Wendy Wilson-Fall talks culture, history, and growing Lafayette’s Africana Studies program Twitter
Wendy Wilson-Fall spends much of her time at Lafayette defining a word.
Africana is the word, particularly Africana Studies, the one-woman interdisciplinary program of which Wilson-Fall is the one full-time faculty. Africana Studies is drawing more students than ever before. Its courses are changing; its graduates are popping up in prestigious postgraduate programs; it is visited by big names in the anthropology business.
Much of the growth is due to Wilson-Fall, hired by the College in 2012 to take the reins of a three-decade-old program created by economics Professor Rexford Ahene and late government and law Professor John McCartney. Wilson-Fall’s research focuses on themes of identity, culture, local histories, and social space. She has done research in the U.S. and West Africa.
At the end of her fifth year, Wilson-Fall sat down to answer a few questions about growing a long-standing program.
What was Africana Studies like in 2013?
When I first started I had nine to 12 people for each class. African Cultural Institutions served as the introductory class to the program. Other core courses were Black Experience and Reversing Sail. I spent my first three or four years just trying to build and reinforce various aspects of the existing program. After two years, I created Introduction to Africana Studies, and then another course called African Cowboys, which is about nomadic herders in Africa, environmental sustainability, and social justice.
I went from having 30 students altogether in 2012 to having 80 in spring 2017. Most of this growth in class numbers is from the Intro course, which now averages about 26 students a semester. African Cowboys started with eight or nine students, and grew to 18 this past semester.
To what do you attribute all this growth?
(laughing) Working very, very hard.
What is Africana Studies?
It is the study of Africa and its various diaspora communities. It’s not like Black Studies used to be, where you’re focusing only on African Americans. And it’s not just African Studies, where you’re only looking at the continent. There’s been so much research and advancement in the field, and in the last three decades most schools have established similar programs or departments. Africana Studies covers African and African Diaspora studies.
With the increase in people’s mobility and digital information technology, the state of knowledge has advanced considerably. That means we study and compare black communities in Brazil, the American south, and the Caribbean. We read new research on African-descended communities in the Middle East and India. There is also emerging research on new African Americans, that is, African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, and their children. Meanwhile, the depth of study and range of publications on African Americans has expanded tremendously. We look forward to eventually having another faculty who specializes on the African American contemporary community and issues of culture and race.
What have been some of the challenges of growing the program?
Most people don’t know what Africana Studies is. So you have a problem of recognition.
This sort of overlap between Africana Studies and social justice and racism activism. While as an academic program AFS does cover these themes, it shares the responsibility of teaching about these issues with others on campus who support extracurricular activities. In the early days of black studies one of the problems that plagued all Africana or Black Studies programs in the U.S. was that people conceived of them as sort of a haven for black students, and that only black students wanted to study black people. Thirty years ago the relationship of African diaspora to African studies was not as developed as it is now. Then, there was a confusion: was this a service program or was this actually a scholarly program? And that’s a fight all Africana Studies programs have had to fight. Now current programs reflect how things have changed, the evolution of the field. It has been important because of this history to demonstrate that we have really strong scholarly ambitions and practices. Through the Introduction to Africana Studies course students learn that all kinds of people work in Africana Studies or its related fields such as African Studies, Caribbean Studies, etc. Few people realize that the largest number of scholars in African American Studies right now are white males.
Why is that?
I’m not sure. For one, I think recently more social justice-minded people have gone into the field of African American Studies, and also graduate programs recognized there was a talent gap, a lack of graduating doctoral students to teach such courses. There are also a lot of African immigrants who teach African American Studies, a talent pool that didn’t exist before. The smaller number of African American scholars in the field reflects both the falling number of black Americans in the humanities and social sciences with doctorates as well as the growing attraction of the field to scholars in many disciplines.
So how do you overcome the problem of recognition?
