ever before have students marched for more Romantic Literature courses. Nor have they done so asking for more sections of Wolfman chemistry. But since before its inception in 1970, Boston College students marched with conviction and pride demanding the University—which prides itself on a multi-faceted liberal arts education—make room in its curriculum for black studies.
Nearly half a century ago, BC delivered what students had long been advocating for when the University’s first comprehensive black studies program was forged as the brainchild of BC’s Black Forum, which met with the University administration for eight weeks in 1969 to form black studies. As a result, BC’s current African and African Diaspora Studies program (AADS)—a growing academic and social program only just reaching its full potential almost 50 years later—was born.
In 1969, the Black Forum began by presenting demands for a sweeping education on black studies. It wasn’t until September of the following year that BC created a foundation for AADS with the approval of three University black studies courses: African Art, The History and Psychological Development of the Black Family, and African Nationalism Since World War II.
These three courses turned into an established black studies minor in 1985, and the first independent black studies minor graduated from the University in 1990. Still, major progress in black studies education stalled until its transformation into the AADS program.
Enter Cynthia Young, hired in 2006 to revamp and reup black studies for the foundation of a University department. Young, who is currently the department head of African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University, started her magnanimous undertaking with a few small steps. There was so much to do to grow AADS from the ground up as a grassroots effort of students who didn’t see themselves reflected in the University’s curriculum that “every change made a big difference,” according to Young.
“So, you know, when I got there, it was clear that it was a program that had not been very well attended,” Young said. “I had the challenge, but also pleasure, of figuring out how to kind of create interest and excitement in the department or the program. … Pretty much anything any other department does, those are the kinds of things that I was considering when I first came.”
According to Young, the former black studies program didn’t have the feel of a developed department—lacking an independent faculty and comprehensive courses to comprise of a department—making her work cut out for her. Her first step was changing the program’s name from black studies to African and African Diaspora Studies.
“Apparently, there was a reputation when it was like at the end of black studies that the classes were easy.” Rhonda Frederick
With this, Young launched herself into signing on joint faculty members with the AADS program. Theology and AADS joint professor M. Shawn Copeland was there from the beginning of Young’s overhaul, signing a memorandum to become a joint faculty member as Young began to reconstruct black studies into AADS. The focus of Young’s blossoming program expanded to include not just African-American history, but the entire African diaspora. Young’s outline began with more than just a superficial name change—she wanted the core of the program to be all-inclusive.
“[Young] also had a real interest in diasporic studies, that is to say not just on the continental United States,” Copeland said.
To make her blueprint into the scaffolding of a sturdy program, she first needed faculty to teach the courses she envisioned. A major component of a comprehensive program consisted of faculty whose primary studies included diasporic research. Such a shift was necessary to move courses away from solely teaching African-American culture—Young saw value in African diasporic culture oceans away from BC.
“She was very keen to make sure that there were people on the faculty who could teach courses about life in the Caribbean [and] culture in the Caribbean—so, someone like professor Jean-Charles,” Copeland said.
Young brought in a number of faculty members, appointed to both an established BC department and the AADS program, to build the staff with instructors like professor Régine Jean-Charles, someone who focuses primarily on African-francophone literature, and whose Haitian roots afford her valuable knowledge and expertise in diasporic studies. History professor Martin Summers—who studies medicine and public health in the African diaspora—demonstrates the academic value BC now places in diasporic studies across continents and composes part of Young’s vision for a more global AADS program.
The progress that AADS has made and the steps the program has currently taken to departmentalize would not have been possible without this first essential movement toward inclusivity—a fundamental difference from the former mission of the black studies program.
According to Summers, AADS narrows the focus of its mission statement and courses to include all of the African cultures and histories—not just African-American studies—making the program more comprehensive and interdisciplinary.
A majority of the joint-faculty members that teach AADS courses concentrate their studies in a number of other BC departments. Since AADS is not yet an established department, faculty members are primarily based in another BC department while also collaborating with AADS courses and initiatives.
An interdisciplinary focal point is the core of the program, not only including all African cultures, but a number of specific areas of study—Copeland’s academic lens tightens into theological studies; Summers’ primary appointment is in the history department; Frederick has an office nestled in the depths of Stokes South’s fourth floor at the heart of the English department. By grounding the program in pre-existing BC departments, Young and other joint faculty like Frederick institutionalize the program into BC’s academic curriculum.
Frederick watched the AADS blueprint turn into reality after she planted her roots in BC’s English department in 1998, far before Young came in to offer her joint appointment. Today, Frederick is a key faculty member in AADS. But when she first arrived and AADS was still black studies, the structure of her classes was much less interdisciplinary.
“Most of the faculty who taught in the black studies program were part-time faculty. So there was no full-time tenured or tenure track Boston College faculty who was like, affiliated with the program,” Frederick said. “Classes were cross-listed [with black studies], but they were English classes.”
This was an experience very different from the one that Frederick had as an undergraduate. As a University of Pennsylvania alum, the cross-listed classes that Frederick taught felt less rigorous and academic than the ones she took as a student. This posed a dilemma, as many BC students failed to treat the black studies classes as serious, important courses, but rather as a quick GPA-booster.
