The Black Studies Department at Amherst was founded in the early 1970s in response to the demand from students and concerned faculty for a space within the academy in which issues of race and the cultural connections between Africa and the Black Diaspora could be explored. From the outset, the faculty members who implemented the Department's program saw their work as cross-cultural and interdisciplinary. This emphasis remains a central feature of the Department today.
Black Studies faculty and students come from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds. They bring to the classroom a diverse array of experiences, traditions and disciplinary strengths. Each regular Black Studies faculty member holds a joint appointment in Black Studies and another department. At present, these include Religion, Philosophy, English, Fine Arts and History. In addition, the Department’s offerings are augmented by courses taught in Sociology and Anthropology, Music, Political Science, Economics, and Theater and Dance.
Black Studies majors learn in many ways. For a start, all majors take an introductory course that familiarizes them with some of the central debates and problems within the field: Is there such a thing as a “Black” experience? How African is African-American culture? What kinds of theories can we advance to explain the relationship between race and a range of social and economic indicators? How have scholars traditionally understood the connections between Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas? How do issues of gender affect issues of race? What new insights do postmodern and postcolonial theories offer on all these subjects? Usually two members of the Department teach this course together; other Department members often contribute guest lectures.
Egúngún, Oru, Ijebu, 1986
Photo by John Pemberton III
Many of the thematic and disciplinary questions raised in the introductory course are expanded upon in other courses. Majors must take at least two courses on African, African-American and Caribbean/Latin American themes. Majors must also ensure that these courses are drawn from at least three distinct disciplines. Perhaps most importantly, all majors take at least one course that requires them to examine the links among various Black cultures. Offerings in this category have included a course on cross-cultural psychology, a course that compares the various ways in which childhood figures in Caribbean and African literary texts, and a course that examines the historical and cultural significance of the Atlantic region as the crucible for the creation of a dialogue among Black cultures.
Although Black Studies majors are not required to write a thesis in their Senior year, many of them choose to do so. Theses in the last few years have covered a range of topics, examples of which include the exploration, through primary archival research, of the master-slave relationships on a Louisiana plantation; the documentation and critique of certain aspects of hip hop dance culture; an analysis of the usefulness of statistical models in predicting the spread of the AIDS virus in Africa; a critique of the visual and textual representation of Black children in children's picture books; a study of the formation of a biracial identity among students of mixed parentage; and an examination of the structure and meaning of attitudes toward female undergraduates in Kenyan universities. Majors who do not write theses are encouraged to spend at least one semester doing a course of independent study in which they explore a research topic of their own devising.
Like many Amherst students, Black Studies majors often go on to have successful careers in business, medicine, teaching, and law after they graduate. In recent years, several majors have chosen to enter graduate programs in such fields as literature, history, sociology, anthropology, and film at some of the nation's top research institutions. Others have found that their expertise in the field of Black Studies has gained them entry into interesting new, private- and public-sector jobs for which an understanding of racial and cultural differences is important.