At Lafayette, AFS brought in really renowned speakers, like Paul Stoller, an author of many books who has won international as well as national awards, a blogger for HuffPost, and an anthropology professor at West Chester University. Another visiting lecturer, Dr. Robert O’Meally, was brought in through the David L. and Helen S. Temple Speakers Series, an annual AFS program funded by Lafayette alumnus Riley Temple. Dr. O’Meally started the Institute of Jazz Studies at Columbia University and is a nationally known scholar of Richard Wright and African American cultural expression. Each visiting scholar lectures in AFS classes as well as at an event for the whole community. We collaborated with many other departments and programs across campus, such as Women and Gender Studies. AFS also sponsored less formal events for students, and this combination was good in heightening awareness of our program.
So where is the program now? Is it going to continue to grow?
Yes, it is. We need to do more, though, I think, to promote the image of Africana Studies. Social justice activities are really important obviously, but you’d be surprised how dynamic it is when students are in a safe place to talk about hard topics in American history and culture. Learning about African-descended communities in our courses helps students better understand social justice issues in America and globally. It is important for all students; white students and other ethnic and cultural groups can and do benefit from such material. The diversity in our classes leads to great discussion.
Once you frame those discussions in evidence-based sources and scholarly dialogue and debate, it’s so liberating to our students! How do we expand this experience to more students? A lot of white students are surprised and even liberated by what they learn. I often hear students say, “Whoa, dude! This is amazing!” Or, “That’s crazy!” There is so much that students of all backgrounds don’t know about our country, the Caribbean, and Africa. Without courses and education about global social justice issues, students often don’t know how or why we have some of today’s social and economic problems.
It really removes a great weight when American students learn that slavery was everywhere, and a world activity. It wasn’t just some creepy families in the United States and a supposed bottomless victimhood of black people in the United States. Students learn there are things that happened globally that affect our world today. Africana Studies is a great window through which to look at the 21st century.
What do you cover in the Intro to Africana course?
We actually study the evolution of Africana Studies. We look at the geography of Africa–how big is Africa? We look at basic things, but we also look at how African Studies got started, with (Melville) Herskovits in the 1960s. Why were people interested in Africa strategically, and how did African Studies evolve at the same time as the civil rights movement? What about colonialism and independence movements in Africa? How did Black Studies evolve compared to African Studies? Students are assigned to work in groups and review different African Studies and Black Studies websites. We have a class discussion about which program and approach they think looks better and why. With the help of Skillman library staff, we look at newspapers from 1963 to 1973. It’s much more impactful than if I say there wasn’t much about black people in the newspaper in those days. So we assign major newspapers, and ask students to find what they’re reporting about African Americans or Africa and what they’re talking about. We also look at Ebony magazine, and students get to see through African American eyes how African Americans want to view themselves. There are articles about black colleges and college graduates and nurses.
What can you do with an Africana Studies major?
The program is very broad, because it’s an undergraduate program. If students want to, they consider going further doing studies on Africa. They can take more courses from Jeremy Zallen, assistant professor of history, and do African American studies. If they want to go to graduate school, they can specialize further in African or Diaspora studies, programs for which all of the best schools in the country now offer a doctoral degree or master’s. For example, Jethro Israel ’16 was a math major but changed to Africana Studies. Now he’s enrolled in the History African Studies Ph.D. program at Boston University. Ben Bullock ’12 (AFS major) just got admitted to the master’s program in library science at Simmons College in Boston. Tawfiq Alhamedi ’17 (A & S major) is considering the African Studies master’s program at Ohio University. John Favini ’14 (A & S major) is in an anthropology doctoral program at University of Virginia researching the African diaspora. Demand for specialists on Africa will increase, as it becomes more important strategically and economically. Some of the world’s fastest-growing economies are now in Africa.
Anything you’d like to add?
Africa is not a country, it is the world’s second largest continent in area and population. AFS seeks to expand students’ horizons with a more nuanced understanding of the world through our studies of Africa and its diaspora communities.