‘Our pioneers’: First cohort of seniors graduates from Princeton’s Department of African American Studies


They comprise the Department of African American Studies’ (AAS) first cohort of concentrators who graduated in June. The Center for African American Studies was formed in 2006. In fall 2015, the University gave the center academic department status, ushering in a new era in which students could major in African American studies; previously, students could only earn a certificate.

“I remain in awe of Princeton’s first class of concentrators in African American studies,” said Eddie Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and department chair. “Each student brought something unique to our department. They worked closely with our stellar faculty, who pushed them to think critically and to imagine themselves in the most expansive of terms. All of them were courageous enough to pursue their passion irrespective of assumptions about traditional majors.

“These students will always be the first. Every time they return to Princeton or whenever people talk about the founding of the Department of African American Studies at this University, their names will be mentioned. They are our pioneers!” Glaude said.

Below, five of the new graduates reflect on why they chose to major in African American studies, highlights of their undergraduate experience and what their plans are now.

Avanthi Cole

Avanthi Cole holding her senior thesis in front of Nassau Hall

My father is African American and my mother is Swedish and Sri Lankan. I identify as a multiracial black woman.

I was first exposed to African American studies in my first year when I took “The New Jim Crow: U.S. Crime Policy from Constitutional Formation to Ferguson” with Professor Naomi Murakawa [associate professor of African American studies]. Without this class, I wouldn’t have found my true academic passion. I continued to take other courses in the African American studies department with the intention of pursuing a certificate, but I realized in my junior year that my passion lay in African American studies rather than in molecular biology. It was definitely the best decision I ever made at Princeton.

My senior thesis explores the diversity and inclusion initiatives at three undergraduate institutions, and how these initiatives manifest in the experiences of black women at these schools. I was advised by Professor Ruha Benjamin [associate professor of African American studies].

I’m a first-year student at Columbia University Law School. Although I don’t know exactly what type of law I want to practice, I know I want to work for underserved communities and better understand the intersections of law and justice.

Imani Ford

Imani Ford in front of her paintings and artwork

I am the first in my household to attend college. My mama somehow implanted the idea in me that it was possible, so I did have access to that dream and clawed my way to it.

I was dead set on [concentrating in] religion because it allowed me to ask ontological questions about blackness. That was until I found out AAS was a major. I felt that majoring in AAS would give me access to a space where I could ask my questions about black existence and be validated in my care for it. I knew I would be able to do more interdisciplinary work and have interlocutors also engaging in questions about race.

My thesis focused on rearticulating the gendered nature of hope and hopelessness in the black literary canon. My adviser was Imani Perry [the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies].

My favorite AAS course was “20th-Century Masters: Lorraine Hansberry” taught by Professor Perry. I felt a connection to Lorraine’s work and her texts at a time when I needed the belief that someone had similarly embodied and lived the intersections of race, gender and sexuality that I do.

I studied abroad in China in the Princeton in Beijing summer program where I completed a full year of Chinese, gaining fluency.

I was a head fellow of the Scholars Institute Fellows Program my senior year and spent this past summer on campus as a course fellow for “Ways of Knowing,” a critical reading and writing course with the Freshman Scholars Institute.

This fall, as a Project 55 Fellow of Princeton AlumniCorps, I am teaching visual arts at Juan Morrel Campos Secondary School in Bed-Stuy [New York City] through a nonprofit organization called Coalition for Hispanic Family Services.

I am also an artist and plan on putting myself out there and finding a scene for myself. I am itching to get my hands on some paint and material. I also am preparing to apply to grad school. In addition to my major in AAS, I earned a certificate in visual arts.

Rosed Serrano

Rosed Serrano sitting on floor holding her senior thesis

I decided to change majors from math to AAS — in the math department I felt like a lot of the work was individual and I wanted to be in an environment where I was thinking through ideas with my peers. My interests also shifted so that heavily influenced my switch. I am a first-generation, low-income student.

