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Saturday, June 15, 2024

History of African-American studies

There were angry protests in Madison, fiery speeches and a demand for action. Was it another day of discontent aimed at Gov. Scott Walker?


 No, this was 42 years ago this month, when African-American students at UW-Madison said they had had enough. On Feb. 15, 1969, 1,500 students marched to Capitol Square after picketing school buildings and disrupting classes – part of a week-long strike to call attention to demands for increased aid, recruitment of African-American students and the creation of an autonomous African-American studies department.

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Freida High was a graduate student then. Today, she is Freida High Tesfagiorgis, a professor in the university's Department of African-American Studies—a department created as a result of those protests decades ago.


According to Tesfagiorgis, students were not satisfied with the ""polka-dot"" offerings of classes on African-American culture scattered across departments and disciplines. Earlier that year, the university opened the Afro-American Race and Relations Center in response to these demands. In 1969, the center identified 10 related courses over six departments as being pertinent to the study of African-American culture.


Forty years later, that center's offerings evolved into an independent department within the College of Letters & Science, with 10 faculty members, 12 graduate students and 80 courses, with many cross-listed with other departments. Currently, 25 undergraduates major in African-American Studies. Many of them are double majors, having continued African-American Studies after enjoying classes meant to fulfill requirements such as ethnic studies.


Established in 1983, the three-credit ethnic studies graduation requirement has affected African-American studies on campus, according to Tesfagiorgis.


 ""One thing [the requirement] does is create a different dynamic in the classroom … some students will resist and be less interested, which affects the class dynamic,"" Tesfagiorgis said. ""With others, it's interesting to see how some of them, depending on their interests when they get into the material, find that they love the classes … Sometimes you can see it on the student evaluations, ‘I'm really angry that I only got to take this course as a senior!' or ‘The class opened up a whole new world for me, and made me think broadly, differently.'""


It is no surprise that students with various majors and interests are drawn to the department.


""When you talk about African-American history and culture, you're not talking about it in isolation,"" Tesfagiorgis said. ""It is the history of the United States, and therefore needs to be discussed in terms of larger dynamics.""


This intricacy inherent in the study of African-American Studies at UW has been visible throughout the department's history. Many faculty members involved in the creation of the department held positions in other schools and departments, from nursing to meteorology. This diversity of professors' backgrounds has only enriched the learning experience.


""When we teach, we bring whatever consulting [and] interacting we do in our larger communities into the classroom in order to enrich our students,"" Tesfagiorgis said.


This too has remained constant over time. Cora Marrett, professor emeritus in sociology, was a consultant for the Carter Administration during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. A current professor, Craig Werner has experience in the music industry. Tesfagiorgis herself is an accomplished visual artist, and has consulted for the Ford Foundation on museums in Africa.


From the '70s onward, Tesfagiorgis believes this awareness has grown. This emergence of an African-American studies program has set a precedent for various types of ethnic and cultural studies to be considered independent areas of academia.


""Today, with the new dynamic that extends beyond race and class, moving into gender and sexuality and religion, multiple layers [of sensitivity] need to be taken into account,"" Tesfagiorgis said. ""There is an increased sensitivity ... that has developed over time.""


The department is hoping to expand its offerings, potentially with an undergraduate certificate program, new undergraduate courses and by increasing the department's number of graduate Bridge Programs offered. The program is meant to facilitate graduate-level study between the various departments.  


The department is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a symposium entitled ""Ancestors, Elders, and the Next Generation: 40 Years of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison"" on April 15 and 16. The celebration will include several panel discussions, each consisting of students that participated in the protests surrounding the founding of the department as well as alumni.

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