VOLUME 30, NUMBER 30 THURSDAY, April 29, 1999

African American Studies: years of social change
Events being planned to celebrate program's 30th anniversary with UB and the community

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When the UB Black Studies Program was established in 1969, it was during what one of its founders, Jim Pappas, describes as "a heady, exciting time-one that illustrated the best and the worst of academic life."

Jim Pappas, left, and Peter Ekeh reminisce about the past and look ahead to the future of the Department of African American Studies as it celebrates its 30th anniversary in 1999-2000
The program, which evolved into the Department of African American Studies in 1973 as perhaps the first truly interdisciplinary academic field at UB, will celebrate its 30th anniversary in the 1999-2000 academic year.

The department's anniversary plans will be announced in the fall, according to Pappas, who served as chair in the late '70s and early '90s, and Margaret Gillette, the department's former secretary and administrative assistant, both of whom are on the anniversary planning committee.

They expect to present a series of events that will involve many UB departments and Buffalo's African-American community, with which the program has been involved since its inception.

Strengths in African studies

"So many in the community went through this program," Gillette says, "or their kids did, or their grandchildren. So they support it."

Department Chair Peter Ekeh, a native of Nigeria, says that since it was founded as a program in African-American studies, the department has developed additional strengths in African studies, the African diaspora and African-Caribbean studies, and hopes to strengthen its graduate program in the coming years.

But the 30 intervening years weren't always easy, Pappas recalls.

"There were times when we saw the best and worst sides of the academic community," he says. "We stuck to it, though. We believed in what we were doing, were close to one another, had the academic credentials to provide very good courses and excellent teaching. And we've always had students-nearly 1,000 in 1972, for instance."

"In the 1999 spring semester, more than 500 undergraduates took courses through our department," Ekeh adds. "We also have 35-40 majors and several graduate students."

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s encouraged an interest in the study of black history and culture. By 1968, 26 courses that qualified as black-studies courses were being taught by various UB departments. The actual birth of African-American studies as an academic field, however, arose in the wake of the grief and fury that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Black-studies programs sprang up almost overnight in high schools, colleges and universities across the United States. UB was no exception.

In 1969, the university agreed to organize its relevant courses into a new program of study to be called the Black Studies Program. Archival documents indicate a broad base of support among the faculty of departments ranging from geography and law to music, English, education and the social sciences.

"In those days," Pappas remembers, "there was so much energy and devotion to the exploration of our culture and the pursuit of social justice-it spilled over into academic life and ultimately transformed it in substantial ways we can clearly see today."

Liberals supported program

Having garnered considerable support among UB's white, liberal faculty, the Black Studies Program was, in its early days, well-funded, socially active and very popular with students. Although its popularity among students continued, the very premise upon which it was founded later was questioned and criticized by some of the same faculty members who had supported it, provoking much discomfort and unpleasantness.

In addition, scholars from Africa-who in many cases had come to the U.S. for graduate school or to escape civil war or government harassment-were more supportive of the American capitalist system than were many African-American academic activists, who considered capitalism an agent of black oppression. The Africanists wanted to expand the department to include the study of the history, language, politics and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora.

Across the country, conflicts arose over these issues as well, although UB's curriculum always has included the study of Africa and the Caribbean.

After much debate and some antagonism, the UB Department of African/Afro-American Studies was founded in 1974 and quickly changed its name to African American Studies, a concession to Africanists in other departments.

Pappas describes the beginning as a time of intense academic debate, largely about issues of social change and justice. Within the city's black community, there was a great deal of involvement with UB, as the inquiry into African-American culture, history, psychology and values was raised to the level of university study.

"In the late '60s, early '70s, there was a strong sense of faculty fellowship, inclusion, a broadening of academic interests, a sense of being comrades-in-arms-blacks and liberal whites together in opposition to conservative, white, Eurocentric academic hegemony," Pappas says.

And "The money was there," he recalls. "We were able to sponsor many academic lectures, co-sponsor events with other departments and with community groups, bring in well-known scholars and support visits by well-known black literary figures and musicians."

As with all change, however, there was a downside. From the beginning, the new programs in African-American studies held an alien and antithetical posture in a hostile academic world, posing a deliberate, head-to-head challenge to the very system that had borne them.

Program saw bigotry, deceit

"So with the excitement of change came years of difficulty as well," Pappas says. "There was hypocrisy, administrative distrust, freely expressed bigotry, deceit, academic turf wars and personal attack-not just here, but everywhere. We're talking about the mid-70s.

"Many of our students were activists, which did not make the going any easier, administratively speaking," he points out. "Today, our students-especially the young ones-are still interested in the social and cultural aspects of black studies, but are less-attuned to the battle for civil rights. They want to study hard, get a job, make money. And this is what we all fought for-so that these kids wouldn't have to.

"We know now that the historical period in which African-American studies was established as a discipline marked the beginning of tremendous social and cultural change in American life," Pappas says, "and these changes literally altered the way most of us looked at the world and changed our thinking about it.

"People who had been ignored, even hated and debased-black and Hispanic Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, women, gays-began to demand recognition of their lives, cultural values and way of experiencing reality. It was also a time that provoked the best and the worst behavior in academic life," he said

On the positive side, he notes, it was a time of intense, academic debate, largely in support of social change and social justice. Within the city's black community, there was a great deal of involvement with UB.

Pappas and Gillette recall the opposition to the little program in some quarters-the graffiti, name-calling and other rude and hostile behavior continued for several years.

"It was bad enough that we got it from a few angry white students," Pappas says, "but we got it from faculty and staff, too.

"There was a sense of betrayal in the department, too," he continues. "Some of the same colleagues who had encouraged and sponsored it from its outset, just stepped back, 'forgot' or denied their original support."

The most volatile critics at UB and other universities insisted that the tendency of black studies to include, and even embrace, non-traditional students and enlarge traditional courses of study diluted a university's overall academic quality. They claimed that the new programs were unable to cope with the rigid demands posed by traditional scholarship.

Pappas stresses, however, that the faculty at UB was highly qualified academically and taught in content areas covered nowhere else on campus.

Ekeh concurs, noting that until very recently, all aspects of African history were ignored in every department but his own and that African art and culture might not be taught at all if African American Studies did not exist.

By preparing the hard ground of American culture for future change, the civil-rights movement in all of its incarnations and the black-studies programs that evolved from it, including UB's, have served as models for other inclusion movements, Pappas says.

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