New UMass Amherst Afro-American Studies Ph.D. to be First of Its Kind in Nation

AMHERST, Mass. - The Afro-American studies department at the University of Massachusetts has established a new Ph.D. program to examine American history from "a long-neglected perspective."

The program - which admitted its first seven students this past fall - is unique in a number of other ways, according to department head Esther Terry. First, it is one of only three Afro-American studies Ph.D. programs nationwide, none of them more than eight years old. Second, it is focused thoroughly on the American experience of African Americans, as opposed to either the African diaspora or the African roots of African Americans.

"We want to show how a consideration of the Afro-American experience is nothing less than a reconsideration of America," says Terry. "Our program examines the enslavement and emancipation of African Americans in America in relationship to the meaning and development of the country itself and shows how the two cannot be separated."

As part of its philosophy, the program emphasizes a multi-disciplinary approach that is perhaps best exemplified by its reading list. Students enrolled in the program begin by reading 50 major works, a kind of alternative canon that includes everything from Richard Wright''s novel "Native Son" to an expose of urban poverty which helps set Wright''s novel in context. Later, they take this core background and use it to focus on one of three subject areas - literature and culture, history and politics, or public policy.

The public policy track is another unusual aspect of the program, according to Terry, in that it combines University research with work in the public sphere. The track also involves members of the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston - which focuses on issues concerning the African-American community - who will teach in conjunction with UMass Amherst faculty.

"We''re still working out some of the particulars, but one thing is sure", says Afro-American studies professor Bill Strickland, whose special interest is in the public policy track. "The students will be encouraged not only to learn, but to use their learning by taking part in internships. To quote African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, for whom the program is named, ''Scholarship should be for the public good, not solely for scholarship''s sake'' ".

Students in the Ph.D. program will have access to a wealth of archival material, including the personal papers and correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, located in the campus library, which was recently named for the civil rights pioneer. In addition, renowned members of the UMass faculty from a variety of departments will take part in teaching, including jazz legend Archie Shepp, music; award-winning novelist John Edgar Wideman, English; and W.E.B. Du Bois''s stepson David Du Bois, journalism and Afro-American studies. "We''ve been planning this program for nearly 20 years, and now it''s finally underway," Esther Terry says. "It''s a very exciting time for UMass, and, we hope, for the country at large."