On July 1st, 2013, I packed up my apartment in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, preparing for another new journey. Just over four years after graduating from Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies, I turned north for new beginnings in a new job in Washington, D.C.
The last box into the car that day was labeled “Wes memories, weirdnesses and keepsakes.” Among the documents, photographs and trinkets sat a manila folder labeled “AFAM.” I opened it and my heart soared. There was my senior essay, a haphazard and idealistic rant attempting to link Obama’s presidential rhetoric to voices of the Million Man March, complete with a generous B+ and two pages of deep assertions from my advisor, Professor Ashraf Rushdy. Next, a copy of a James Baldwin essay with a note in the margin saying, “Find Prof. P immediately to ask re: Baldwin’s acceptance/rejection by previous generations of black thinkers.” Finally, my highlighted copy of a Sylvia Wynter essay riddled with Eudell-isms and another mischievous note scribbled to a classmate wondering, “has this man actually read all of these people he’s talking about?” Her response: “DUH.”
In the fall of 2005 I arrived at Wesleyan hell-bent to soak it all up. Entering a liberal-arts institution, my parents gave me the best advice I could’ve received. They told me that this was not a vocational school that urged me to steam forward to prepare for one career. They encouraged me to find the best teachers and keep taking their classes. And it just so happened, I did that.
The open curriculum allowed full experimentation in my first year. I found all three of my first-year AFAM courses challenging, insightful and powerful. I wasn’t aware then of how the courses were stretching my awareness of others and of myself. By the end of that first year, my quarter-filled transcript outlined my future, and I declared the AFAM major.
Years later, I considered what factors converged to allow me to call myself an AFAM major. First, Wesleyan admitted the major to the course of studies. Wesleyan hired pioneers in the burgeoning field to teach, write and research. Wesleyan Admissions circulated this offering to prospective students. Interested parties applied, were accepted, enrolled, and declared. But in the truest sense of a liberal arts open curriculum, the development of the AFAM program was accessible to any Wesleyan student. Students majoring in Dance, Chemistry, CSS, EAST, Computer Science and Studio Art flocked to the enticing courses taught by pioneers in the field. All of a sudden, Wesleyan became a community inundated with the knowledge digested from these courses, and graduates were now fluent in important topics of the human experience.
My time as an AFAM major broadened me. I listened and read and processed. I felt it was my task to know rather than be known. I knew that someone who’d been privy to these kinds of conversations and ideas should seek to promote equity and access. This is what I did and do.
After Wesleyan, I started working, first for Wesleyan. I served as an Assistant Dean of Admissions from 2009-2011, helping to recruit, review, select and enroll the classes of 2014 and 2015. Wesleyan urged me to promote access and work with under-served populations. Next I founded the college counseling department at Sci Academy, a public charter school in New Orleans that serves a population that is 95% free/reduced lunch, 99% students of color and 90% first in their family to attend college. I drew from experiences in the AFAM seminars to engage students in topics about their own paths to education and careers. I’m now pursuing graduate studies in education policy, attempting to be a reformer in the model of my many of my professors and classmates.
Wesleyan needs AFAM. Students who select it as a major, or for one course in their college career, are molded by the weighty ideas and audacious activism that’s inextricably linked to the history of African-Americans. I owe my career to this foundation. I learned templates for how to combat status quo educational conditions in AFAM classrooms. I urge Wesleyan to protect, re-invest and re-commit to this program. I applaud the undergraduates who took this on. Thank you.
Levey is a member of the class of 2009.