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Origin Point

Black Studies provides an academic home for urgent discussions on race

Growing up in a racially segregated town in Maryland, Patrice Berry ’06 says her public school education lacked any meaningful exploration of Black history, stories, or experiences.

That changed when she got to Swarthmore.

“I read the catalog and saw all of these exciting courses that resonated with my interests and also my personal identity,” says Berry, a political science major and Black Studies minor.

For Berry and others, experiences in the Black Studies Program were eye-opening and helped set the course for their careers. Celebrating 50 years at Swarthmore, Black Studies has offered an academic home for Swarthmore students to consider urgent questions of race, representation, and power, and to study the contributions of Black people the world over.

“The first passion I discovered at Swarthmore was education, but one of the reasons I was drawn to education was because I was actually learning for the first time how systemic some of the barriers and gaps I experienced or observed as a student were,” says Berry, a FUSE Corps executive adviser in the mayoral office of Oakland, Calif., where she is focused on college affordability and completion.

“To become aware that my experience, my observation, was ‘a thing’—there’s so much power in that discovery,” adds Berry, who has spent her career disrupting education inequity. “Once I identified that there’s a system around it, then I became empowered to do something about it.”

Forging a Program

The interdisciplinary Black Studies Program started in 1969, thanks to the efforts of activists who saw that the perspectives and contributions of Black people were largely unrepresented in Swarthmore’s curriculum.

Indeed, the first students to graduate with what was then a Black Studies concentration had to build a program on their own.

“It really was a process of self-education,” says Marilyn Allman Maye ’69, one of the nine original Black Studies concentrators. “We petitioned to have a student-led course—I guess you could say it was our version of an honors seminar. We petitioned for more opportunities to bring in visiting professors. We went to Haverford College, Lincoln University, and other colleges that may have had one course on African history or politics, and we petitioned the College to give us credit for those off-campus courses.”

Before the program launched, Swarthmore’s curriculum was not addressing the stories or voices of Black people—and neither were its activities, says Maye, who recently retired as an associate professor of educational leadership at New Jersey City University.

“I was active in the choir, and all the things we sang were European,” she says. “There was absolutely nothing, nothing that would suggest that Black people had any musical heritage.”

Harold Buchanan ’69, a math major with a concentration in Black Studies, was longing for classes that could speak to Black people’s experiences.

“I grew up in Long Island, in a small Black community, so I had very little exposure to Black anything,” says Buchanan, who went on to co-found the Swarthmore Black Alumni Network. “We didn’t have any Blacks in government. Throughout high school there was one Black teacher, the only Black teacher I ever encountered. I felt that I was missing something. I was missing so much of my heritage, so I was really hungry for filling in those gaps.”

Finding their Way to Black Studies

The Black Studies Program, formalized over the years, now includes a number of its own classes, as well as courses cross-listed with dance, history, sociology & anthropology, and multiple other departments. Students who minor or special major in the program are required to take Introduction to Black Studies, and honors students must also complete a two-credit thesis.

“Black Studies at Swarthmore is distinctive because it brings students and faculty together from across the campus to study and speak about race—and, in particular, about Black peoples, cultures, and histories—in thoughtful and critical ways,” says Carina Yervasi, an associate professor of French and a member of the Black Studies Program committee.

“The program engages with race, but also the specific and important ways global Black diasporas have shaped and continue to shape our world,” she adds. “Speaking about Black diaspora opens up dialogue about ancient and modern mobilities, artistic and cultural representations, social movements, transnationalism, economic issues, political stakes, and the practice of art-making.”

Ja’Dell Davis ’06, who earned a Black Studies minor, took sociology and history courses and an introductory jazz course under the program’s umbrella, in addition to studying Umfundalai, an African dance technique. She also participated in weekly noncredit seminars at the Black Cultural Center.

“At a place like Swarthmore,” says Davis, “a very White, elite institution, it was important for me to be in classes with knowledge that was being disseminated that resonated with me, but also helped me understand and be in dialogue with other people about Blackness, especially in that context, [to consider] what did it mean for me to be a Black woman at Swarthmore College.”

As a sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Davis researches the transition from high school to college for students who are racial minorities, and the ways in which college advisers prepare them for the racial dimension of that transition.

“Because of the professors who were leading the courses, Black Studies was a space where we could ask good questions,” Davis says. “Those were the places where people who cared about the topic were. There were always people who were there to be antagonistic, or who weren’t actually interested in understanding the nuances of Black life, but they were few and far between.

“They were places where we could genuinely show up ... and get some deeper understanding about representations of Black life in different disciplines.”

From Classroom to Career

Black Studies alumni have gone on to careers across a variety of fields, including law, public policy, and education. For Cecilia Márquez ’11, the program helped set her on a course for academia.

“The Black Studies Program was the origin point for what I’m doing now in terms of fusing my commitment to social justice with my intellectual ambitions,” she says.

Now an assistant professor of history at Duke University, Márquez remembers a class she took with Professor of History Allison Dorsey about the Black freedom struggle, from civil rights to hip-hop.

“It was mind-blowing,” Márquez says. “The urgency with which she taught that class really shaped me.

“Working with her, I realized that scholarship could be really meaningful and powerful, and could shape not only how we think about the past, but how we approach our current moment—all the questions of power and inequality that we are dealing with today and have always been dealing with.”