“I don’t want students to simply [say] ‘I’ve got my Cultural Diversity course, it’s out of the way, it’s done. That’s not the approach in a Catholic university that I think we should have.” M. Shawn Copeland
Many black studies classes had been accepted to be easy classes, seeing as they were taught at night by part-time faculty with one foot out the door, as Frederick remembers—it became clear that the University did not yet prioritize black studies. In one instance, a major miscommunication left students who signed up for a black literature class without a professor to teach them. Instead, the students were moved to a class of Frederick’s, who specializes in Anglophone Caribbean and African Diaspora literatures.
“So they asked if the students could come to my class, and they all did, and they all were there for one class. And they all dropped because they said it was too hard,” Fredericks said. “Apparently, there was a reputation when it was like at the end of black studies that the classes were easy.”
A few years prior to Frederick’s entrance into BC’s black studies program, the University reorganized the Core Curriculum, mandating a “Cultural Diversity” requirement for the first time for the incoming Class of 1997. The Cultural Diversity Core, started by Amanda V. Houston—BC’s first black studies Director—began as a way to get all University students to take black studies classes. But for many students, courses within the black studies program became easy As taken primarily to complete their Cultural Diversity Cores. In 1993, The Heights published an article entitled “Cultural diversity: The University’s newest crusade,” highlighting the difficulties of adding another Core requirement to students’ already giant list of must-take courses. This is a problematic manifestation that Frederick witnessed first-hand.
“That was [Houston’s] investment … but over time, it got perverted, so that it just, you know, was something to check off for the Core requirement,” Frederick said.
For Copeland, equating black studies with the fulfillment of the Cultural Diversity Core became a euphemism for the inherent issues of race and racism. According to her, the responsibility of incorporating diversity into University studies does not solely fall upon the shoulders of AADS, but rather into the fabric of the BC’s educational foundation.
“I don’t want students to simply [say] ‘I’ve got my Cultural Diversity course, it’s out of the way, it’s done,’” Copeland said. “That’s not the approach in a Catholic university that I think we should have.”
When Young stepped in to change this, she was struck by the nonchalance of some of the University’s black studies classes. In one example, Young recalled a course entitled “Eyes on the Prize,” a popular black studies class in which the professor screened a different episode of the civil rights docuseries by the same title every single session and discussed it. According to Young, the academics behind the program had become so nullified that a class like this—one that seemed to lack a strong academic basis—was harmful to the entire black studies program. The Heights was unable to obtain a course syllabus.
“There’s no other course you can think about on campus where, you know, someone could get away with [showing a movie every class] … You would not think about that as a course that has academic rigor or [as] legitimate,” Young said.
Following Young’s makeover of the AADS program, Frederick has noticed that the makeup of AADS classes is more substantive and engaging. Instead of students taking courses solely to pursue a Cultural Diversity requirement, more and more BC students are taking cross-listed AADS courses that fit neatly into their major or minor, emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of AADS.
“[We] had a curriculum that really reflected the energy and enthusiasm of the faculty in the field.” Cynthia Young
This ties hand-in-hand with the transition of black studies, as well as its shift from being a program centered around personal service to black students to AADS, which features more of an academic focus. At the dawn of black studies, the program was treated as more of a safe space for students of color, highlighting the welfare of black students at BC, according to Frederick. Frederick said that many black students visited the black studies offices to simply spend time there, moving the program away from its initial educational purpose.
“We don’t expect political science to mentor students at a kind of personal level, or to, like, take an interest in them in terms of their kind of psychic well being, or whether they feel welcomed on campus,” Young said. “But we do expect that of black studies programs or departments.”
This pursuit was a double-edged sword, as Young had to find a way to balance the service component with academic priority while forming AADS. So, she started a lecture series and hired joint faculty—like Copeland, Summers, and Frederick—to build upon the grassroots effort of black studies.
The black studies minor was established in 1985, with the first independent black studies major—Joseph DeJames, a black studies, philosophy, and biology triple major—graduating from BC in 1990. Now, AADS is almost unrecognizable from its initial framework, and while AADS still isn’t a department, newly-elected Undergraduate Government of Boston College president and executive vice president Michael Osaghae and Tiffany Brooks hope to inspire the administration to build upon the work of Young and all of the pioneers before her to create a department and official AADS major. Still, it all began with an uptick of minor enrollment and Young’s program development.
“You could really feel the energy shift in the program, and you can see it in terms of our majors or minors going up, our minors were at a pretty low ebb by the time when I got there, and the number started to move …” Young said. “[We] had a curriculum that really reflected the energy and enthusiasm of the faculty in the field.”
AADS isn’t done growing, but for Young, the goal wasn’t to make AADS into a department or a major, but just to lay a foundation. She wanted to start with developing a faculty, growing enrollment in courses, and graduating more AADS minors. Once those monumental tasks were complete, she believed that everything would start to click.
“If I could get us to the place where I could take off those boxes, then the other stuff would fall into place, right,” Young said. “Like the next person would build on that foundation and, you know, grow us into a major and then grow us into a department and, you know, create a foundation for a Ph.D. program.”
Featured Image / Ikram Ali