Chancellor’s Welcome at Virtual Symposium Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies

Chancellor’s Welcome
Virtual Symposium Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies

Good afternoon. Welcome everyone.

And thank you for joining us as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies – and the opening of our virtual symposium, Conscious to Woke: Fifty Years of Revolutionary Black Thought.

I would especially like to welcome our founding faculty and alumni who are with us today, including Professor Michael Thelwell, Professor Esther Terry, Professor Cheryl Evans, Professor Jules Chametsky, Imani Kazana, Professor Bernard Bell, Professor Johnnetta Cole, Herman Davenport, Ingrid White, and so many others.

Your commitment to creating an academic department dedicated to Black people in the Americas and the African Diaspora was indeed revolutionary. 

On behalf of the extended UMass Amherst community, I thank you for your unwavering belief in our university as deserving of both your efforts and your vision.

As some faculty and alumni remember, in 1975, on our campus, the renowned Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe delivered his seminal lecture, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Achebe had come to UMass in the early seventies as an exile in the wake of the Biafran War.

He held a faculty post, hosted by the Afro-American and English departments – one of the many interdisciplinary efforts that continue today – and he found friendship, collaboration, and community.

In this supportive environment, he delivered his lecture, which became a crucial contribution to the postcolonial discussion of literature.

Chinua Achebe’s experience at the university was not an exception. He is one of many, who over the decades, have come to the Du Bois Department, seeking a rigorous academic community defined by the freedom to express and create.

What is notable, it that Achebe found this exceptional, fertile intellectual environment in a department that was not only just five years old, but also – as a new academic discipline – had very little precedent to draw upon – certainly not in the academy, nor even at other universities.

But, that’s the point, isn’t it?

Fifty years ago, during the social and political activism of the 1970s, members of our university community developed an a priori proposition.

They had not studied nor taught in a department focused on Black Studies, but fueled by intellectual passion and a sense of responsibility, they understood the need to provide scholars and students with a rigorous framework in which to teach, research and engage.  

The result was an academic department whose faculty and students, from its earliest days, amidst the tumult of the times, had a clear vision of its mission and how to achieve it.

And it was this exceptional intellectual environment that welcomed and supported Chinua Achebe and so many others.

That revolutionary spirit that fueled the determination to pioneer a department of Afro-American Studies runs deep in our university.

In the year 1863, as the Civil War raged on, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect – and the university, as part of the Land-Grant College Act, opened its doors to participate in the then radical movement to democratize higher education.

From these originating roots, an undercurrent of resilience and determination has run through the university for more than 150 years, challenging us to always do better, and to expand our commitment to learning, research and engagement in pursuit of a more equitable and just society.

Today, as an enormous amount of energy and urgency is being directed also towards confronting and undoing our country’s painful legacy of systemic racism, our commitment to advancing social and economic justice is urgent.

And I sincerely thank all of you for being here, and for participating in the symposium.

I would l like to share some ways you can support the Du Bois Department and participate in continuing its legacy into the future.

As part of the 50th Anniversary, the New Africa House Student Support Fund will provide assistance for graduate and undergraduate students in the department whose already pressing financial needs have been compounded by the pandemic. The fund, which makes a real difference in our students’ lives, is accepting donations through November 15th at minutefund.umass.edu.

We are also commemorating this anniversary by honoring a member of our community.

Professor John Bracey joined the Afro-American Studies department in 1972 and over the decades, through activism and scholarship, his commitment to the Du Bois department, and its mission, has influenced innumerable lives and brought the university national and international recognition.

To honor his significant contributions, it is my great pleasure to announce the “John H. Bracey, Jr. Endowed Scholarship” in support of graduate education.

This endowment will ensure that future scholars have the opportunity, in perpetuity, to build on the excellence of Professor Bracey, and the Du Bois Department.

We look forward to sharing more about the scholarship with all of you, and I know you join me in congratulating Professor Bracey, as we thank him for his steadfast commitment and extensive contributions within the department and beyond.

Thank you, Professor Bracey, and “Congratulations!”

Once again, I welcome everyone to the 50th Anniversary of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, and I gratefully acknowledge those whose vision and efforts brought us here today.

Thank you and Go UMass!