The course “Other Futures: An Introduction to Modern Caribbean Literature” changed profoundly how I looked at literature and history, and opened up my mind to different approaches to study the African diaspora — I started thinking about visual art, music and theory asways to attempt to answer my questions. It was taught by Nijah Cunningham [lecturer in the Humanities Council, African American studies and English].

My thesis is titled “feeling ways: a case for black mundane futurity.” I was interested in understanding the ways that the future is imagined and the way that this imagination informs our reality. My adviser was Professor Cunningham.

I am excited about my new position as communications coordinator in the Office of Religious Life at Princeton, because it gives me an opportunity to write.

I also earned a certificate in creative writing — writing a creative thesis alongside my academic one in AAS was challenging but showed me I need both modes of thinking to do my best work. I am still writing poetry and starting to write fiction.

Amina Simon

Amina Simon sitting by 9/11 memorial holding her senior thesis

One class that was particularly formative was “The New Jim Crow” taught by Naomi Murakawa. She really blew open the way we tend to talk about racism, illuminating the severity and complexity of structural racism in a way that nobody really had explained it to me before. All of the professors I had in AAS were incredible.

My thesis is [titled] “Two Tales, Two Cities: Worker Cooperatives, Community Development, and the Quest for the Next Economy.” It focused on the ways two different efforts to develop worker cooperatives (one in Cleveland, Ohio, and one in Jackson, Mississippi) dealt with issues of race and class within their public presentations and internal structure. My adviser was Joshua Guild [associate professor of history and African American studies].

My Bridge Year in Senegal [before starting my first year at Princeton] was a year of tremendous personal growth. It reinforced how complicated notions of race and ethnicity are on a global scale. I also studied abroad in Cuba my sophomore year and did a PIIRS Global Seminar in Beijing the summer after junior year. I also took weeklong trips to Istanbul and Lisbon as part of a research assistant position I had for a Princeton professor.

This fall, I’m working in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, for the company that Princeton contracts with to run Bridge Year, Where There Be Dragons, and am hoping to do some traveling (back to Senegal to visit, possibly also to the Dominican Republic to visit close friends there) during the winter. After that I’ll be looking for a more career-oriented job. I’m interested in human psychology and how it manifests into and across culture; particularly how it can help or hinder our attempts to make our lives/governments/institutions/etc. better.

Nicholas Steidel

Nicky Steidel holding his senior thesis outside of Morrison Hall

I think that the moment during which I declared AAS [as my major] — early 2015 — made my choice carry a certain amount of relevance and weight. Developing critical thinking faculties and my own sense of politics at the same time as the #BlackLivesMatter movement really altered the way I thought about America, fundamentally. You don’t witness a widespread black protest movement underneath the nation’s first black president and not come away with some changed convictions about the way things work, and why.

My decision to choose AAS as a major was influenced by two factors: one, that all of the AAS courses I had taken thus far had stood out as peerless in terms of the quality of their instruction and the ways in which they were both challenging and instructive in my thinking. Second, both the comprehensiveness and flexibility of AAS as an interdisciplinary department was attractive to me, since I was so torn between fields — history, English, politics, AAS — when I had to choose.

Ruha Benjamin’s classes “Black to the Future: Science, Fiction and Society” and “Race Is Socially Constructed: Now What?” totally transformed how I viewed the world, and even more profoundly, exposed me to entirely novel methods of investigating the world.

My favorite course was probably “20th-Century Masters: Lorraine Hansberry” with Imani Perry. I think I grew intellectually more from taking that class than any other course I took at Princeton. Professor Perry is an incredibly dynamic teacher and one of the most agile thinkers I’ve ever met. On top of that, she’s an attentive, compassionate listener and knows how to engage students as true peers.

My thesis focused on the ways in which black American intellectuals and activists responded to the Russian Revolution.My adviser was Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor [assistant professor of African American studies], another absolutely excellent thinker and mentor. My thesis co-won the Ruth J. Simmons Thesis Prize (along with Imani Ford), and I was awarded highest honors in the AAS department and the Distinguished Senior Prize in African American Studies.

