‘The work is not done’: Students react to AAAS departmentalization recommendation

Feb. 28, 2021, 10:43 p.m.

On Feb. 22, the Framework Task Force recommended Stanford’s African and African-American Studies (AAAS) program be departmentalized. Following a half-century of student activism, Black undergraduate and graduate students share their reactions to the news.

Kemi A. Oyewole: Shock, skepticism and sureness

Shock. That was the feeling when I woke up from a pandemic mid-afternoon nap to see a flurry of text messages around the provostial recommendation to departmentalize AAAS at Stanford. I thought of the Black alumni who made sacrifices for the program and for the Black community, knowing that they might not be on campus — or even live — to see the fruits of their efforts. Though I made a commitment to work toward AAAS departmentalization for the duration of my time at Stanford and felt the momentum from peer institutions might force the university’s hand, I recognized there was a chance our efforts might meet the same fate as those of our predecessors. So after a year rife with disappointment, I was shocked. 

That shock was followed by skepticism. Skepticism that the same university that has avoided departmentalizing AAAS since taking the mic 53 years ago would suddenly throw its full weight behind an academic department celebrating Blackness and liberation. Given the institutional propensity to adopt symbolic — rather than substantive — change, the recommendation will not halt our efforts. We must ensure the Department of AAAS is established as a welcoming home to Black faculty, students and scholarship. The department will require leadership, faculty lines, support staff and funding to blossom into a leader in the discipline. The work is not done. We will see it through. 

Finally, I was overwhelmed with sureness. Sureness that working in solidarity, we will continue to move the university forward. The reverse town hall held this fall with a coalition of Stanford student organizations (including the Black Graduate Student Association) was an example of these efforts. When we cannot rely on institutional conscience for progress, student and worker activism must chart our course. 

Neither shock, skepticism nor sureness match the elation I expected to feel as we near achievement of this milestone. It feels premature given the overwhelming distance still to go in making Stanford the home we deserve. Still, in a world that might otherwise steal it, I can choose joy. So for now, we celebrate! 

Kemi A. Oyewole is a third-year PhD student in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a member of the Social Action Committee of the Stanford Black Graduate Student Association. 

'The work is not done': Students react to AAAS departmentalization recommendation
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons) (Graphic: Chasity Hale/The Stanford Daily)

John O. Okhiulu: Sour and honey

Since my sophomore year, when I took part in an early work in progress of “REVIVAL: Millennial Remembering in the Afro Now,” I’ve been deeply interested in the activist legacy of Black students on Stanford’s campus. Fifty years before the production, Stanford students took part in a wave of Black powerful inspiration in the Bay and beyond, took the mic from the administration and demanded tremendous change and accountability from the school. Their actions heralded the creation of the Committee on Black Performing Arts, the Program in African and African American Studies and the Black Community Services Center, among other positive impacts. That history means a lot to me as a major in AAAS as well as an artist fellow in the Committee on Black Performing Arts. These communities on campus have molded me as a scholar, an organizer, an artist, an aspiring healer, a human and on and on. They’ve cultivated so many beautifully resonant experiences for me and my peers. I think it’s dope to know that I am so intimately tied to such a powerful student legacy. 

This recent movement toward departmentalization of African and African American Studies feels exciting for reasons easy to explain. I appreciate playing a role — however small in the greater arc — in the torch-bearing effort of Black Stanford students and allies to push the University to recognize and support Black Studies. These feelings aren’t without complication, though. This University that has provided me with a powerfully enriching four years of my life has also contributed to the traumatization of marginalized people in the Bay Area and abroad. It’s a very palpable duality: I feel honored to be able to celebrate this big win for Black Stanford students past, present and future; but this win came after 50- plus years of what I’d refer to as war with this institution to adequately support its BIPOC students, faculty and staff, and the school has miles and miles of acknowledgment, reckoning and reappropriating left to travel. Land, resources and knowledges have been stolen, mishandled and miscredited. It’s hard not to feel sour about the timing of this decision as well. That sour won’t leave my mouth as this bit of honey enters; that sour runs deep in the roots of this institution.

I will surely take my time celebrating and congratulating the Black Graduate Students Association activists like Kimya Loder, Danielle Greene, undergraduate BSU co-president Mohammad Gumma and everyone else who fought so hard for departmentalization. And I’ll also hold onto the very pertinent reality that the knife needs to fully exit the wound for the healing to begin. This march continues. So much love to this community, honestly and truly heaven-sent: I couldn’t imagine a better team to travel this journey with. If we maintain our values of love, liberation and healing as students, faculty, staff and community members working in unity, the dream of a mended future can rest easy in good hands.

John Okhiulu ’21 is a senior, majoring in human biology and African and African American Studies, co-chair of the BSU Political Action Committee and chair of the Stanford Black Community Council. 

'The work is not done': Students react to AAAS departmentalization recommendation
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons) (Graphic: Chasity Hale/The Stanford Daily)

Darion Wallace: A milestone worth celebrating

The announcement by Provost Drell that the Framework Taskforce on Race Studies has recommended to departmentalize AAAS is a milestone worth celebrating. In this 53-year call for AAAS departmentalization — beginning with 1968 Take Back the Mic demonstration — the recommendation has never successfully made it out of the enumerate University committees and task forces that have been charged with this inquiry previously. In the department’s absence, students interested in African and African American Studies, and Black Studies more broadly, have been subjected to inconsistent faculty advising, disparate course offerings and a lack of resources/funding. Specifically, for graduate students, formal intellectual engagement with the discipline at the graduate level meant that one would have to travel across the Bay to UC Berkeley to fulfill their intellectual needs in their department’s courses. In spite of a lack of department, Stanford saw a rise in Black student organizations (e.g., the Black Studies Collective, Critical Studies in Black Education, The Global Black Studies Reading Group, etc.) committed to filling the void. With minimal support from the institution, this disinvestment in Black Studies unjustly resulted in an invisible tax being placed on students to curate our own readings, create our own spaces of intellectual engagement and invite scholars from other institutions to Stanford to sharpen our thinking.

Having a department at Stanford secures sustainability, institutional legitimacy and a self-determinate anchoring of the department within the university structure. Additionally, it provides Stanford scholars — undergraduate, graduate and faculty — vested in Black Studies with a generative intellectual home. Following in the legacy of Stanford’s alumni and faculty that have contributed to the discipline (e.g., Sylvia Wynter, St. Clair Drake, Cedric Robinson, bell hooks, Gloria Ladson Billings and so on), this department — if well-resourced and guided by scholars trained in and true to the discipline — has the boundless potential to enrich Stanford, humanity and the Black community globally. With this in mind, I am even more cognizant that the recommendation to departmentalize is only the beginning of a long road to seeing strong and vibrant department manifested and materialized. But for now, we celebrate a victory in this arduous fight!

Darion Wallace is a first-year PhD student in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a member of the Black Graduate Student Association.

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