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Africana Studies program becomes full department 

March 12, 2021

Just over a year after celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Africana Studies Program is now recognized as a full-fledged academic department. The change—effective immediately—was announced at Tuesday’s faculty meeting.

The transition was headed by the department’s four full-time faculty members: Peter M. Small Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English and Director of the Africana Studies Program Tess Chakkalakal, Associate Professor Judith Casselberry, Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor Brian Purnell and Academic Coordinator Elizabeth H. Palmer. The four have been advocating for this change for multiple years.

Though the new title will not denote any structural changes for the program, the recognition marks a symbolic transition for both the field of Africana Studies at Bowdoin and the College at large.

“I think it marks a kind of turning point in the field—that it’s been fully integrated within the disciplines of a college like Bowdoin,” Chakkalakal said. “Rather than thinking of this as peripheral to central disciplines, we [now] understand Africana studies to be a discipline in and of itself.”

“I think prioritizing studies about race, ethnicity and identity is super important, and it needs to be seen at the same level as departments like economics and English and history,” Chanel Matthews ’21, an Africana Studies major, said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “This seems to be about making it a more accredited area of study, and I think that is really important in terms of paying the major and the department the respect that it deserves.”

Faculty members in the department hope that this change will reinforce the importance of Africana Studies as an independent area of study that is applicable to a wide range of fields.

“Making the shift to a department is important to demonstrate that this is every bit as much of a legitimate field of study that can actually be applicable to anything that you decide to do in life,” Professor of Africana Studies Ayodeji Ogunnaike said. “Race isn’t limited to only certain aspects of society, and Africans and African-descended people do everything in life as well. So if you’re interested in computer programming, [Africana studies]  can be relevant to that. If you’re interested in literature, it can be relevant to that. Or if you’re somebody like me, who’s interested in religion.”

Coursework within the Africana Studies department is often cross-listed with other humanities courses, which Chakkalakal attributes to the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

“The idea of thinking about what constitutes the human really motivates a lot of the scholarship within Africana Studies, so I think what the moment right now has to do with is the humanities dying because it’s kind of lost its mission,” Chakkalakal said. “And I think that Africana Studies has the capacity to reinvigorate the field, so long as it remains committed. This move to department signifies a … move away from [the field’s] origins as a political gesture, a political movement. It’s no longer that. It is an acknowledgment of humanity.”

The College has expressed its promise to implement anti-racist work and focus on inclusive excellence in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Recognizing Africana Studies as  a department is part of that work.

“It had been a much longer conversation that had been in the works, but I think it’s a very good thing to do right now  … people are waking up to the fact that these issues have always been very important, but people’s awareness of them is heightened,” Ogunnaike said. “This is a mark of greater recognition. And so while I don’t think it will necessarily change the way we do things, it is a change of status, and a positive one at that.”

Matthews said she hopes that this shift will highlight just how important the field is and encourage other students to take more classes within the department.

“I just think it’s such an incredible department, and I really think classes like Intro to Africana Studies are really, really fundamental and so important to education,” Matthews said. “I think a lot of students can really go through Bowdoin, even with the new [Difference, Power, and Inequity (DPI)] requirement that they’re building, without learning about racial issues—issues especially having to do with the African diaspora and African American life. I just think that is such a shame. This recognition of the department will show students how important it really is.”


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