I am unsure about my career aspirations, but I have seriously considered becoming a high school humanities teacher, working in radio and pursuing academia. I will be looking for jobs while also preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs in history or American studies as well as attempting to turn one of my thesis chapters into a journal article. This past summer, I worked at [Princeton’s] Mudd Library as an archival assistant working with the Princeton Triangle Club records as well as doing some research for Michelle Alexander (the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”).

Both of my parents being Princeton alumni was a factor [in my choosing Princeton] in the sense that I already knew a little bit about what to expect coming into college because of their experiences.

Being the only male in the first AAS cohort — and the only white one, at that — struck me as peculiar but not particularly significant. However, I do think it is very important for white people like myself to study race, since it’s one of the social phenomena that most structures both ourselves and the places we live and exist in — not just our country, but the entire globe to varying degrees.

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Textual Studies Wallace D. Best, Princeton University

From NYU Press:

Langston’s Salvation offers a fascinating exploration into the religious thought of Langston Hughes.  Known for his poetry, plays, and social activism, the importance of religion in Hughes’ work has historically been ignored or dismissed. This book puts this aspect of Hughes work front and center, placing it into the wider context of twentieth-century American and African American religious cultures. Best brings to life the religious orientation of Hughes work, illuminating how this powerful figure helped to expand the definition of African American religion during this time.

Best argues that contrary to popular perception, Hughes was neither an avowed atheist nor unconcerned with religious matters.  He demonstrates that Hughes’ religious writing helps to situate him and other black writers as important participants in a broader national discussion about race and religion in America.

Through a rigorous analysis that includes attention to Hughes’s unpublished religious poems, Langston’s Salvation reveals new insights into Hughes’s body of work, and demonstrates that while Hughes is seen as one of the most important voices of the Harlem Renaissance, his writing also needs to be understood within the context of twentieth-century American religious liberalism and of the larger modernist movement. Combining historical and literary analyses with biographical explorations of Langston Hughes as a writer and individual, Langston’s Salvationopens a space to read Langston Hughes’ writing religiously, in order to fully understand the writer and the world he inhabited.

Princeton University African American History Walking Tour

Stories of African American Life at Princeton

This tour shares stories from throughout the history of African Americans at Princeton University. We encourage you to listen to the audio excerpts, look at the photos, and watch the short video clips to learn about the personal experiences of African Americans who have worked and studied at Princeton. We hope you will take advantage of the links at each stop for more information. This tour is best viewed using a Chrome or Firefox browser. 

Start the tour!

You may also access the tour via your mobile device by downloading the GuidiGO mobile app available in the Apple App Store and the Android App Store Google Play by searching “Stories of African Americana Life at Princeton.”

This tour route is accessible. A map of accessible routes on campus is available: http://bit.ly/AccessiblePrinceton.

Finally, please offer your feedback: http://bit.ly/PrincetonTourFeedback.

Contemporary Cultures of Black Impossibility – AAS Graduate Conference (October 18-20, 2018)

Eventbrite - I am my ancestors' wildest dream: a graduate conference

Download abstract.

“i am my ancestors’ wildest dreams”

contemporary cultures of black impossibility

The Black impossible is a rich site of inquiry: it’s Sandra Bland not being pulled over for failing to signal; Emmett Till living to his 80s; Eric Garner breathing. But, the Black impossible also gives us this: the Haitian Revolution and the Nat Turner rebellion; Black Twitter, #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackBoyJoy; Insecure, Underground, Black Panther,  and Get Out.

The Black impossible is at once about continuing to live and resist in the face of the debilitating policies of modernity (impossible to do, but nevertheless done), yet also about the seeming impossibility of ever just living. The Black impossible draws together modes of cultural responses to the ethos of life and living in the face of practices of discipline and death. On the fiftieth anniversary of Black Studies, it asks us to bring together the critical methodologies and creative practices of Black Study to bear on the now and the future.

How has contemporary Black culture responded to, resisted, and existed in the face of this tension? What do we make of the visual, sonic, material, and digital cultures (to name a few) of the now? How do the realities of culture manifest themselves through and as political behavior? How do we turn to cultural productions as sites of life and living? How do we define the impossible?

