Vassar Today

Celebrating 30 Years of Africana Studies

By Jessica Winum

Joy and pain, celebration and reflection flowed throughout the 30th Anniversary Homecoming for the Africana Studies program held on campus in October. Alumnae/i, faculty, and other members of the campus community gathered to take part in panel discussions and academic programs, meet with current African American students, and celebrate the "tremendous intellectual impact [Africana Studies] has had on the Vassar curriculum," in the words of Joyce Bickerstaff, associate professor in Africana studies and education, and a member of the Vassar faculty since 1971.

Among those gathered for the occasion were the founding director of the program Dr. Milfred C. Fierce, who delivered the keynote address, and Richard Roberts ’74, a federal district judge from the District of Columbia and a Vassar College trustee, who delivered a speech under the auspices of the second annual Norman E. Hodges Endowed Lectureship on Race and American Law. Both men discussed the importance of the program and how it had affected many academic and personal lives.

In a follow-up address, Paula Walker Madison ’74 commented, "Africana Studies is helping not only black people, it is helping white people, Asian Americans, everyone." Madison is president and general manager of KNBC television, NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate, and is also a trustee of the college.

Africana Studies was founded in 1969 as Black Studies after students and faculty demanded that the study of the black experience be given a place in the curriculum. A student take-over of Main Building in the fall of 1969 led to the creation of the program and the hiring of Fierce as its founding director. The 1970–71 college catalog called Black Studies Vassar’s first multidisciplinary program.

A report issued by the registrar’s office after the program’s first full year of existence as a major (1970–71), noted that 24 courses were offered that year and 206 students enrolled in the program’s courses. These days, according to a 1999 self-study conducted by the program, more than 400 students annually choose from among 53 courses such as Introductions to the African Literary Traditions, Psychology of the Black Experience in White America, and Tradition, History, and the African Experience. Most of these courses are cross-listed with other disciplines. In addition, the program sponsors Junior Year Abroad study in Morocco. The students and scholars in the program represent the rich blend of cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial diversity on campus, says Bickerstaff.

Barbara Page, acting dean of the faculty during the fall semester, says, "Today, the faculty is more diverse, and the Africana Studies Program has the support of a strong and increasing number of faculty having expertise in the field. With growing support for Africana Studies from many disciplines across the campus, our faculty offer students enhanced opportunity for a rich academic experience in the program."

There is much to celebrate, Judge Roberts noted at the end of his remarks. But he reminded all those in attendance that there is still work to do. "I urge all of us—alums, faculty, current students, administrators—to get serious about assuring that Vassar’s is the finest center of Africana learning in the country. We have the wherewithal to do it, and we are obliged to provide to Vassar students of all colors nothing less."