Next year Wesleyan will celebrate the 50th anniversary of African American Studies. During the 1960s we became one of the best endowed liberal arts colleges in the United States. We used this money to create multidisciplinary colleges, strengthen graduate programs, and establish a university press. We also developed a groundbreaking program to recruit African American students, investing the equivalent of $1,250,000 in scholarships for a “Vanguard” Class of 1969 who brought Black Power politics to campus.
On February 21, 1969, courageous Black students took over Fisk Hall. They entered before classes started, chained the doors shut, and demanded that Wesleyan give more support to its Black community. From this peaceful protest, Wesleyan established Malcolm X House, the Center for African American Studies, and students founded Ujamaa.
Black students and Black studies have since become vital forces that improved teaching and learning across the institution. The students who occupied Fisk Hall in 1969 had not only challenged university officials to recognize that their “educational focus was narrow and parochial. They also wanted them to recognize that the parochialism was part of a system of devaluation and oppression of black people,” as German Professor Edgar F. Beckham, Class of ’58, later recalled.
Wesleyan’s educational parochialism impoverished white students in ways that many marginalized students may recognize today. “The idea that there should be black students here at Wesleyan University so that the white cats can learn from us is a bunch of crap,” declared a Black sophomore from New York’s Harlem in 1968. “We can’t be resident professors of black power,” chimed another student. “I’m struggling to answer the questions in my own mind, and I don’t have time to solve the problems of these dudes who come into my room at midnight and want to talk till 4 am when I need to be studying.”
African American Studies thus offered a profound institutional corrective. By the 1970s Wesleyan had proudly branded itself as the “Diversity University.” In 1982, Black Student’s Guide to Colleges named Wesleyan University an “excellent choice” for minority students. And when the university first offered AFAM as a major, in 1984, most of the students enrolled in the classes were white. As then director Robert O’Meally observed, AFAM courses “aren’t just for students who want to trace their family history, they’re for people who want to understand what’s going on in the world.”
Yet African American Studies often suffered from institutional neglect. During the 20th anniversary of the Fisk Takeover, in 1989, students issued a petition requesting “progressive changes demonstrating the administration’s continuing commitment” to AFAM by, among other things, hiring much-needed faculty.
More recently, the “#AFAMisWhy” campaign and an Equity and Inclusion Task Force again forced Wesleyan to reckon with how it supports Black students, Black faculty, and Black studies. After students confronted President Michael Roth with the problem of recruiting and retaining AFAM faculty in May 2014, he responded, “It is problematic that I don’t know why professors are leaving the department [. . .] I will try to work, along with the provost, to figure out how to make long-term appointments to the department.”
President Roth returned to a 2011 report written by scholars outside of Wesleyan who reviewed the African American Studies program to recommend improvements. To President Roth’s great credit, he has taken some of the steps they urged. The most crucial change has been to authorize African American Studies to make autonomous hires of faculty to be tenured in the program. Professor Lois Brown was hired in 2012 as a full professor with a named Chair. Another step was to approve two faculty hires in 2016. But the external review called for serial hires, with the goal of 7 full-time faculty.
One of our recent hires left after a year. Why? She was lured away by another institution committed to recruiting outstanding scholars in Black history. Wesleyan is outstanding too—yet in a highly competitive job market, excellent faculty specializing in African American Studies are highly sought and often leave to join large research universities or the Ivy League.
African American Studies has only one full-time professor, Khalil Anthony Johnson, Jr. We share two professors who have teaching and advising responsibilities with English: Lois Brown and Ashraf Rushdy. The rest of the faculty including myself, volunteer, because participation is its own intellectual reward. But our main duty is to other programs. Functioning in this pressure-cooker can lead to tensions and stress. And still, we have 48 majors, and planned or co-sponsored 27 well-attended events this year.
Wesleyan needs to address both recruitment and retention. Transforming our program into a department à la History, English, or American Studies would help retain faculty. We are already in discussions with North College about such an expansion. In order for African American Studies to truly thrive, we need what students have been demanding since 1969––distinguished faculty. To retain the best and brightest, we need critical mass. One recognized solution is the cluster hire: recruiting several faculty in short order to reinforce and build an interdisciplinary program. Boston College, University of Oregon, University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Delaware have recently done just that.
We honor the generations of Black students and allies who forced Wesleyan to found, fund, protect, and maintain African American Studies. As we enter our 50th Anniversary, North College and President Roth must now take the lead and re-invest in an even brighter and stronger future. This investment, if history is any indication, will pay dividends across the university. Like the fictive nation of Wakanda, African American Studies has been innovating under the radar for decades. Now is the time for our Black Panther to rise and assume her rightful place. AFAM forever!
Elizabeth McAlister is Chair of the African American Studies Department, Director of the Center for African American Studies, and a Professor of Religion.