The second biannual conference of the African American Studies Department at Princeton University will explore the contemporary cultures of the Black impossible. This conference seeks to bring together intellectuals, artists, and organizers working across many different disciplines, mediums, and movements that speak to the cultures and the impossibility of Black life in the U.S. and abroad.

We invite graduate students working in the humanities and social sciences, artists, political prisoners, organizers and intellectuals (broadly conceived) to submit papers on topics including – but not limited to – cultures of the black impossible, and:

→ music
→ narrative & literature
→ material cultures
→ Black politics
→ gender & sexuality
→ visual cultures (mass media, art, etc.)
→ capitalism, neoliberalism, & economic inequality
→ philosophy & critical theory
→ grass-roots organizing

→ Black love
→ the carceral state
→ the (new) Black radical tradition
→ digital cultures (social media, video games, etc.)
→ mourning practices
→ religion & spirituality
→ Black institutions (the Black church, etc)
→ Black counter-publics
→ speculative futures

Proposals and questions should be sent to conference organizers Kimberly Bain and Chaya Crowder at aasprinceton@gmail.com.

Please circulate widely.
Conference dates:
October 18-20, 2018

The 2018 James Baldwin Lecture, “The Dramatist’s Call to Action,” on April 12 by Brian E. Herrera

The 2018 James Baldwin Lecture will be held Thursday, April 12th at 4:30 p.m. in McCormick 101 and is entitled, “The Dramatist’s Call to Action: Realizing the Provocative Prescience of James Baldwin and María Irene Fornés.” This event is free and open to the public.

María Irene Fornés (b. 1930, Havana, Cuba) is among the most influential American theater-makers of the twentieth century. A defining force within the off-off-Broadway movement of the 1960s and 1970s (and nine-time Obie Award winner), Fornés — as playwright, director, designer and teacher — became a guiding presence for emerging theater artists of the 1980s and 1990s, especially those invested in staging feminist, queer and latinx aesthetics and experiences. Fornés’ experiments in theatrical form and her transformative teaching techniques continue to challenge and inspire new generations of theater-makers today. Even so, the living legacy of María Irene Fornés remains remarkably under-acknowledged among contemporary theater artists, students and scholars.

Thursday’s lecture is given in conjunction with a constellation of events being held at Princeton, and around the country, occurring in April 2018 to honor the work of María Irene Fornés. (More information: arts.princeton.edu)

More information about the James Baldwin Lectures.

Imani Perry’s ‘Japan and Black America’ Global Seminar Examines Cultural Sharing, Borrowing and Exchange

PIIRS Global Seminars are held over six weeks in June, July and August. Since the program was launched in 2007 by PIIRS in collaboration with the Office of International Programs, more than 800 students have taken part in 56 Global Seminars in Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Europe, the Near East and South America. Participating students earn credits for one University course.

Learn more about Global Seminars and apply to “Japan and Black America.” The application deadline is Feb. 13, 2018.

Read the full story at piirs.princeton.edu.

Professor Wendy Laura Belcher Awarded Paul Hair Prize for Best Translation

This year’s ceremony took place November 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

Upon receiving the award, Professor Wendy Laura Belcher stated, “Almost three hundred and fifty years ago, a young monk was urged by his community to write the story of their extraordinary founder. He protested, saying he was too inexperienced to write a whole book, a feeling many of us know. But he did do it because he wanted word of this amazing woman to ‘spread around the world.’ I’m happy to have been a little part of making his dream come true.”

The book is the first English translation of the earliest known book-length biography of an African woman. It was written by Ethiopians for Ethiopians in an Ethiopian language in 1672 about a seventeenth-century Ethiopian saint named Walatta Petros. She was an Ethiopian religious leader who lived from 1592 to 1642 and lead a nonviolent struggle against the Jesuits’ mission to convert Ethiopian Christians to Roman Catholicism.

