‘Black Studies is inclusivity and community’: ‘Black to Front’ symposium celebrates department renaming


Jacob Wendler/Daily Senior Staffer

Cydney Hope Brown speaks at the “Black to Front” symposium. Brown uses poetry to share her experiences with grief and pride.

The Department of African American Studies celebrated its renaming to Black Studies in a Friday symposium titled “Black to Front.” 

In April 2022, the department voted unanimously to change its name. According to the formal name change proposal, the new title aims to better reflect “the breadth of its scholarship and teaching” by expanding beyond U.S.-centric boundaries. The formal change will occur in the next few months, pending final approval by Northwestern’s Board of Trustees.

“Black Studies is inclusivity and community,” said SESP freshman Noelle Robinson, who served as an emcee during Friday’s event. “I am Black, African American and Jamaican American. It validates all of our Black histories and ancestors, not only the ones to live in this country.” 

The event featured two keynote speakers, student creatives, a faculty roundtable and a graduate student panel. Speakers and artists also selected Black music interludes to play ahead of their discussions and performances, ranging from Thundercat’s “Them Changes” to Little Simz’s “Point and Kill.”

Political science, sociology and African American Studies Prof. Barnor Hesse, who also served as an emcee, said Black music is part of Black history and studies. He encouraged attendees to “to work through, think through and feel through” the art in the symposium. 

Hesse also discussed the relationships between Black studies and the world. While many disciplines exclude or refrain from including Black experiences, ideas and perspectives, Black studies prioritizes these experiences. In turn, Hesse said it “cannot avoid” critically examining Western epistemology, instead of assuming it is the standard. 

“Black Studies doesn’t just see democracy. It sees democracy and white supremacy. The only democracy we’ve ever known in Western society is a white democracy,” Hesse said. “Black Studies doesn’t just see Western civilization. It sees as the conditions of Western civilization, Western barbarism. So you see, with that angle of vision, how the world seems to tilt almost on its axis.” 

Trinity College Prof. Davarian Baldwin, who teaches American studies and serves as founding director of the Smart Cities Research Lab, was the first keynote speaker. In his talk, “Black Studies and Thoughts on an Abolitionist University,” Baldwin pointed toward the relationship between Black Studies, African American Studies and the education debate in the U.S. 

Baldwin argued while the ongoing debate about controlling curricula in higher education revolves around certain controversial topics like AP African American Studies, arguments center on censoring ideas that Black Studies promotes. 

“Higher education was never designed to serve at the sight of democratic possibilities, but actually the symbol of exclusion and privilege of inheritance,” he said. “Black Studies always understood the broader campus complex as a site of struggle for liberatory possibility … they understood that the higher education institute — the campus — was the battleground for global hegemony.” 

Black studies originated at the intersection between the campus and the broader community, Baldwin said. For example, in 1968, Columbia University students in the Black Panther Party organized a movement known as Gym Crow, which criticized the potential construction of a university gym in nearby Morningside Park.

The gym would have created a physical barrier between the Harlem neighborhood and the campus, but he said students and residents occupied the administration buildings to put a stop to its construction. 

Modern-day diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — which center on diversifying curricula, faculty and students — have used diversity to “meet administration and corporate needs of brand management,” Baldwin said, moving away from the intentions of Black Studies.

Baldwin said he recommends coupling DEI with the principles of abolition, reparations, investment and security, known as ARIS.

“(ARIS) is built on the 1960s liberation moment to see the campus as a site for not just the production of knowledge, but a core fulcrum and today’s knowledge economy,” Baldwin said. “(Black Studies) was directly engaging the role that higher education was playing within the political economy and American empire.” 

A roundtable with history and African American Studies Prof. Sherwin Bryant, religious studies Prof. KB Dennis Meade, Communication and African American Studies Prof. Dotun Ayobade and African American Studies Prof. Kennetta Perry then discussed the question: “What is the Black in Black studies?” 

The panelists then explored the topic by examining how Black Studies functions across the world. 

Ayobade said many Africans might not call themselves Black but are nonetheless affected by global anti-Blackness and Africa has historically contributed to and in turn been shaped by black struggles worldwide.

For instance, in the 1970s a small group of Nigerian artists formed a subculture that embraced marijuana, nudity and made polemic music as a form of resistance.” The collective was informed by the Black political movements from at least the early ‘60s and have since contributed to global Black struggles.

Ayobade added scholars often do not address the modern complexities of Africa in their studies.  

“Africa tends to show up as a kind of historic, ancestral space of origin, when in fact, Africans continually engage with the legacies of empire and colonialism,” Ayobade said.

Following the panel, Communication freshman Cydney Hope Brown shared her poetry. Through her work, she discussed her experiences with grief and pride. Over the summer, Brown said she plans to write a series of poems from the perspective of lesser-known Black female activists during the civil rights era to inspire young Black women and girls

She then recited a poem entitled “Black Girl,” which she said depicts her refusal to let other peoples’ assumptions control her worldview. Self-love is an active choice, Brown said, and is important to her lifestyle. 

Culture and film critic Zeba Blay, who served as the second keynote speaker at Friday’s event, gave a talk titled, “What it Means to be Black and Carefree in an Unfree World.” Her speech centered freedom, which she said requires the unpacking of fear. 

Being a “fat, dark-skinned, immigrant, queer, neurodivergent Black woman” comes with inherited traumas, she said. Though she experiences fear, Blay said, she has resonated with radical Black artists like Nina Simone, who have created “portals to dream.” 

“I exist in a world that consistently devalues people like me, a world that simultaneously ignores and actively perpetuates the violences, both physical and spiritual, against folks who look and live like me,” Blay said. “The world has always been chaotic, dangerous (and) precarious for Black folk.”

Blay wrote a 2021 collection of essays titled “Carefree Black Girls,” which paints a portrait of Black women in pop culture as a way to explore representation, rest and liberation. In 2013, she was the first to use #CarefreeBlackGirl on Twitter after coming across a video of 20th-century Black movie star and dancer Josephine Baker dancing. 

Blay said she was enthralled by Baker’s movements, which exuded freedom, and wondered how she could channel similar energy into her own life. Though Blay wrote about carefreeness and celebration, she felt trapped and unfree — a tension Blay wanted to explore in her own writing. 

Carefreeness can be a tool to fight for freedom, but Blay said defining freedom is an “elusive task.” The U.S. uses freedom as a branding tool intertwined with a sense of entitlement and violence, she added. 

Blay said she aimed to understand how to claim carefreeness as less of a performative gesture on social media, but rather as a “lived, embodied experience.” Freedom encompasses the political, social and economic dimensions of Black life, she said, while carefreeness centers the spiritual dimension. Blay added freedom and carefreeness need each other to survive. 

“Freedom requires sober dedication. It requires work,” Blay said. “Being carefree entails experiencing ease, joy, lightness and liberation, despite the overwhelming fear.” 

Jay Dugar contributed reporting. 

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Prof. Ayobade’s reference to the 1970s group of Nigerian artists and omitted a word in Ayobabe’s quote. It also misstated Brown’s summer plans. The Daily regrets the errors.

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