Department of African American Studies celebrates 50 years


Photo courtesy of Anthony B. Sullers Jr.

An interdisciplinary faculty forum was hosted by the Department of African American Studies, or AFRO, on Oct. 30 in the Levis Faculty Center. The department celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting a series of events in October.

By Eunice Alpasan, Senior Reporter

The Department of African American Studies hosted a series of events throughout October to celebrate its 50th anniversary and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of what many historians recognize as the beginning of the American slave trade when more than 20 African slaves arrived in Virginia.

The theme of the commemoration events was “1619, Before and Beyond: Then, Now, Next?”

“It’s not just about that year,” said department head Ronald Bailey. “It’s a pivotal year in African and African American history and world history. We wanted people to think about what happened before this, what happened during that year and what the consequences of 1619 were.”

The commemorative events the department hosted or sponsored included a lecture from alumna and activist Doris Derby about life at the University in the 1970s, the production of August Wilson’s play “Gem of the Ocean” and various panel discussions featuring other distinguished speakers.

A panel on Oct. 24 titled “Why 1619 Matters” was moderated by Erik McDuffie, professor in LAS. McDuffie said one of the topics raised during the panel was while 1619 was an important year, black history did not start in slavery nor in 1619. 

“We’re still very much dealing with the legacy of slavery and racial terror in this country given the rise of racism on campus,” McDuffie said. “The history of slavery continues to shape the world in which we live, and the struggle for human freedom has not been completed.”

Cierra McCullough, sophomore in LAS, went to a graduate panel on Oct. 25. because she said the information would be useful in pursuing her goal to attend law school. The panel featured people of color, and they spoke about their experiences being a minority in graduate school.

“My overall takeaway was that graduate or law school is hard for everybody and that your race isn’t really a detriment to how bad or good you’ll do,” McCullough said. “It’s just one of those things you have to deal with for the rest of your life even without school.”

The last commemoration event on Oct. 30 was an interdisciplinary faculty forum of which Bailey was one of the speakers. The ideas presented regarded the economic activity spurred by slave labor, the late novelist Toni Morrison and comparisons between the famous Mayflower ship and the White Lion ship, which carried those first 20 African slaves in 1619.

As the department celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Bailey said it is also going through a departmental review, which each department undergoes every seven years. 

“A lot of our discussion is to talk about what’s happened in the past and what’s going on now, but also talk about what we want to contribute in the next five years, in the next 10 years,” he said. “Hopefully, students will take advantage of our courses and the courses in the other ethnic studies programs so they can more fully understand some of the issues that not only happened in the past but still have an impact on contemporary life in the United States.”

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