Program Narrative, African and African American Studies




Suzanne P. Blier, Director of Undergraduate Studies

Greetings from the Director of Undergraduate Studies

The Department of African and African American studies is committed to fostering interdisciplinary scholarship and scholars dedicated to the better understanding of the histories, societies, and cultures of African and African-descended people.  Through the study of history, literature and the arts, politics, religion, social sciences, medicine, and economics we seek to understand how Africans and their diasporic descendants have influenced the course of world history and contemporary global events. The effects of racism are examined in courses exploring both the analysis of social inequality and the development of self-understanding.  In addressing the ethical, social, personal, and political consequences of racism, the African and African American Studies Department raises ethical questions relevant to the experiences of all people.

Students who graduate with a concentration in African and African American studies go onto pursue advanced degrees in fields such as history, literature, music, political science, and sociology.  They pursue professional degrees in medicine, law, business, public policy, and technology.  They pursue careers in education, entertainment, filmmaking, and art.  The concentration in African and African American studies provides a rich foundation for working in our contemporary world.

We offer two tracks of study:  African Studies and African American studies.  We conceive both as inclusive of the diasporas of the Americas and around the world.  A student interested in race in Latin America or the Caribbean may choose either track according to their specific interests. In consultation with the DUS and concentration advisor develops a menu of courses suited to each student’s interests.

Students electing the African Studies track have the opportunity to pursue a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary subjects, such as history, art, literature, economic development, public health, governance and public policy, religion, and music and dance.  Many students are interested in the history of colonialism and its impact on the post-colonial history of contemporary Africa.  Others are interested in China’s growing role on the continent, African innovations in the use of technology, and agricultural policies.  The department offers a wide selection of seminar and lecture courses on African topics, but we also encourage to explore offerings in other departments including the History of Art and Architecture, Music, Economics, Government, History, Anthropology, Social Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Religion. Courses in the Divinity School, the Graduate School of Education, and Kennedy School of Government may also be available for credit.

Students in the African American Studies track have an equally wide range of interests.  Studying African American music, art, and literature explores the cultural leadership and influence of African Americans despite a long history of societal racism. Understanding African American history is foundational to understanding to a wide range of contemporary social issues including discriminatory public policy, economic inequality, the structural reproduction or racial inequality, and social movements.  Following the history of African American participation in the American Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements makes apparent the centrality of African Americans to American history and culture. Learning about African Americans in science, technology, business, law, medicine and other professions establishes the historic presence of African Americans in all walks of life.

The department has recently developed a rich offering of courses on Latin America and the Caribbean designed to explore the history and influence of people of African descent.  Over 90 percent of Africans forcibly imported into the Americas went to Latin America and the Caribbean, half of them to Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The prominent role of Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the influence of Afro-Latin migrants to the United States, are central interests of the department.

Comparative study of African America, Latin America, the Caribbean and the African continent provides a rich understanding of how skin color, ethnicity, and social inequality have been used to create different systems of social stratification, which both share commonalities and substantial differences. 

The department as a whole addresses the global historical impact of slavery and colonialism, while intersecting with race, gender, sexuality, health, economic inequality in multiple disciplines.  The concentration consequently provides an excellent point of entry to an understanding of dynamic processes and structures. In addition, through the interaction of people of African descent with Native Americans, South Asians, European immigrants, Asians, Arabs, and many others, our work is situated in the cross-cultural mosaic of the modern world.  Understanding this rich cross-fertilization or peoples and disciplines is essential to understanding global history.