The Brooklyn College Africana Studies Department celebrates 40 years at the forefront of cultural analysis.

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Africana Studies Thrives at Brooklyn College

Feb. 11, 2014

Africana studies student Chason John participates in classroom instruction in Besease, a village in the Central Region of Ghana.

Brooklyn College stands poised to celebrate a milestone. The Africana Studies Department will be turning 40 this year and the event will be highlighted by a fundraising gala in April. The gala will help put the spotlight on the department's continuing efforts to attract the best faculty, offer the most engaging courses, and provide its students the unparalleled academic and financial opportunities that will give them a post-graduation edge.

"We would also like to raise the profile of our department and let our alumni and benefactors know that we are still here," says Lynda Day, chair of the department and endowed chair of the Women's and Gender Studies Program. "We're still working to educate and prepare students for the contemporary marketplace and shifting career landscapes. We would also like to continue providing our students scholarships and the means to study abroad in places like Ghana, as well as bring in distinguished guest speakers, like Spike Lee and others, to encourage and inspire by example."

The endurance of the department is a testament to its continued relevance and value. And it all began with a rallying cry made by a group of Brooklyn College student protesters from the Black League of Afro-American Collegians (BLAC) in 1969: "Brooklyn College belongs to us, not you!"

In the late 1960s, college campuses across the nation were alive with student activism related to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Many students—branded "militant," "radical" and "communist" by the media and the various administrations—made their positions clear with peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience; others protested with walk-outs, and in some cases, acts of violence.

Students in Africana studies receive keen insights into the lives and accomplishments of great historical and contemporary black figures, including Brooklyn College alumni like Shirley Chisholm '46, Gloria Naylor '81, and Sapphire '95 M.F.A.

Brooklyn College was no different. Spurred by the lack of diversity in their school, Brooklyn College students and faculty pushed to increase the number of minority students and faculty, and include black and Latino studies in the college curriculum. These were part of a list of 18 demands being made by BLAC and another progressive student organization, the Puerto Rican Alliance.

On May 6, 1969, small fires were started in several buildings on campus and there was a tense stand-off in front of Boylan Hall between the minority student groups, firefighters, and the administration. A few days later, the New York City Police Department raided the homes of 17 black and Puerto Rican students, including BLAC organizer Askia Davis '72, arrested another two students in a separate police action, and charged them all with arson and inciting to riot.

"They threw me on the floor, put a gun to my head, and cocked the trigger," recalls Davis in The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi, only relenting once they realized he was "nothing but a kid." After graduating from Brooklyn College, Davis went on to receive his doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College and is the founder of Askia Book Publishing and Consulting, which, among other ventures, offers leadership training to young black and Latino males.

U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm '46 raised the money to pay the bail, which had been reduced from $15,000 each, but not before the students spent four nights at Riker's Island Correctional Facility.

The case against the students was eventually dropped when prosecutors found that they could not produce enough evidence to convict. Despite this, the students were placed on a short probation, leading the college's student newspaper, the Kingsman, to note in its editorial that the action seemed "suspiciously like a move to repress dissent on campus, since the 19 are not guilty enough to be prosecuted."

Still, by the fall of 1969, Brooklyn College had acknowledged the concerns and demands of the protesters and established the Afro-American Institute, created a Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Visiting Professorship for Afro-American Studies, and added 15 courses that focused on scholarship relevant to the African-American experience. Eventually, the institute evolved into a full-blown department offering majors, minors, and degrees. In 1974, it was renamed the Africana Studies Department.

Ruqayyah Batts '13 (left) says that mentorship from faculty like Professor Day was crucial to her success as a student and continues to serve her as she pursues her professional goals.

The move was not without detractors, who believed a degree in Africana studies would not prepare a student for the job market, but Ruqayyah (pronounced Ru-KY-yuh) Batts, a Daniel E. Mayers Memorial Award recipient who received her bachelor's degree in Africana studies in 2013, could not disagree more.

"Just as globalization has made it necessary for the best candidates to be fluent in other languages, so too has it required us to be fluent in other cultures. A degree in Africana studies provides just that kind of preparation," says Batts, who also took pre-med courses at the college, and is in the process of applying to medical schools. She believes her coursework in Africana studies has given her the ability to aid and counsel patients from all walks of life because she was trained to understand how identity and well-being intersect.

"Regardless of what field you go into—be it business, health, law, the arts, communications, etc.—no one wants to hire someone who isn't culturally competent," Batts insisted.

Professor George Cunningham, who has been teaching in the Africana Studies Department since 1978 and has been a mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, of students during his tenure, believes that the impact Africana studies has on the academic and psychological well-being of black students should never be underestimated.

"It allows students to place themselves in the context of their own history. [It] gives them the benefit of seeing what their progress means in the context of the larger progress of the race," Cunningham says. The major requires that students complete 18 credits of advanced coursework from another discipline, "to meet the demands of a multifaceted world from a profoundly interdisciplinary point of view—a modern interpretation of the "double consciousness" W.E.B. DuBois identified in The Souls of Black Folk at the beginning of the 20th century," Cunningham adds.

Today, Brooklyn College graduates more black students each year than any other college in the state. It is also one of the top five institutions in the country—and number one in New York—from which black students earn bachelor's degrees in accounting and master's degrees in the social sciences. All of this, Professor Day believes, is the fruit of a particular kind of labor.

"The black experience, black culture, has become fundamental to the identity of America. We have been part and parcel with how America democratizes," says Day. "Part of why the success of black students at Brooklyn College is possible is because we endeavor to influence the experience here so that it emulates those of historically black colleges and universities, where the atmosphere and the professors are all dedicated to the success of black students—their performance inextricably connected to our own."

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