No Gray Showing Yet
At 40, Afro-American Studies is as vital as ever
Forged in the social and political upheaval of the late 1960s, UMass Amherst’s W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies turned 40 this year, powerfully vibrant and showing beyond any doubt that its mission and scholarship are good for the ages.
The department’s core mission has always been to help the campus’s black students get ahead without leaving their identities behind—to create a cadre of black scholars who see that their education enables them to make both a living and a meaningful contribution to the progress of their communities and the nation. On the scholarly front, the department has from the start been a preeminent source of knowledge of the history and culture of black people in Africa and the New World, and has enhanced the campus’s cultural life in profound and varied ways.
“I’m most struck by how unsurprising our success has been,” says Professor Amilcar Shabazz, the department’s seventh and current chair. “We began as—and, in my humble and unbiased opinion, we continue to be—the best African American department in the country. That we’ve remained on top all this time while other units have faltered is due in large measure to the sound long-range thinking that went into our creation. Our founders had far greater ambitions than merely responding to the political events of the hour.”
The Du Bois department marked its 40th anniversary with an interdisciplinary conference, “Art and Power in Movement: An International Conference Rethinking the Black Power and Black Arts Movements.” Held on campus November 18-20, 2010, the conference examined how in the 1960s and 1970s the Black Power movement and its cultural twin, the Black Arts movement, altered Americans’ understandings of culture, education, community, politics, and even their own identities. The keynoters included poets Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka and pianist Randy Weston.