Faculty votes to approve Africana studies major

Cameron Pugh, Tali Natter, and Iman Shumburo

At the Nov. 16 faculty meeting, faculty approved the creation of an Africana studies major that will go into effect in fall 2023, with 70 voting in favor, zero not in favor, and three abstaining. The nine-course major will consist of three required courses and six electives, building upon the current five-course concentration that consists of two required courses and three electives. The implementation of the major will eliminate the concentration in 2026. 

While the meeting was not open to the public, several students awaited the result of the vote in Griffin Hall. 

For students who have been eager to see the confirmation of the major, the vote was a momentous step in improving their academic and personal lives. “Black people built this institution, and there was only a concentration of five classes representing our history,” Nadia Joseph ’25 said.

Students said they see the Africana studies major as instrumental to improving their interdisciplinary academic ambitions. “As a person, especially one who has had lots of difficulty in the creative writing space here on campus, it’s such a huge relief for me to be able to explore that with faculty [who] understand Blackness and know how to deal with Blackness and art,” Jules Gaskin-West ’24 said. “I cannot overstate how happy I am for those who can take advantage of the interdisciplinary nature [of Africana studies].”

The Africana department first broached the idea internally in 2013 but was reluctant to launch the major given faculty leave patterns, according to the proposal. In 2014, the department conducted an internal self-study and initiated conversations with administrative offices and committees about the major. In 2018, the department conducted an external review, which concluded that there were enough staff resources and courses to establish a major within the next five years. 

According to the proposal, since 2013, the department has taught nearly 3,000 students who registered via the AFR prefix (as opposed to a different prefix for cross-listed courses) and has had 171 concentrators and 17 successful honors theses. The proposal also notes that 25 percent of concentrators have taken eight or more classes in Africana studies, demonstrating interest in the nine-course major. 

Chair and Professor of Africana Studies Rhon Manigault-Bryant, who wrote the proposal, first sent it to the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA) for approval. After the CEA voted unanimously to support it, Manigault-Bryant presented the proposal at the faculty meeting.

On Nov. 8, the CEA sent a memorandum to the faculty in support of the major proposal, noting that many comparable institutions, such as Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Vassar, and Wellesley, already offer majors in Africana studies. 

“In the CEA’s view, the major has been carefully designed to take advantage of the interdisciplinary breadth and richness of this field, while also affording prospective majors considerable autonomy and flexibility in devising their own coherent, more specialized path through the field,” the memo read. 

The committee also noted that the major would be able to run with existing faculty resources and staffing considerations. 

“Africana majors attempting to satisfy major requirements will find themselves with many more choices than they need, and faculty departures and leave patterns are unlikely to diminish their options in any very serious way,” the CEA wrote.

At the meeting, CEA Chair Stephen Tifft said that the committee has been working with the Africana studies department, particularly Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Keston Perry and Maingault-Bryant, for five months to refine the proposal. The CEA also worked with the Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP) for three weeks exclusively on this initiative, he said.  

At the meeting, faculty raised questions about the future of the current five-course concentration. The motion eliminates the concentration after three years to ensure that current students can complete the concentration. 

Manigault-Bryant cited staffing concerns as the primary reason for eliminating the concentration upon the creation of the major. She said that the Africana department may not have enough staff to support both a major and a concentration, but she emphasized that the department may reevaluate the decision based on data collected during the period in which both are offered. 

For the next three years, the department will work closely with the CEA and the Office of the Registrar to ensure a smooth transition. If the department decides to reinstate the concentration, it must submit a new proposal to the CEA. 

Students at the College have been demanding the creation of the major for decades. In 1969, students occupied Hopkins Hall with a list of 15 demands, which led to the creation of the Afro-American studies program. As written in the proposal, “the commitment to a major in Africana Studies is one that would validate the experiences of Black students and alumni of Williams College and signal Williams’ intention to continue attracting and nurturing diverse students and faculty with a passion for scholarly work on the African Diaspora.”

Students expressed the larger significance of the vote as the College continues to contend with a call for expanding ethnic studies. “This is a big step for the movement for ethnic studies as a whole, and I hope that events like Africana as a major opens up that dialogue even further,” Karla Cabrera ’25 said.

Following the meeting, students marched in celebration from Griffin — where the meeting was held — to Bascom Hall, the temporary replacement for the Davis Center, chanting, “Brr, it’s cold in here. It’s long overdue but it’s finally here!”