Growing up in southwestern Nigeria, Director of Africana Studies Olufemi Vaughan experienced first hand the "range of problems and issues developing out of Africa politically, socially, and culturally." Vaughan, who came to Bowdoin in the fall with a Ph.D. in politics from Oxford and experience teaching at Stony Brook University, is prepared to develop an Africana Studies Department that fully addresses the complexities of the African diaspora and African-American experience.
"In Nigeria, I encountered conflicts and questions of religion, art, rituals, culture, generational connections, gender, economy, and all kinds of emerging social dislocations, and, at the same time, human agency and triumph," said Vaughan. "You cannot contemplate African societies without considering the interconnectedness."
The interconnectedness of Africana Studies at Bowdoin is evident, as the department offers classes cross-listed in subjects ranging from gender and women's studies to English, history, music, anthropology, sociology, and government.
"We have sought to address the wide breadth of topics that play into Africana Studies by engaging the other disciplines," said Vaughan. "We are trying to revise our curriculum to speak to this range of issues, so we can have really very interesting, engaging, intellectually serious, and quality interdisciplinary conversations."
According to Vaughan, the study of Africa and the African-American experience is truly taking hold in the current generation of college students because "they grew up in a diverse world where people of different social cultural experiences meet and talk. They know how to access remote parts of the world, and how to relate and talk to people of another race, nationality, and religion." Vaughan said the current generation's interest in encountering other cultures is responsible for the development of about 15 Ph.D. programs in Africana Studies in top schools across the country.
Sophomore Sara Faurer said she chose to major in Africana Studies because it is a subject that she had developed interest in during high school and one that she believes will allow her to take classes in a wide variety of disciplines.
"I love history and I love sociology, so I think I'll try to focus on those aspects of Africana Studies," said Faurer, who also plans to major in psychology. "I also think that professors can make or break a major, and I've had an excellent experience with [history professor Patrick] Rael in 'African Americans 1865 to Present' and Vaughan in 'Africa since 1880.'"
According to Vaughan, one of the strongest aspects of Bowdoin's Africana Studies program is the faculty.
"Bowdoin has got truly, truly impressive by any conventional standards, teacher-scholars in African American studies," said Vaughan. "The faculty is outstanding, and their scholarship, research, teaching, and dedication to Africana Studies and the larger depth of it is truly incredible."
The department is currently searching for a tenure-track assistant professor in African Diaspora Studies and African Studies.
Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Tess Chakkalakal taught at Williams for five years before taking a leave of absence to come teach in Bowdoin's English Department from 2003 to 2004. When Chakkalakal was asked last year to teach at Bowdoin full-time starting last fall, she said she "jumped at the opportunity to teach in what [she] considered the ideal intellectual community."
Chakkalakal said her attraction to Africana Studies truly began while studying at York University in Toronto, where she became heavily involved in The Center for Black Culture before getting her Ph.D. in Literature. Chakkalakal said the thing that attracted her most to Africana Studies was the literature and the idea of the African-American identity.
"I found the literature very compelling," said Chakkalakal. "My dissertation was actually on 'Uncle Tom' and on the development of literature as predicated upon a cultural identity. It was interesting to see the making of a cultural identity through literature."
Chakkalakal used President Obama as an example to illustrate the concept of cultural identity.
"If you look at Barack Obama's autobiography, you see that he read all these black writers, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and he developed this African American identity," said Chakkalakal. "It's this concept of an identity started through literature, and it is truly rooted in the slave literature."
Chakkalakal is currently busy on her own book, "Novel Bondage: Slavery, Marriage and Freedom in 19th Century America," in which she examines the "slave marriage" as depicted by three African-American authors and two white women authors.
Chakkalakal, who taught "Intermarriage in American Literature" last fall and is currently teaching "Fiction Without Borders" and a writing composition class, said that she believes Africana Studies will play an increasingly large role in the future of scholarship, and that Bowdoin is a leader among liberal arts colleges in the development of its Africana Studies program.
"I think with the election of Barack Obama, Africana Studies Departments across the country will gain a larger role," said Chakkalakal. "It is a truly interdisciplinary program, and it brings together so many disciplines to discuss issues that are particularly relevant to our time: poverty, inequality, and other issues."
According to Chakkalakal, the Africana Studies Department is currently working to recruit new faculty, seeking opportunities for community outreach, and constantly rethinking the curriculum. Chakkalakal refers to the changes she, Vaughan, and the rest of the faculty are planning as an effort to "reconceive Africana Studies for the 21st century."
Vaughan said that support from the administration is a key part of the success of Bowdoin's Africana Studies program, and the College "has dedicated a lot of time and material to the expanding of Africana Studies."
"At Bowdoin, the level of commitment of senior administrators is really remarkable," said Vaughan. "That level of leadership at the very top is of the essence—an Africana Studies program can not succeed if such commitment is not sustained."
The dedication of Bowdoin's administration to Africana Studies, according to Vaughan, will aid Bowdoin's students in competing in the real world during an age when globalization is the reality.
"The context of Africana Studies is the global-national. You cannot be excellent anymore if you are not diverse, and we can not compete as a nation effectively if we do not use all of the resources we have," said Vaughan. "Africana Studies is the discipline through which that can be done."