African Studies department at Harvard to include an African language program

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jul 16 23:43:02 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times, July 16, 2003

Rebuilding Harvard's African Studies Dept.


     After a year of turmoil that saw two of its biggest stars defect to
Princeton University, Harvard's celebrated Afro-American studies
department will be refocused and expanded to include an African language
program and a new major in African studies, the chairman of the
department, Henry Louis Gates Jr., said yesterday. Professor Gates, who at
one point was so unhappy about the acrimony between his department and the
Harvard president, Lawrence H. Summers, that he too weighed offers to
leave, said he had appointed five new faculty members, including two
African scholars, one a critic of African literature and one a linguist.

His recruits also include a linguistic anthropologist who is one of the
country's leading experts on hip-hop. Hip-hop had figured in the turmoil
in Professor Gates's department, with Cornel West, one of the stars to
leave Harvard, complaining that Mr. Summers had, among other things, been
critical of his recording of a hip-hop CD entitled "Sketches of My
Culture." "Given the reports of the contretemps between Cornel West and
Larry Summers, some people might find this an ironic outcome," Professor
Gates said.

Professor Gates described Mr. Summers as "nothing but supportive" of his
efforts to rebuild the department, including his recruiting the hip-hop
expert Marcyliena Morgan from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Ms. Morgan has already installed her hip-hop archives at Harvard. Harvard
is by no means the first university to merge African and African-American
studies in one department, and to offer a major in African studies. But
for the university to take such a step is a recognition that the
African-American experience in the United States must be understood in
relationship to Africa and the diaspora, several scholars said yesterday.

"This is where we're going these days in African-American studies," said
John Thornton, an African historian who will join the African-American
studies department at Boston University this fall. "It's been a trend
intellectually. In the past 15 years, more and more people who are doing
African-American history are increasingly interested in the African
equation. On the other side, there are more Africanists who are
recognizing that there is an American side to what they do." A year ago
Professor Gates was considering jumping to Princeton after the departures
of his close friends and colleagues K. Anthony Appiah, the African
philosopher, and Dr. West, the black-studies scholar whose fiery lectures
packed Harvard auditoriums.

While Professor Appiah had gone to Princeton for personal reasons, Dr.
West left after publicly feuding with Mr. Summers over the quality of Dr.
West's scholarship and the university administration's commitment to
affirmative action. Mr. Summers had declined to comment on the feud or Dr.
West's reports of their conversations about his scholarship and his
activities outside Harvard. "People were worried about the
administration's commitment to the department," said Professor Gates, a
scholar of African and African-American literature, referring to those
faculty members who remained. "Several schools were trying to recruit our
faculty. Many of us weren't sure we could rebuild.  They didn't know if we
could come back without Anthony and Cornel."

Now, a year later, he said, he and his colleagues have rebuilt the
department. In keeping with the new focus, the department has been renamed
African and African-American studies. "It's not as if any of us thinks we
can replace a Cornel or an Anthony,"  said Evelynn M. Hammonds, a
prominent scholar of race and the history of science, who is joining the
department from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  "Those are
huge losses."

But Professor Hammonds said she was not worried about the administration's
commitment to the department. "Summers is on his learning curve," she
said. Mr. Summers praised Professor Gates's appointments and the new focus
on African studies. "We as a university are now going to be taking on
African studies in the way we take on Asian studies or Latin American
studies or have traditionally taken on European studies," he said in a
telephone interview. "We've also been successful in recruiting a number of
first-rate people in issues ranging from the history of science to African

The two African scholars Professor Gates has recruited are Abiola Irele, a
critic of African literature in French from Ohio State University, and
John Mugane, an African linguist from Ohio University. Professor Mugane
will direct the new African language program at Harvard. Africa has 2,089
languages, Professor Mugane said. "Think of them as 2,089 treasures, 2,089
priceless pieces of culture," he said. "My challenge is to make Harvard
the best place to learn these African languages."

"It's part of the global challenge," Professor Mugane added. "We have to
be able to talk to each other." With the new appointments, the African and
African-American studies department has 25 faculty members. As an
associate professor, Ms. Morgan will teach classes on hip-hop and
linguistics and be the director of the hip-hop archives, which includes
T-shirts, videotapes of the early hip-hop artists practicing their art in
basements in the Bronx and an extensive collection of CD's by rappers like
Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy.

"While I'm not especially a fan of hip-hop perhaps I'm too old there can
be no doubt that it is one of the most important cultural phenomenons in
the second half of the 20th century," said Professor Gates, who is 52. "We
would be remiss if we did not treat it accordingly."

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