UC Berkeley students, professors reflect on African American studies department

Photo of members of the Berkeley Department of African American Studies
Joseph Frantz/Courtesy

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Since its formation in 1970, UC Berkeley’s African American studies department has been at the forefront of African diaspora scholarship.

According to Leigh Raiford, associate professor of African American studies, the department was born from the work of the Third World Liberation Front, a student movement that called for minority representation in academia.

“The Third World Liberation strike here on campus sought to create, basically, an ethnic studies college for the study of underrepresented minority groups,” Raiford said. “Once the ethnic studies program was started, a couple of years later, African American studies broke off and created its own department.”

Raiford added that the inception of the department on campus occurred during a “fashionable” moment in American history, a time when universities were beginning to diversify the breadth of their studies.

According to campus doctoral student Franchesca Araújo, the effort that went into the institutionalization of the department should not be overlooked by those within the program.

“It is really important for anyone who’s doing a program that has been instituted in universities post-60s to be really cognizant of the fact that these programs being institutionalized took a lot of work and the initiatory phases of that work was really related to social movements and Black radicalism,” Araújo said.

The issues that have only recently been spotlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump presidency are struggles that the African American studies department has been grappling with since its founding, Araújo said.

According to Jamal Batts, campus doctoral candidate and GSI, the department has responded to all of these challenges by bringing them into the classroom.

“A number of the issues that we’re dealing with — the videos that are getting released, the reports that are happening, the inequitable interactions on campus — a lot of that is brought to the Black studies classroom as something that can be discussed,” Batts said.

Araújo said she chose to come to UC Berkeley because of the sense of camaraderie she perceived from students in the African American studies department. The program stood out from the others, as both doctoral candidates and faculty made an effort to reach out to applicants, she added.

Batts echoed this sentiment. He noted that the department has offered support beyond academia, showing care for his “holistic being” and wellness.

“There is a way that students in African American studies look out for one another that has really sustained me throughout these years,” Batts said. “Whenever the project got difficult or I thought there might not be a future for me in the academy, it was the people in African American studies that sustained me.”

Campus senior Violet Henderson, who is double majoring in African American studies and conservation and resource studies, said that while the department is not competitive, it challenges students to critically analyze and think.

The department also guides students to address real-world events, Henderson added.

“That’s why departments like these are valuable, because it gives you an opportunity to see things from a different perspective — how things were designed and how the people are suffering because of the design,” Henderson said.

According to Raiford, the department was recently awarded a $2.8 million grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This is the largest grant UC Berkeley has received from the Mellon Foundation to date, she added.

The grant is intended to address racial inequality through humanities research and will fund the “Black Studies Collaboratory,” a three-year project rooted in expanding the reach of Black studies, according to UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science website.

Batts, Araújo and Henderson expressed mutual excitement for this grant.

“It is a real confirmation of the importance of our work and the value of our scholarship to building more just futures,” Raiford said. “We’re really excited about what the next three years will bring for us in terms of expanded programming.”

Kelly Suth is the lead race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @kellyannesuth.