AAST On Cutting Edge of Oberlin Academiaby Alita Pierson
Every Oberlin student knows that the College historically has been a leader in the higher education of African Americans and women. But it's a lesser known fact that Oberlin boasts one of few independent academic departments of African American Studies in the nation, as well as one of the oldest.
Founded in 1972 as a program with three non-tenured professors and integrated into a full-fledged department in 1983, African American Studies is unique among such programs throughout the nation. "Most of them are not autonomous," said Professor of African American Studies Yakubu Saaka of the similar departments in comparable institutions.
Oberlin's African American Studies department appears to have a bright horizon as the College enters the new millennium. Currently boasting six tenured faculty and soon to gain several new members in the next year, the "continued growth and importance" of African American Studies at Oberlin looks solid, according to Department Chair James Millette.
This Spring is the final semester for Professors Adrienne Jones and Calvin Hernton, who officially retired last year. Hernton was one of the original three program professors, beginning here in 1970. Jones has taught here since 1983.
Looking to the future, Millette said that issues such as dance, among others, will play key roles in defining various areas of the department. The Dance Department recently came under fire for its treatment of non-Western dancers, such as those who comprise the popular Dance Diaspora, led by lecturer and faculty in residence Miriam Adenike Sharpley, in the African American Studies department.
Millette added that during his tenure here, "the department has become more diasporic," and that he is "trying to broaden diasporic experiences beyond the Americas." To this end, Millette is part of the steering committee for the upcoming African Diaspora conference entitled "Crossing Boundaries: The African Diaspora in the New Millennium." Others working with Millette include historians Sterling Stuckey, Michael Gomez, and Elizabeth Eldredge (OC '77).
The department's attention to diasporic issues is part of what constitutes its uniqueness. "It covers a variety of perspectives including ethnic identities within the black experience," said senior African American Studies major Aubreya Lewis. Lewis' favorite course was "Black Arts Workshop," in which she enjoyed Professor Caroline Jackson-Smith's holistic approach. By uniting music, religion, dance, theater and philosophy, she said the workshop "connected so many aspects of the African descended experience."
The future of African American Studies, when compared to its past, seems promising. "Getting African American Studies was very difficult. It had a lot to do with America at the time," said Saaka. "In a sense it was easier for Oberlin to do this because it had the history. It was almost natural, but it wasn't easy. A lot came from student activism."
When asked about Oberlin's historical progressiveness regarding an African American Studies curriculum, Saaka said, "Oberlin demographics and those of the nation in general are changing." While many institutions cannot even claim a similar discipline of study, Oberlin's African American Studies department remains a steadily growing and popular department for all students.