Cynthia Young, former director of the Boston College African and African Diaspora Studies program and the current head of African American Studies at Penn State University, launched the 2019 New Directions Lecture series with a reflection on her time at BC.
This year’s lecture series celebrates the AADS program’s 50-year anniversary—Young served as the program director for Black Studies as it transitioned into its current form in 2006.
While on the Heights, Young reshaped the Black Studies program from the ground up, starting with the name. She rebranded the program to “African and African Diaspora Studies” to reflect her vision of an interdisciplinary future with broader scholarly perspectives.
Hoping to expand the program and lacking the momentum to get going, Young and her colleagues made a decision that was, in her words, “unheard of” in academia: searching for new hires from every field they could imagine.
“As a result, we got 691 applications for two positions,” Young said. “And I read every single one of them. Unbelievable. I’m still bitter.”
The program began looking to other departments at BC for faculty, utilizing joint appointments to double up new hires.
Young also talked about the administrative obstacles that she faced during the program’s expansion phase, beginning with her frustration that it never developed into a full academic department. She emphasized the importance of department status, which she called “the intellectual and administrative currency of colleges and universities.” She noted that departments have a greater degree of freedom, including more control in hiring new faculty and the opportunity to develop master’s or Ph.D. programs.
“Departments demand respect,” Young said. “Programs inspire tolerance and pity, but not typically respect. Not at the level of the upper administration and not at the level of other universities and other institutions.”
Young said that Black Studies, which spread across higher education in the late 1960s as a result of black students’ activism, is inherently designed to challenge and transform academia, rather than integrate into it.
Those students were not merely focusing on matters like greater equality in college admissions, but envisioned a Black Studies program that reached out to struggling communities and worked to fix social ills, she said.
“[If we agree that] racism is the state-sanctioned production and exploitation of group differentiated vulnerabilities to premature social, civil, corporeal death, then we can understand just how high the stakes are,” Young said.
She said that Black Studies should first and foremost be characterized as an exploration of the many ways to be human, which, if taught successfully, challenges the notion that the white experience is the default experience.
Young also said that disregard for black culture and history—which she referred to as the “black studies, small B, small S” mindset—is not limited to academia, nor does it primarily come from faculty and students.
“The Western world calls itself the correct way… and that had been imposed upon all of us,” Young said. “And as such … it can be changed, it can be tested, it can be overturned.”
Citing an article by Darlene Clark Hine, Young highlighted two key elements of Black Studies: practicing solidarity and a focus on oppression. While Hine focused on solidarity within the African diaspora, Young said she believes that such solidarity should be expanded to populations across the globe. Young spoke of a trip she took to Palestine during which she saw a fellow black scholar on the trip had difficulties passing through checkpoints.
“And so that for me was a kind of profound moment,” Young said. “He was telling me the story for me to think about the ways in which what was happening in Israel [and] Palestine was so familiar to those of us who have been harassed, contained, caged, and surveilled. It was really a profound moment for me to think about what it means and what my obligation is.”
Young said that people should talk more openly about all the various ways that they resist and refuse oppression every day. She added that one does not need to look at big, faceless organizations to effect change—local institutions can have just as much of an impact.
Young also pointed out that service-learning programs, a prominent part of BC’s curriculum, are important in Black Studies programs as well.
“If we remain open and attentive to its imperative,” Young said, “I think doing that kind of work can make not only Black Studies really important and relevant for the 21st century, but I think you can also just make this a better place to be.”
Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor