Greetings from the Chair


More than four decades ago Harvard University launched what is now the Department of African and African American Studies.   We are dedicated to the passionate pursuit of one of the great and inspiring missions of human letters: bringing forward in full measure, the depth, richness, and complexity  of the African and African American experience.  In service of this ambition we offer courses and conduct research that explores the contributions, challenges, strivings, and achievements of those of African ancestry.  This includes a vigorous and expansive engagement with all domains of life on the African continent as well as equal dedication to casting as much light as possible on the farthest reaches of the African diaspora and the movements, lives, and legacies of peoples of African ancestry around the globe.

The department is truly multidisciplinary.  Our faculty, like the mission of African and African American Studies itself, spans the social sciences and humanities.   Thus, our courses reach from Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, Sociology, and Psychology, to Art, Music, History, Language and Linguistics, Women, Sexuality and Gender studies as well as Literature and Philosophy.  Our scope is, likewise, genuinely global.  The department’s faculty reflect genuine depth of expertise not only in the U.S. and the African Continent but increasingly in the Afro-Latin American world and the Caribbean. 

The department carries forward the Harvard tradition exemplified by figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Leroy Locke, Carter G. Woodson, Ralph Bunche, and John Hope Franklin.   As such, we address key issues in history, literature, and various forms of cultural expression, from theater and performance, to black humor, and to Hollywood movies and other forms of cultural production.   We offer courses that explore African religion, the future of African cities, and provide tutorial instruction in more than 25 different African Languages.  During the 2013-24 academic year we will offer a special course focusing on the Mau Mau rebellion and the recent legal cases, historic apology and reparations offered by the British government in recognition of traumas inflicted in Kenya.  Other courses will focus on film and documentary making as tools for social involvement and change, and the evolution of black music from R&B and jazz to hip hop and neo-soul.  And an array of courses take on issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice.  These include courses on matters of health and well-being in black communities, as well as on the critically acclaimed television show “The WIRE” as a powerful cultural vehicle for understanding the intersection of race, poverty, and criminal justice in the U.S.

In so far as we make strides toward fulfilling this mission we not only tell a story too often forgotten or distorted, but we  help to cast new light on our common understanding of the human quest for meaning, dignity, and justice.  In the U.S. and around the world, people still wrestle with the challenges of color, race, and cultural diversity as lines of social division.  Whether thinking from the vantage point of national social and economic policy making, to the level of the conduct of business in the global marketplace, or to the level of the informed and thoughtful individual living in a densely interconnected world, the project of African and African American Studies is more relevant now than ever before.

Tommie Shelby
Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy,
Chair, Department of African and African American Studies