51 years after founding, African American Studies Department to be renamed Black Studies, reflecting global lens and activism


Jacob Wendler/Daily Senior Staffer

Faculty say the legacy of the Bursar’s Office Takeover looms large in the history of NU’s African American Studies Department.

Kaavya Butaney, Diversity & Inclusion Chair

Last year, the African American Studies Department celebrated its 50th anniversary, 54 years after Black students demanded acknowledgement of Black art, culture, literature and history during the Bursar’s Office Takeover in 1968.

Following the demonstration, Northwestern hired two visiting professors, including historian Lerone Bennett, who would go on to serve briefly as the first African American Studies Department Chair.

Before the Takeover, there were only two professors on campus with any expertise on Black-related content, according to current department chair and African American Studies Prof. Mary Pattillo.

“There weren’t Black Studies professors (in 1968),” Pattillo said. “There weren’t even professors who were teaching Black Studies content … (Students) could take a course on the history of the South and not talk about Black people. It’s hard to imagine a curriculum, a class in political science on American political institutions without talking about Black people.”

In April 2022, the African American Studies Department faculty unanimously approved a new name: the Black Studies Department. More than a year later, the department’s renaming is almost official and is set to take effect in the next few months pending the Board of Trustees’ approval. Pattillo said though it required more than a decade of conversation, the new name reflects the department’s worldwide perspective.

Pattillo said the name African American Studies implies a U.S. focus that doesn’t accurately reflect the department, which explores a global lens. Other name options considered included Africana Studies and African Diaspora Studies, she added.

According to Pattillo, the name “Black Studies” also reflects the original demands in the Bursar’s Office Takeover in 1968, which asked for a Black Studies course. The department’s new name also reflects common usage of the term in movements like Black Lives Matter, she added.

Black studies is the shorthand used generally to refer to similar programs at different universities globally, according to fifth-year African American Studies Ph.D. candidate Nnaemeka Ekwelum.

“Black Studies programs in the U.S. have often been critiqued for being very U.S.-centric,” they said. “If we’re going to call ourselves a global Black Studies program, call ourselves Africana studies, (the department) just needs to make sure that we’re reflecting on those values in what we do.”

While Ekwelum said graduate students were involved in informal conversations about the name change, faculty were the primary voices in formal discussions.

Ekwelum added they hope the name change is part of the department’s continual efforts to push forward Black scholarship.

African American Studies Prof. Martha Biondi, who wrote a book about Black student movements in the 1960s and early ’70s, said students across the country in the 1960s demanded the acknowledgment of Black perspectives and history, in addition to critiquing Eurocentric curricula.

“They wanted courses that would be very much engaged with contemporary struggles, contemporary social movements, contemporary critiques and analyses of society,” Biondi said. “They did not want to feel they were in this walled-off ivory tower disconnected from the urgent needs and aspirations of Black and brown communities in the United States.”

Biondi said her research included NU within the larger context of Black students using a variety of strategies to include Black history in universities’ curricula. 

Pattillo also highlighted the role of the late African American Studies Prof. Leon Forrest, who became a “backbone” of the department after joining it in 1973, eventually chairing it more than a decade later. While Forrest was unable to hire many tenured or tenure-line professors for the department, she said visiting faculty, adjunct professors and Ph.D. students filled those roles.

Pattillo said Forrest established the African American Studies major in 1982 and constructed a series of courses, increasing the class enrollment. Before his death in 1997, she added, the department’s strength can be attributed to Forrest and the people he brought together.

Pattillo added around 2000 University administration made a concerted effort to build up the department with tenured and tenure-line faculty.

Then, in 2006, the University established an African American Studies Ph.D. program, which Pattillo said helped create more Black scholarship.

She also said while Black Studies Ph.D. programs are not as common as those for English, for example, it is no longer rare and demand for courses grows every year. Each year, she said, the graduate student cohort is about three to five people. 

Ekwelum said during a time when Black Studies and other theories of marginalized groups are being attacked and censored, it is important to remember that these programs matter.

“They shape the way we think about freedom, possibility (and) dreaming,” Ekwelum said. “So that is why they’re under attack: because they empowered that robustness and rigor and criticality, but also love and grace.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @kaavya_butaney

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