Alumnae Bulletin November 2008

Re-Engage - Black alumnae/i conference

Africana Studies program finds a home

Every year, Bryn Mawr and Haverford students make 600 enrollments in courses that fulfill the Africana Studies minor, which focuses on Africa and its diaspora. Swahili is among those offerings, as are courses in African American history, urbanization in Africa, and witchcraft in Africa, all developed by Kalala J. Ngalamulume, Bryn Mawr's Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History.

In addition students can study in Kenya, Senegal and Ghana.

"We are really putting Africa on the map for students," said Professor of Sociology Mary Johnson Osirim.

But it wasn't always thus.

Ngalamulume and Osirim outlined the history of the BiCo Africana Studies program for Bryn Mawr's Black Alumnae/i Conference. Also on the panel were Professor of Anthropology Philip Kilbride, and Associate Professor and Chair of Religion at Haverford College Tracey Hucks.

When Kilbride first began teaching at Bryn Mawr in 1969,"African studies was not on the agenda whatsoever," he said. In those days only one course, offered by the history department, touched upon the experience of African descendents in America.

That changed, Kilbride said, when Harris Wofford became president of Bryn Mawr in 1970.Having served as the Peace Corps' representative to Africa,Wofford made it a priority to recruit African and African American students to Bryn Mawr.

Soon after Wofford's arrival Kilbride taught a course called African American Heritage. He recalled the memorable term paper of Anne Staveren '73, who traced the African origins of popular hairstyles among African American women. The Heritage class grew from eight students in the first semester it was offered to an average of 50 or 60 students in subsequent semesters; Kilbride eventually team-taught the course with Professor of Sociology Robert Washington.

In the 1980s, Kilbride and Washington made regular trips to Africa, bringing Bryn Mawr students with them and recruiting African students to study at Bryn Mawr.

But it wasn't until 1985, when Osirim was hired, that Africana studies at Bryn Mawr became truly institutionalized, Kilbride said.

"Twenty-three years ago, when I first came here, I was completely amazed that there was no Black Studies program—that was what we called it then—at Bryn Mawr," Osirim said."I was amazed that there was also no program in gender studies when I came. There were loose configurations— workshops, talks, sharing papers—but there were no organized programs. In 1985, that was the state of affairs."

In that era the notion of ‘BiCo' was just getting established, and out of that collaborative spirit the BiCo Africana Studies was born, created in living rooms, Osirim said—the result of many meetings involving around 20 faculty members.

Osirim remembered hearing "many comments in various venues—‘you're not gonna get this here at Bryn Mawr.' There was this notion that we had this pie in the sky kind of dream.

"But the program was created as the initiative and the concern of both students and faculty,"Osirim said."The faculty wanted this.We were doing the research anyway, we were teaching the courses anyway, so why is this not recognized as a rigorous academic field?"

Thanks to a Ford Foundation grant awarded to Haverford, in which Associate Professor Paul Jefferson played a major role, the first official BiCo team-taught Africana Studies class— Emancipation, Decolonization, and Social Reconstruction: Africa and the Americans in the Modern Era—was offered. It was first teamtaught by Jefferson and Bryn Mawr Professor of Political Science Michael H. Allen, and later by Osirim and Haverford Professor of History Emma Lapsansky.

"The class really brought together the two institutions," Osirim said, and with a small budget the program was able to hire a student assistant, invite speakers to campus, and purchase library sources.

The program really burgeoned in 1993 with funds from a Department of Education Title 6 grant allowing the University of Pennsylvania,Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore College to share resources and faculty. The schools creating an academic consortium focused on Africa—its languages, cultures, development, and societies.

The grant, said Osirim, was "one of the best things we did. It gave us a real home, and through that Consortium we were able to offer Swahili, and it is still running strong."

Osirim called the Consortium and the BiCo Africana Studies programs "very important intellectual anchors.We are small institutions linked in very special ways.We've been given a home."

Hucks discussed the national conversation surrounding Africana studies programs. In general, she said, the status of such programs is "unstable in terms of institutional support and resources. Programs are not becoming departments, but being maintained as programs. Departments have greater integrity in an institution," she said.

Also of national concern is that the connection to local communities—which often gave rise to these types of programs to begin with—has been lost."We talk about issues in classrooms," Hucks said,"but we need to connect to real people living real lives.We need to have a sense of responsibility to them."

Osirim urged alumnae to earmark contributions for the support of Africana Studies internships or service learning opportunities, or the hiring of Africana Studies faculty."It has a ripple effect," she said."I don't care if you contribute 25 dollars. The donation becomes symbolic, and it makes the institution realize what is important to some alumnae."

Alicia Bessette