Eligible for consideration are editions of primary source materials dealing with the history, literature, and other aspects of the cultures of Africa, whether in African or European languages, whether from oral or written traditions, and whether the text is published for the first time or in a new edition. Books, digital resources and databases that meet these criteria are all eligible for consideration. Evaluation for the Paul Hair Text Prize is based on the importance of the text, the presentation of the text and the critical apparatus, and the utility of the work as a whole for scholars and teachers of Africa. Works edited by a single individual or jointly edited by more than one author are eligible for consideration. Anthologies with separate contributions by different authors, children’s books, and straightforward texts are not eligible. The minimum length is 10,000 words, excluding the apparatus. 

In 2005, David Henige provided an initial investment to permit a modest cash award to accompany the prize. The cash prize amount is $300. In the event that there are co-winners for an award/prize that carries a cash payment, the payment will be equally divided amongst the co-winners. The ASA Board expressed support for creating a prize for editing primary texts relating to Africa at its meeting of November 1990. The Board approved the award following presentation of a report on processes for selecting potential winners, and it was presented for the first time in 1993.

The Paul Hair Prize Committee consists of three scholars identified by the Board.

History of Awards

2017: Galawdewos, The Life Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, edited and translated by Wendy Laura Bulcher and Michael Kleiner (Princeton University Press, 2015)

2015: Paul Hair Prize Committee decided none of the nominated texts were of sufficient quality for an award

2013: Karin Barber, Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel: I.B. Thomas’s ‘Life Story of Me, Segilola’ and Other Texts (Brill Publishers, 2012)

2011: Malyn Newitt, Treatise on the Rivers of Cuama (Tratado dos Rios de Cuama) by Antonio da Conceicao (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

2009: Prize not awarded

2007: Mohamed Kassim and Alessandra Vianello, Servants of the Sharia: The Civil Register of the Qadi’s Court of Brava 1893-1900 2 Vols.: African Sources for African History 6.1-2 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006)

2005: P.F. de Moraes Farias, Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicales and Songhay-Tuareg History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

2003: C. de B. Webb (the late) and J.B. Wright, The James Stuart Archive, Volume 5 (University Of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2001)

2001: John Hunwick (ed. & trans), Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’di’s Ta’rikh al-sudan down to 1613 and other Contemporary Documents, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1999)

1999: Jean Boyd and Beverly B. Mack (eds.), Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman Dan Fodio, (Michigan State University Press, 1997)

1997: James H. Vaughan and Anthony H.M. Kirk-Greene (edited & introduced by), The Diary of Hamman Yaji: Chronicle of a West African Muslim Ruler, (Bloomington and Indianapolis Indiana University Press, 1995)

1995: Percy Coriat, Governing the Nuer: Documents in Nuer History and Ethnography, 1922-1931, Douglas H. Johnson (ed.), (Oxford: JASO, 1993)

1993: Paul Hair, Adam Jones, Robin Law (eds. & annotators), Jean Barbot, Guinea: The Writings of Jean Barbot on West Africa, 1678-1712, ( Hakluyt Society)






To ‘Joy: A Symposium on Black Feminist Histories Honors the Work of Professor Tera Hunter

Symposium participants included:

Tera W. Hunter
Professor in the Departments of History and African American Studies at Princeton University

Robin D.G. Kelley
Gary B. Nash Processor of U.S. History at UCLA

Deborah McDowell
Alice Griffin Professor of Literary Studies and director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia

Lynne Sachs
Filmmaker and artist

Lizzie Olesker
Writer, performer and director

Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University

Jasmine Holloway
Singer and actress

Corinne Field
Assistant Professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia 

Justene Hill Edwards
Assistant Professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia

Kali Nicole Gross
Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University

Crystal N. Feimster
Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies, the American Studies Program and History Department at Yale University

Sarah Haley
Associate Professor in the Departments of Gender Studies and African American Studies at UCLA

Talitha LeFlouria
Lisa Smith Discovery Associate Professor in African and African-American Studies at the University of Virginia

Jennifer Dominique Jones
LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan in the Department of History

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers
Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies at Indiana University

Rebecca Kluchin
Professor History at California State University, Sacramento

Lisa Levenstein
Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Jessie B. Ramey
Founding Director of the Women’s Institute at Chatham University and Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

More information about the symposium.