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The Center for Africana Studies Department

February 26, 2012
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Originally known as the Afro-American Studies Program, now merged with the Center for Black Literature and Culture, the Center for Africana Studies Department was renamed as such in October 2002. The CFAS is “a space for the critical examination of the human, cultural, social, political, economic, and historical factors that have created and shaped the African, African American and other African Diaspora experiences throughout the world.” Black studies at Penn grew out of the national Civil Rights/Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s. Students rallied and occupied administrative buildings demanding to add courses exploring Black history, literature and culture to the school’s curricula, and for Black faculty to teach them. These protests culminated to the founding of the Afro-American Studies Program in 1971-72. The program’s first director, John Edgar Wideman (C’63 Hon’86), was an Associate Professor of English and the second black tenured faculty member in Penn’s history. Tasked with a difficult challenge, Dr. Wideman laid the foundation to successfully develop a much-needed academic program without any trained faculty members and few available courses.

A milestone in the development of the Afro-American Studies Program at Penn occurred in 1968. As part of an experimental seminar program sponsored by The Daily Pennsylvanian, Dr. Theodore Hershberg was teaching “Controversial Topics in Negro History”. From this, Dr. Hershberg was chosen to teach the History Department’s first course in African American History titled “The Negro in America”. During the spring semester of 1969, the course “Black History” was also offered by the History Department. Then, in December of 1970, John E. Wideman was appointed chairman of the Black Studies Committee and the Director of the newly formed African-American Studies Program. From 1974-77, Houston A. Baker, Jr., a Penn faculty of the English Department, led the Afro-American Studies Program. He was later appointed the first Director of the Center For the Study of Black Literature and Culture in 1987. The Center was founded to serve as a graduate and postdoctoral research institution with major objectives to “generate and promote scholarship and the Black Diaspora”, “to provide space and facilities for writers, artists, and academics” to promote interdisciplinary research in Black literature and cultures, “to bring results of academic research to public attention”, and “to assist the inner city schools with specialists’ expertise”.

Recognizing the need for an informed, comprehensive and inclusive study of African peoples, the CFAS has continued to develop a curriculum that address the unique experiences and interconnections of African peoples on the continent, in the Americas and throughout the Diaspora for the past forty years. This past October of 2011, the University celebrated the 40th anniversary of the programs founding at Penn and the 25th anniversary for the CFAS Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen. The intensive, one-week course of study introduces students to major intellectual and cultural themes and currents in 19th, 20th and 21st century African and African Diaspora studies. The program has flourished tremendously since its inception boasting over 50 affiliated faculty members from nearly all 12 schools and over 80 course offerings for undergraduate and graduate students. CFAS also sponsors several co-curricular programs and was the first in the nation to launch an undergraduate journal, The Esu Review, in Africana Studies. Camille Z. Charles, who now serves as Director, says the mission of Africana Studies is “to restore the full humanity of people of African descent by reinserting their history and contributions into mainstream intellectual thought and discourse.”

Mulu Habtemariam, CAS ’12

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