dorothy HongNaylor started her undergraduate studies at Cornell University wanting to be the first African-American female astronaut, but Dr. Mae Jemison occupied that position, and Naylor shifted her passion to focus on African-American history. A master’s degree in Afro-American studies at UCLA and a master’s and doctorate in history at Duke University followed.

Before arriving at Morningside Heights, she taught at Dartmouth College for eight years. (She is excited for her 11-year-old daughter to experience life in an urban setting.) Naylor credits Hall and her vision for the future of Africana studies at Barnard for the inspiration to apply for the position. “I think it really interesting and innovative that Africana studies incorporates so many different disciplines,” says Naylor. “It’s exciting to think about how these students are getting not only a foundation that incorporates race, gender, class, and sexuality, but also really tangible, palpable illustrations and understandings of the complexities and nuances of these issues.”

She also likes to watch the awakening to ideas that takes place in her introductory course. “Whenever we start talking about the narrative of history—who’s included, who’s excluded, and the reasons why—you often see students reflecting on what they thought they should have known,” says Naylor, who encourages her students to be engaged in the Harlem community.

The interaction with other faculty in CCIS has helped Naylor explore ideologies and concepts from new perspectives. “It’s almost like every morning I wake up and think, ‘Am I really here?’” she says. “Being able to interact with young women who are excited, who are interesting, who are really engaged in the classroom experience, but also interested in looking beyond the gates of Barnard and seeing what New York City has to offer, and even more broadly, the world: It’s wonderful.”

Professor of English and Africana Studies Yvette Christiansë brought to Barnard subjects beyond the sphere of influence of Europe and the Americas, which Hall felt was lacking. Born in South Africa during apartheid and educated at the University of Sydney, Christiansë is an award-winning author of poetry and fiction. She has taught at prestigious universities in the United States, including Princeton and Fordham, and in South Africa. “I love the size of Barnard. I love the commitment to the students,” says Christiansë. “That’s what I find joyous.

“We’ve been able to develop absolutely cutting-edge curricula for the students, particularly in the global context,” she adds. “The kind of international programs that we’re encouraged to do are just breathtaking.” This spring semester, Christiansë is co-teaching the interdisciplinary course “Africana Issues: Narrating Indian Ocean Africa” with Professor Isabel Hofmeyr of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The two classrooms are connected via live-stream video technology and the students are encouraged to not only interact, but also blog about their experiences. Read more about Christiansë's intercontinental course.

Yvette Christianse photo by Dorothy Hong“We’re looking at what I think is an often neglected part of post-colonial studies, that is to consider that long tradition of globalism in the Indian Ocean,” Christiansë says. “We’re looking at the labor movements and the history of slavery in that area.

“The students are connecting with each other via this fantastic possibility of immediate electronic conversation. We had hoped to eventually establish a Web site based on their research, which they will hand off to the next students, but it’s difficult logistically, so that’s on hold for now.”

Christiansë appreciates the feedback that CCIS brings in terms of new perspectives, which she then brings to her teaching. “All of the affiliate programs still have their distinct identities, but we draw on each other’s skills,” she notes. “We really have formulated new core courses.”

She aims to bring to Africana studies new outreach initiatives, such as one with the Museum for African Art currently in Long Island City. She also hopes to present the work of young Soweto-born composer Neo Muyanga as a learning expression. Christiansë utilizes elements of pop culture in her teaching—such as references to rap music and how much of it contains historical references.

“The students learn and I learn,” sums up the professor. —by Lois Elfman ’80

Photographs by Dorothy Hong