African American Studies experts gather for three-day summit

Jessica Floum

African-American professors, deans and chairs representing all 11 universities with black studies doctorate programs met for the first time ever Thursday at the Hotel Orrington to examine and celebrate the progress in African-American studies since its inception.

The summit also marked the 48th anniversary of Northwestern’s African-American studies program.

“This conference represents an opportunity not only to take stock of but to celebrate the beauty of this program,” said Dwight McBride, the academic dean of NU’s Graduate School, in his portion of the welcoming speech.

Mary Pattillo, a sociology and African-American studies professor at NU, provided the audience with data representing the strides in developing black studies programs across the country, including the graduation of 300 doctoral students in the field since the first doctorate program was introduced at Temple University about 25 years ago.

“There is no question that we have reached a critical mass,” Pattillo said. “The next step is incorporating the black studies Ph.D.s into our programs. The next step is also educating each other. That’s what this conference is about.”

Amilcar Shabazz, chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Afro-American Studies Department at University of Massachusetts Amherst, spoke in one of the panels about what it specifically means to be an African-American professor.

“It is to live in a beautiful, undying struggle,” Shabazz said. “It is a humbling, pride-filling and aggravating experience to be in the community of learners and leaders that is my department.”

Martha Biondi, an associate professor of African-American studies at NU and a co-organizer of the event, reminded the audience of the initial struggle for students seeking African-American studies programs in the post-Civil Rights era. Although she addressed the violence of this turbulent period, Biondi commemorated the accomplishments of the student protestors and how their efforts led to programs today.

“Student protestors were intellectual architects in black studies programs,” Biondi said. “They did the grunt work and the intellectual work.”

While Shabazz and Biondi acknowledged the struggles in developing the black studies programs that influenced the event’s name, speakers unanimously agreed that the three-day summit is about celebrating and learning.

Panels and keynote speakers will continue on Friday and Saturday including the Leon Forrest Lecture, to be delivered by poet Elizabeth Alexander on Friday.

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