Question everything you’ve been taught about race and racial groups and begin again. You have to question the dominant discourse about every group. Begin again with evidence instead of myth. Look past outcomes to origins. How did we get there? Why does one side of town look like this, and the other side looks like that? The answer is never that one side of town are better people.
– Imani Perry
The Department of African American Studies at Princeton University provides an exciting and innovative model for teaching and research about African-descended people, with a central focus on their experiences in the United States. We embody this mission in a curriculum that reflects the complex interplay between the political, economic, and cultural forces that shape our understanding of the historic achievements and struggles of African-descended people in this country and around the world.
African American Studies at Princeton
In our department at Princeton, we believe African American Studies plays a significant role in producing cosmopolitan people who are capable of not only encountering difference, but thinking about difference in very sophisticated ways.
African American American Studies at Princeton was founded in 1969 in response to widespread student demands that African American intellectual traditions be represented at the University. At its inception, the teaching staff of seven was comprised, with one exception, of visiting lecturers and non-tenure-track faculty members representing the following fields: African American Studies, English, History, Politics, and Psychology.
Princeton decided in 2006 to commit itself to the idea of African American Studies. The Center for African American Studies was established. Professor Valerie Smith served as the first director. Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. was appointed chair in 2009.
In July of 2015 the University’s Board of Trustees voted to grant African American Studies academic department status, and approve a concentration in African American Studies.
Today, the faculty members of the Department, whether solely or jointly appointed, are established leaders or rising stars in their respective fields: African American Studies, Art and Architecture, Comparative Literature, English, History, Psychology, Religion, and Sociology.
Our model is not one that subsumes African American Studies under a more general rubric of ethnic studies or the study of race and ethnicity. Nor have we reached for a different name, e.g., Diasporic Studies or African and African American Studies (a naming ritual that seems part of a periodic demand that the field justify its place in American higher education). Instead, Princeton sought to represent the complexity of African American Studies in the very way we organized the Course of Study.
Race in America is constantly reproduced in the context of ongoing conversations and practices that have global reach. Our task involves understanding those complex processes, exposing our students to that complexity, and equipping them with the skills to “read” how race and culture are produced globally and to chart their effects. This approach affords the Department wonderful opportunities for vibrant exchanges with other interdisciplinary programs; it also shows that the study of race enables encounters among the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences that extend and expand their theoretical reach. We aspire in the Department of African American Studies to model that conversation, but much more work has to be done.
We recruit the brightest minds – junior and senior scholars – in the field and provide an institutional environment in which they may flourish.
We write for a broad public, and if you are part of that public, we hope you build on our scholarship in many and varied ways, including (but not limited to) engaging with others in the form of these three modes:
- Lay the path bare. This is a call to reveal knowledge about the path you traveled that led to attainment of social and cultural capital. This knowledge should be made plain to others who do not possess that capital.
- Share beyond your immediate concern. Share with people who are not situated in the world precisely as you are situated.
- Speak truth. Stop pretending things are fair. Don’t be defeated; be honest.
Finally, remember, the texts you choose to read and the people you consider in your community are all important reflections of your values and your understanding of what is at stake. So, what classes will you take, what will you try to learn, and how will you engage?