Connecting African American Studies to the Rhodes Scholarship

yerima 12544749_10206520629227013_1195518734_o
A Conversation with Sarah Yerima ’15

What led you to pursue African American Studies at Princeton University? 

I decided to pursue African-American Studies at Princeton because AAS classes were some of the most engaging, robust courses Princeton had to offer. The professors invited us to think carefully and critically about the information we consumed, to value formal and experiential knowledge equally, and to be diligent and rigorous in our research. Additionally, I loved the interdisciplinary nature of the department. I learned how to integrate perspectives from multiple disciplines–from history, sociology, politics, literature, cultural studies and legal studies–into my analyses. Through my African American Studies courses, I was introduced to the topics that would most shape me during my undergraduate years: critical race theory and critical race feminism.

What courses did you take to earn your certificate?

AAS 201: Introduction to the Study of African American Cultural Practices with Professor Eddie Glaude

AAS 312: Exile and Migration in Caribbean Literature with Professor Dixa Ramirez

AAS 362: Race and the American Legal Process with Professor Imani Perry

AAS 380: Public Policy and the American Racial State with Professor Naomi Murakawa

AAS 323: Diversity in Black America with Professor Imani Perry

AAS  235: Race is Socially Constructed, Now What? with Professor Ruha Benjamin

AAS 412: Cultures of the Afro-Diaspora with Professor Alexandra Vazquez

I was an articulation agreement student (with the Sociology department), so I was exempt from some of the literature and history requirements.

You were in the cohort that saw the Center become a department. What do you make of being part of that history, and, indeed, part of activities that took place around the county, and on campus, all year?

In many ways, I can’t believe that the nation is in the midst of a renewed racial justice movement, and a renewed freedom struggle. Since Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, “post-racial” and “colorblind” were terms  that I often heard many people employ to describe the country’s landscape. This did not change when I arrived at Princeton as a freshman.  Even though there was myriad research–including the work of many AAS professors–that showed the depth and pervasiveness of racial inequality, I got the sense that beyond AAS and a few other select spaces, there was no sense of urgency on campus to address issues of racial inequality. I never would have predicted that a mere four years later, sentiment would drastically change.

I think that the activism at Princeton, specifically, was successful because of the fierce commitment and dedication of younger students. This is not to say that juniors and seniors were not actively engaged; indeed, they were. However, I think that the freshmen and sophomores were energized in a way that we older students were not. They were ready to organize, ready to protest, and ready to draft a list of demands and a map for change. They inspired us with their energy. I’m so very humbled to have known and worked with those students and contributed a very, very small part of the revolution we’re all working towards.

And it goes without saying that African American Studies’ transition from Center to department is a necessary part of that revolution. Truthfully, it’s something that should have happened a long time ago. One of the key insights I gained as a student in the Center was that, although critique is vital, it’s simply not enough. As students, scholars, activists, and engaged citizens, we must not only know what we’re working against, but also have a sense of what we’re working for. We must employ our imaginations to create the environments that will be more inclusive, righteous, and just for all of us. This need for imagination is at the heart of today’s social justice movement. Undoubtedly, the new departmental status will aid faculty and students in developing and sharing the tools needed to realize the power of imagination.

You are currently studying at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. What is that like? Do your current studies connect to African American Studies?

I’ve only been in Oxford for a few weeks, but in that short period of time, I’ve already discovered that the years I spend here will play a significant role in my personal growth and academic formation. Within the Rhodes community, I’ve met people from South Africa, Kenya, India, Jamaica, Trinidad, Canada and various other nations who have helped me think about race and social justice in a wider, global context. Outside of the Rhodes community, I’ve been welcomed into a black community with strong ties to countries in Africa and the Caribbean, many of which are former British colonies. I’ve found myself developing questions about empire and colonialism’s relationship to the creation and the persistence of racial stratification, and these questions must be addressed.

Since the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statute from the University of Cape Town last year, there has been an intense debate within the Rhodes community about how past,  present and future scholars should consider the mission and purpose of the scholarships. My own opinion on the subject is that members of the Rhodes community have not done enough theorizing about  the effects of Cecil Rhodes’ legacy, especially amongst black peoples in southern Africa. There is a great deal of work yet to be done to create meaningful, substantive change.

As for my research, I’m currently pursuing a Masters in Philosophy in Politics (Comparative Government). I’m still refining my thesis topic, but I hope to bring an interdisciplinary perspective, one that centers race in its framing and analysis.

Do you have any advice for current students?

Never undervalue the importance of a critical consciousness. When you are constantly reading society and your environments, when you are constantly applying the knowledge you’ve gained from the classroom to your everyday life, you will find yourself truly engaged in knowledge production. It’s quite a beautiful thing.