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Exploring the African and African Diaspora Studies Program

As a Jesuit institution, Boston College prides itself on its aspirations to “educate the whole person.” As the university strives to distinguish itself on the national stage of higher education, its ideology stresses the importance of the liberal arts, character formation, a rigorous approach to learning, and the impact that men and women for others can have on the world. The commitments of this mission seek to prepare students for the future by planting them with the moral and intellectual roots needed to initiate change and help it flourish.

Following incidents of racist behavior on campus this past month, many students have expressed a desire for BC to implement more diverse classes, faculty, and areas of study within its academic departments. As thousands of BC community members gathered on Lower Campus following the Silence Is Still Violence March, several students, including UGBC President Akosua Opokua-Achampong, advocated for the African and African Diaspora Studies Program (AADS) to be expanded from a minor to a major and full department.

These students, along with others who have expressed support for the change, believe it would represent a tangible step towards reducing institutional racism on campus and creating courses of study that reflect the diversity of BC’s student body. The activism and energy of the speakers and the crowd, as well as subsequent dialogue on campus surrounding the topic, has sparked discussion within the AADS department.

The AADS Program currently exists as a minor of study within MCAS. The program “considers the history, culture, and politics of Africans on the subcontinent and African-descended peoples in the U.S., the Caribbean, South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.” By encompassing a range of historical periods and geographical areas, AADS acquaints students with the diversity of the African diaspora and the world as a whole. As an interdisciplinary program, AADS draws from a broad range of areas of study, including English, history, sociology, philosophy, theology, communication, and theatre.

The program’s courses are centered around the three main themes of globalization, intersectionality, and social justice, and classes represent a wide array of perspectives and topics. Courses such as Studies of Race, Law, and Resistance examine protest movements for racial and economic justice and analyze how these struggles have contributed to reforms in U.S. law and public policy. Meanwhile, Gender & Sexuality in African American History explores the intersections of gender and sexuality as both categories of identity and modes of power in the shaping of the historical experiences of African Americans.

Such an interdisciplinary study provides an expansive and necessary education for students, both inside and outside of the African and African American demographics. The multitude of classes available are not only crucial to the foundations of human history, but provide a backbone to drive social change both on campus and in the surrounding society.

According to AADS Director Dr. Martin Summers, “An interdisciplinary approach is vital because it is impossible to develop a full appreciation for the complexity and richness of Africa and its diaspora without engaging the histories, expressive cultures, literary traditions, religious beliefs and practices, and political and social realities of African descended peoples.”

AADS, originally called the Black Studies Program, began in the early 1970s alongside BC’s “Black Talent Program.” Both programs were part of an academic initiative to bring more African American students to the university and to develop an undergraduate curriculum that reflected a wider range of perspectives. In 1993, the University Core requirements were updated to include one course designated “Cultural Diversity” for the entering class of 1997. Several Black Studies offerings fit easily under this rubric, broadening the range of BC students enrolled in Black Studies courses. By January 2006, the program was renamed the African and African Diaspora Studies Program to reflect the minor’s larger focus on Africa and its worldwide diaspora.

Today, AADS reflects a multifaceted academic mission. The program seeks to educate students on the histories and experiences of African descended people, support academic research within the area of study, foster examination of African legacies inside and outside of the U.S., connect local Black communities with BC, and represent the realities of people of African descent both at BC and in the greater community.

In a predominantly white institution with a largely Western-centric curriculum, cultural studies like those found within AADS provide important opportunities for students to broaden and enhance their education. It’s difficult to grasp any intellectual discipline without considering the contribution of the African American experience to not only the U.S., but to the world at large as well. From economics to music theory, such knowledge is not fully complete without considering the influences of cultural diversity.

“It is important to ensure that students of African descent see themselves and the histories and cultures of their ancestors reflected in the curriculum at Boston College,” emphasizes Dr. Summers. “It is also important to educate all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality, about the role that Africa and communities of African descended people have historically played, and continue to play, in the development of the world as we know it.”  

Dr. Summers expresses some of the benefits that come with the potential for an AADS major. “One of the advantages of becoming a major is being able to expose more students to the dynamic and brilliant scholarship and teaching of our core and affiliated faculty members,” says Dr. Summers. “It would also provide students who desire to learn more about the African diaspora an opportunity to do a deeper dive into the AADS curriculum.”

However, the program is subject to obstacles that may hinder its development. “I think one of the challenges of becoming a major is to develop a set of requirements that allow students to develop a thematic focus while also ensuring that they take courses across a range of disciplines and across a range of national or regional fields,” Dr. Summers explains.

As BC seeks to “educate the whole person,” the expansion of programs like AADS could work to create an academic curriculum that fully represents the diversity of the student body and fosters an informed campus dialogue on topics of race. However, student involvement, course expansion, and faculty interest are key factors in the formation of any area of study. If more members of the BC community advocate for the program and express an interest in its inauguration as a full-fledged major, more action may be taken to make this desire a reality.

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