The field of Africana studies has been devoted to the critical study of the historical and contemporary experiences of Africans and peoples of African descent who live outside the continent of Africa, particularly in the Americas.
Africana Studies at Penn is defined as a multi-disciplinary field of study which rigorously examines 1) the historical, cultural, economic, scientific and religious networks of the African continent; 2) the dispersal of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean; the dispersal of Africans across the Mediterranean to the Middle East and the movement of Africans across the Indian Ocean to Asia; 3) the expansion of trade between Africa and Europe, the Middle East and Asia; 4) the modern African diasporas generated by the forced migration of African slaves, now fueled by changing processes of globalization and 5) the different religions of Africans and those within the African diaspora.
As a field of inquiry, Africana Studies at Penn is marked, not only by interdisciplinarity, but also by a cross-regional approach closely allied with studies of Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. We are committed to a cooperative and cross-regional studies approach that brings fresh perspectives in studying and teaching about Africans and people of African descent. This unique combination distinguishes our expansive global and interdisciplinary approach to Africana Studies.
Our department administers the undergraduate and graduate programs in Africana Studies. We offer the major and minor for undergraduate students, and for graduate students interested in the discipline, we offer a graduate certificate as well as the Ph.D. Our curriculum, taught by faculty whose work spans the African diaspora and represents a broad range of disciplines and interests, provides a wide range of courses and a carefully advised list of cross-referenced courses for students.
The Department seeks to further an already unique approach to the study and teaching of Africana Studies in the academy. It is our objective to remain one of the leading institutions in training the next generation of scholars in the field of Africana Studies.
The field of Africana Studies emerged nationwide in the 1960s, in response to a vocal and growing awareness among students and faculty that curriculums in universities across the country were void of courses and discussion of African American literature, culture and history. In the late 1960s students at the University of Pennsylvania, like their counterparts around the country sought – through sit-ins, demonstrations and other forms of protest – to have courses on the historical and contemporary life and experiences of Africans and their descendants abroad added to Penn’s curriculum. The call for a department of Black Studies was one of several demands made by students during this time.
Beginning in March 1969 and for nearly the next three years, students and faculty served on a number of appointed committees and discussed how to best organize a program of Black Studies at Penn. One proposal argued for the establishment of a separate School of Black Studies, similar in structure, organization and stature to any of Penn’s other schools.
In December of 1971, John Wideman, associate professor of english, was appointed chairman of the Black Studies Committee by president Martin Meyerson, and the director of the newly formed Afro-American Studies Program. Wideman, a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of the class of 1963, had returned to the University of Pennsylvania as a faculty member in the English Department in 1967 and became the second black tenured faculty member of the university. (Philosophy professor, William Fontaine, became the first black tenured faculty member in 1947.) Wideman set about the task of creating a viable academic program of African diasporic study in the absence of faculty or courses throughout the university. With the institutionalization of Afro-American studies and a commitment on the part of the university’s administration to recruit faculty qualified to teach courses, a curriculum and program were slowly developed.
While subsequent directors hired faculty and developed the academic program, which included a major and minor in Afro-American Studies, they also instituted co-curricular important co-curricular programs designed to enhance the study of African diaspora history and culture and academic environment in which Penn faculty and students participated. These programs also provided members of the surrounding communities with access to programming and discussion about the African diaspora. Co-curricular programs featured scholars, artists and activists such as Ali Mazuri, Manning Marable, John Hope Franklin, Octavia Butler, Derrick Bell, Sonia Sanchez, Spike Lee and Angela Davis.
The Afro-American Studies Program’s name was changed to the Africana Studies Program in spring 2002. In September of the same year, the Center for Africana Studies was established through the merger of the Afro-American Studies Program and the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture, which was founded in 1987 by for the program’s second director Houston Baker. During this era, the Center for Africana Studies administered the undergraduate program in Africana Studies and continued to develop a curriculum that addressed the unique experiences and interconnections of African peoples on the continent, in the Americas and throughout the diaspora. In addition, the Center established a certificate program in Africana Studies in 2007 and the Ph.D. program in 2009.
Following John Wideman’s tenure as director (1971-1972), subsequent directors led the Afro-American Studies Program, the Africana Studies Program and the Center for Africana Studies into important eras of curricular development and co-curricular programming. These directors include Houston Baker, Jr. (1974-1977), Joseph Washington, Jr. (1977-1982), Elijah Anderson (interim, 1984), Jacqueline Wade (1984-1988), John Roberts (1988-1996), Ralph Smith (interim, 1990-1991), Herman Beavers (1996-2001; interim, 2005-2006), Kenneth Shropshire (interim, 1996-1997), Tukufu Zuberi (2001-2008), Barbara Savage (interim, 2008-2009) and current director Camille Z. Charles (2009-present). As director of the Center for Africana Studies, she led the effort to establish the Department of Africana Studies, which was established in 2012. The Department of Africana Studies was founded in July 2012, and chaired by Camille Z. Charles (2012-2013) and subsequently by Barbara Savage (2013-present).