Africana Studies Returns to Its Roots

a woman in a bright black and purple top in a classroomWhen Pitt’s Department of Black Community Education, Research and Development, now known as the Department of Africana Studies, was formed in 1969, the goal was to create solutions for issues facing the global African diaspora through direct work with the region’s Black residents. For years, one could see that goal in action every day of the week.

“This place used to be a beehive on Saturdays,” said Jerome Taylor, an associate professor of Africana Studies and former department chair who arrived at Pitt the year it was established. “I would see August Wilson with a group of students and he’d have a on a straw hat with a red feather in it. In another area, you’d have Rob Penney working with students on poetry.”

In the academic year 2019-20, as the department celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding, Associate Professor Yolanda Covington-Ward says reestablishing bonds with Pittsburgh’s Black community and creating new connections within the University community are among its top priorities.

The department has recognized the anniversary during a yearlong slate of events, which will culminate this fall with a distinguished alumni dinner on October 22.

“Many faculty members who came into the department in earlier days went on to retire and those people were here for quite some time. When they left, in some ways, we moved away from that community focus,” said Covington-Ward, who began her tenure as chair of the department in September.

In many ways, the department’s unique formation automatically tied it to Pittsburgh’s Black community. In 1969, less than a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., student leaders from Black Action Society organized a sit-in at the University’s Computer Center in the Cathedral of Learning that included community residents and activists. The protestors’ demands included the creation of a department dedicated to the study of global Black history and culture. Former Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar approved the department the same year.

By the time it had officially opened its doors, it had already made inroads with the community that were only strengthened through targeted programs.

“There used to be a floating university that was part of the department. Faculty members would go and do lectures or workshops outside of the university in community settings. It was specifically a part of how the department thought about itself back then,” she said.

These days, faculty members regularly conduct community education sessions, but on a less formal basis than in the past. Covington-Ward said the lecture series “Race, Science and Technology in the Global African World,” which is sponsored by Heinz History Center and the Edna B. McKenzie branch of the Association for the Study of African American History and Life, is one of many revitalized efforts designed to be a step back toward community partnership and scholarship. She has also connected with East Liberty Presbyterian Church to talk about enslavement and resistance and hosted a recent discussion on atrocities in the Belgian Congo at Community College of Allegheny County, among other partnerships that will connect faculty with community.

A powerful major

The department has set a goal to double the number of students graduating in the major in the next few years, said Covington-Ward. And students are heeding the call to help.

Diamond Buadu, a 21-year-old senior from majoring in Africana Studies and anthropology who is vice president of the Black Action Society, is working on a slate of events designed to raise awareness among students about the major. And while movie nights and student-teacher networking events are on the table, sharing the story of how she went from pre-med to an Africana Studies major during freshman year could be the most effective tactic.

a woman in a dark leather jacket outside in front of blooms“I took a class called Black Consciousness (taught by Associate Professor Christel Temple) and it was probably one of my favorite classes I’ve taken throughout my time here at Pitt. It was a setting where I got to learn about Black people and it was a philosophy course,” she said. “It allowed me to think critically but also learn history, which is something I love to engage in.”

Covington-Ward noted that the department’s interdisciplinary nature has supported graduates working in the medical field, social science, education, anthropology and several others, but people tend to think of the major in a silo.

“Africana Studies is like many of the other disciplines that prepare you to think critically, but it prepares you to be able to engage in discussions around race, and there aren’t many others that do that. Our department is one of the few that teaches students to be competent in discussing issues of race, representation, equality and inequities. That’s a very valuable tool to have when you move into the world,” she said.

She noted programs such as Jerome Taylor’s Center for Family Excellence, which conducts research and programming relevant to psychology, education and public health and Michele Reid-Vasquez’s Afro-Latin American and Afro-Latino Studies Initiative, which critically studies international history and public policy, as examples of programs with interdisciplinary education.

Within the next decade, the department hopes to add a graduate program, increase student and alumni networking opportunities. Taylor is in the early planning stages of a program dedicated to justice and freedom in highly challenged neighborhoods, communities and nations.  

Between the old and new offerings, Covington-Ward said most students can find coursework in the department that supports their goals and enriches their educational experiences, if they just give them a look.

“Because it’s such a new discipline compared to the vast majority at Pitt and across the nation, Africana Studies always has to prove itself. But I think when students step into our classrooms and engage with our course content and our programming they see the value of what we have to offer,” she said.