Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 10, 2002Volume 30, Number 29Two-Week Issue

The African American Studies weekend celebration included a tour of the Yale University Art Gallery's collections. Here, Mary Kordak, the gallery's Jan and Frederick Mayer Curator of Education, talks about the painting "Spinning by Firelight" by African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937).

African American Studies revisits origins, imagines future

It was no coincidence that the University's African American Studies program was launched the same year women were first admitted as undergraduates, said Yale College Dean Richard H. Brodhead in his welcoming remarks at "African American Studies and Yale: Revisiting Origins, Imagining Futures," a combination reunion and academic conference held May 3-5.

The year 1969, when the two events occurred, was a time of great and wrenching historical transformation in America, said Brodhead, noting that the creation of the African American Studies major and the admission of women to Yale College both grew from a reconsideration of the question: "Who is the University for?"

Like coeducation, African American Studies (now a full-fledged academic department at Yale) has grown to be an integral part of the University, said Brodhead. "There's no relevant program at Yale today that hasn't been infiltrated by African American Studies, that hasn't re-imagined itself as a field of which African American Studies is part. You're not going to study history without studying African American history; you're not going to study French without studying Francophone French literature; you're not going to study history of art without studying the history of expressive creativity that has come out of the African-American community."

The conference and reunion brought together over 150 graduates of the African American Studies Program, who came to share memories of the early days when Yale established the first Afro-American Studies major in the Ivy League and to explore the future of the field at Yale and beyond.

In the first panel on May 3, the students and faculty who helped found African American Studies at Yale looked back at their efforts to launch the program. The first panel provided an oral history by the founders of Afro-American Studies (as the program was then called), and by students and faculty. The panel was moderated by Ralph Dawson '71 and featured introductory remarks by Hazel Carby, professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies.

Craig Foster '69 and Don Ogilvie '68, '78 M.P.P.M., recalled that the arrival of 14 black freshmen in 1964 created what Foster called "a critical mass, enough to form a community -- culturally, socially and politically." That year, the Yale Discussion Group on Negro Affairs -- later renamed the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) -- was founded.

Ogilvie noted, "We were frustrated with the lack of truth in the college curriculum. It wasn't so much a matter of lies -- although there were some lies -- but gaps." He, Foster, the late Armstead Robinson '68 and others wrestled with what those gaps meant and what could be done to close them, he recalled. Eventually, they brought a petition to Yale President Kingman Brewster, who formed a faculty-student committee chaired by Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science Robert Dahl. The committee engaged in what was an unprecedented exchange of ideas between students and professors.

"We knew, by the end of the third meeting, that we had a group of students who were deeply dedicated and who had the kind of standards we could respect," Dahl said. "Credit [for the outcome] goes, in substantial part, to the contribution made by the students."

At first, there was a lot of opposition to ,the idea of an African American Studies program, recalled Wendell Bell, professor emeritus of sociology and one of the committee members. "We heard negative comments, questions about scholarship, the canon, the lack of a body of work to study. The African-American students undertook a tremendous task of educating the administration, the faculty and the other students."

BSAY organized a symposium in May of 1968 titled "Black Studies in the University." The event featured speakers from Harvard, Fisk, Cornell, the University of California at Los Angeles and elsewhere. The solid scholarship of the conference convinced the faculty that African American Studies was a valid academic pursuit, noted former Provost Charles Taylor. "They put the truth to us at that symposium, and they made an impression."

Bell noted, "In an age of unruly protests, they used polite diplomacy, reason and research."

Foster said, "We knew that our best weapon was intellect. We made a strong rational argument that stood on its merits."

In June 1968, the faculty-student committee proposed Yale's first interdepartmental major, Afro-American Studies, which was formally approved a few months later. The program was launched the following year.

In his keynote address on Friday evening, Kurt L. Schmoke, senior fellow of the Yale Corporation and former mayor of Baltimore, began by looking back at the University's earliest days.

"This University was established by men who were considered great intellectual leaders of their time," Schmoke said. "They were men both of rebellion and piety. They strove for excellence in education and sought as a goal for students and scholars the search for light and truth. But, as we all know, many of them shared the ignominious burden borne by the Founding Fathers of this country in their indifference to the plight of those of African descent who lived among them. So it is fair to say that, for the most part, in its first 200 years the leadership and the graduates of Yale reflected, in relationship to black people, the biases and contradictions prevalent throughout America. There were Yale leaders who were slaveholders or slavery supporters. There were also those who were leading abolitionists and proponents of equal rights. And there were many who remained silent, shamefully ignoring the suffering around them."

Schmoke admitted that, as an undergraduate during the 1960s, "I was among those underclassmen who were not immediately convinced of the need to create a separate program for what was often referred to as 'black studies.'

"Fortunately," he added, "BSAY leaders paid no attention to me on this issue."

Schmoke said he eventually "came to appreciate why it was essential for a great university to have a quality program of African American studies" and added, "The establishment of this department has enriched the quality of the academic life of this University. It has improved the Yale of today and will make this great University greater in the future."

On Saturday, the conference continued with panels titled "1968/2001: Are We Still Radicals?" and "A New Century: Imagining Futures."

The latter event, a panel discussion featuring Hazel Carby, graduate student Leigh Raiford and Robert Reid Farr '94 Ph.D., professor at City University of New York Graduate Center, was moderated by Robert Stepto, professor of English and African-American Studies. The panelists considered challenges facing African American studies departments generally and Yale's in particular. Issues that were discussed included increasing representation of minorities on the faculty, strengthening the bonds between the academic and broader communities, and maintaining intellectual credibility in a culture of the personality.

Saturday's program also included a screening of "Homecoming," directed by Charlene Gilbert '87; readings by authors Elizabeth Alexander '84, Joanne Braxton '84 Ph.D. and Gloria Naylor '83 M.A.; and a jazz concert.

Sunday began with a "Service of Remembrance," a tribute to the lives and accomplishments of deceased founders and friends of the program. Dwight Andrews '77 M.Div., '93 Ph.D., led the Black Church at Yale in the service that honored the memories of faculty members John Blassingame, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Charles Davis and Rhonda Williams; and Yale College alumni Glenn deChaberet and Armstead Robinson.

The conference closed with an afternoon panel on "The Future of the African American Studies Department and the Afro-American Cultural Center."

-- By Gila Reinstein


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