By SHANNON O. WELLS
When Pitt’s 50-year-old Department of Africana Studies accepts its first graduate-level cohort this year, it will join such prestigious peer institutions as the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Berkeley, Emory and Northwestern universities in offering Ph.D.s focused on advanced Black studies. For Felix Germain, Africana Studies chair, it’s precisely the direction in which the University should be going.
“Having a Ph.D. program in Black Studies and Africana Studies is a trend among the leading R-1 universities in this country,” he said. “These universities, generally speaking, 80 percent of them are higher ranked than us. We look up to them. And so now having this program, we become a step closer to them.”
With applications being accepted until March 1, the newly created program within the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences will admit three students to pursue doctoral degrees in Africana Studies beginning this fall.
Led by faculty trained in Africana Studies as well as other disciplines from the humanities and social sciences, the program emphasizes areas including: race and equity; migration and community transformation; and culture and creative production. Students will receive “rigorous training in the discipline of Africana Studies,” the course description states.
“There are a number of students who are looking for these programs,” Germain said, “a number of undergraduates across disciplines: history, English, whatever, that want Ph.D. programs in broadly speaking, Black Studies or African Studies. Now we can cater to them.”
Robin Brooks, the program’s inaugural director and Department of Africana Studies associate professor, indicated that welcoming a graduate-level cohort is an ideal way to launch the Pitt program’s second half-century.
“After 50-plus years, we’re just now getting a Ph.D. program, so that is a huge deal,” she said, calling it a “great thing” that Pitt is joining in-state institutions like University of Pennsylvania with graduate-level Black studies degrees. “One big thing that we believe will be a draw for our program is the diversity of it, the interdisciplinary nature of it.”
Building from extensive scholarship in Africana and African diaspora studies, the program’s research theme of race and equity analyzes the causes and implications of “the movements of people of African origin throughout time and space,” the course description reads. The program’s interdisciplinary methodological approach is intended to shed light on how such movements led to “transformative outcomes” in places where people moved to and from.
“Africana Studies itself as a discipline focuses on Africa and the African diaspora,” Germain explained, emphasizing that there are only about 20 other universities with a Ph.D. program that focuses on these subjects. “That means that (Pitt) and the (Africana Studies) department have the potential to have a huge impact in that field, in terms of knowledge creation — locally, nationally and internationally.”
To enhance the program, Kamesha Spates is already in place as endowed William S. Dietrich chair and associate professor, and Tiana Wilson, from the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of History, will arrive to serve as assistant professor this fall. “The fact that we are offering an advanced degree has helped us recruit some of the best faculty in the country,” Germain noted.
While applications for the program continue to pour in — they expect approximately 80 by the March 1 deadline — Brooks said keeping the first-year cohort small is intentional.
“We have and we will continue to have lots of applications. We’re only going to admit about three students, because we know that we have the funds existing right now to fully fund their entire time,” she said, stressing that anyone is welcome and encouraged to apply. “It’s not just for people of African descent who want to apply, of course. We are champions of anyone who is committed to leveling the playing field, so to speak, for people of African descent across the world. Our Ph.D. program welcomes anyone who is committed to doing hard work in this field.”
Brooks praised Pitt’s administration for supporting the program’s concept and helping bring it to life. “We’re happy to have had a lot of support from administration,” she said. “It hasn’t been extremely bumpy or stressful in terms of trying to get our needs met. So it’s been a productive partnership with administration in terms of getting things moving along smoothly.”
The events of the past few years, including fallout from the COVID pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis, Minn., police, have sparked wider interest in Black and Africana studies, with more people willing to explore the roots of institutional racism and the advances and seeming retreats in racial tolerance since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
“We see that change happening nationally, where these programs are now being institutionalized as departments and recognized as departments at different institutions,” Brooks said. “We think that the impact of 2020: the collision with a pandemic, George Floyd, all of those things, are working together for the good concerning the overall field of Africana Studies.
“There are continually advancements in the field and different approaches, because we’re not in a silo. We’re in a moving, rolling developing world,” she added. “And so, as the world transforms, so does the field, of course. At the center of our attention is always people of African descent and the lived experiences of people of African descent across the world.”
While academia always accommodates historical and philosophical discussion, Germain stressed that data is the most reliable measure of how notions of race and race relations are evolving in the U.S. and around the world.
“You take out the data on public health, you check out data on incarceration, check out data on educational achievements, check out data on police arrest. I can go on and on,” he said, “Yes, we are making progress. But the way to find out is by checking those data, working with data, and it’s precisely what we’re doing as a Ph.D. program, right? This is why we’re here, to work on this data and to shed light on what’s happening here, nationally and internationally.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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