In 2010, Márquez joined Dorsey and others on a field trip to North Carolina for a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Márquez’s dissertation—a history of Latino/as in the South since 1940—emerged out of that trip and the interviews she conducted at the SNNC conference.

Michael Jeffries ’02 also traces a direct line between his Black Studies classes at Swarthmore and his academic career. The program “taught me that anything I wanted to study was intellectually viable,” says the Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics and associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College.

“I remember reading Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, which I think remains the best academic book written on rap music,” he says, fondly recalling Sarah Willie-LeBreton’s Intro to Black Studies class. “I never knew you could write an academic book on hip-hop. I was so fascinated and captivated by that book, and the first book I wrote was a book on hip-hop.”

He has since written two other books on race and class—one that uses President Barack Obama as a lens to look at race in America, and another on inequalities in the world of professional comedians—and is working on a book about Black LGBTQ+ students.

Monica Patterson ’97 says one of the first classes that captivated her at Swarthmore was a course on the Harlem Renaissance taught by Chuck James, the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of English Literature.

“I just fell in love with the writing,” says Patterson, a Black Studies Program alum. “It was so lyrical and evocative, and that got me very interested in Africa. Of course the Africa that is written about in a lot of that Harlem Renaissance literature is almost a fantastical one. It was a mythological abstraction that ran counter to some of what I was starting to learn in anthropology, which focused on the thick and fine detail of everyday life.”

Patterson, now an assistant professor at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University in Canada, researches the experience of childhood in apartheid South Africa. She spent her junior year at Swarthmore studying abroad in Zimbabwe.

“It was a really powerful experience,” she says, “that shaped the rest of my life to come.”

Past and Future

Though just one student earned a special major in Black Studies in the Class of 2019 and five students earned minors, about 40% of 2019 graduates took a course that was eligible for Black Studies Program credit, College data show. Black Studies was not always infused into the Swarthmore curriculum in this way.

“The African American studies classes were about me in a way that other classes were not,” says Andrea Young ’76, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, where her work centers around issues of voting rights, reproductive rights, and free speech. “To the extent to which African American history, literature, and so forth are a part of classes that people take today, that was not true then. We really didn’t know that much about African American history and culture, even in our most elite institutions. There was just a lot of ignorance.”

Young recalls her classes with Kathryn Morgan, the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Professor Emerita of History and the first Black woman to earn tenure at Swarthmore, after initially being denied.

“One of the great things about Kathryn Morgan—I was a part of the student movement to get her tenure—is that she was one of the early proponents of how you use primary sources to reclaim this kind of hidden history,” Young says. “That’s been so essential to reclaiming women’s history, to reclaiming African American history—going back to the primary sources because the so-called official record left us out.”

That’s something that will be needed as long as there is a power imbalance in society, says Maye, one of the original Black Studies concentrators from 1969.

“The winners in these power struggles get to tell the stories, they get to write the books, they get to be honored and venerated,” she says. “The people who are on the margins, their stories always get buried, and their truths get buried.

“Once we broke the door open to say that the European canon was not the sole thing that was worth studying, other groups started saying, ‘What about our history?’ Now you have a lot of diversity—that was won through what the Black students did.”

A Landmark Appointment

As the Black Studies Program commemorates its 50th anniversary, it marks an important first: a tenure-track line.

Swarthmore has long hired faculty in other departments who also teach courses in Black Studies, but this academic year is the first time the College will hire a faculty member based in Black Studies. The position will concentrate on African American and African-diasporic music and culture, especially jazz.

“This is a real landmark for us, having a faculty member whose curricular home is wholly in Black Studies to anchor the program,” says program coordinator Anthony Foy, an associate professor of English literature.

Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton, a former head of Black Studies, says the new hire is “unprecedented, and it’s thrilling.”

“To hire somebody in the program is a signal to students that the College is investing in the program,” she says. “The College sees how many students are minors and special majors and acknowledges that the program needs greater stability and more faculty resources.”

Students in the Black Studies Program take a range of classes across the humanities and social sciences. Although a regular major is not offered, students can minor in Black Studies or design a special major around their interests.

“What’s special about our program is the interdisciplinarity of it,” says Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter, a Black Studies committee member. “That’s the key to the program—that students themselves can create and structure this with the insights of the range of faculty who are making offerings that become part of the Black Studies Program.”

In recent years, Black Studies has also begun offering classes with a study-abroad component.

“The future of most interdisciplinary programs is with embedded study and experiential learning,” says Associate Professor of French Carina Yervasi, a Black Studies committee member. “Black Studies has benefited from experiential learning by taking students to Brazil and Cuba, and continuing support for this kind of programming is crucial to helping students understand Black diasporas.”

However, that Black Studies remains a program, as opposed to a department, is a source of disappointment to some.

“The question is, why is Black Studies still a program 50 years later when, in my time here, I have watched programs move from programs to departments?” asks Allison Dorsey, a professor of history who coordinated the program from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2008 to 2010. “I find that a failure of imagination and will on the part of the College.”

Program committee member Nina Johnson, an assistant professor of sociology, hopes the tenured position will be an important step in terms of the College making a commitment to the long-term sustainability and viability of a thriving Black Studies program. “Swarthmore’s Black Studies Program has been able to thrive because of faculty who have been committed to it, but those faculty are also in their home departments required to do all kinds of work and service,” she says. “We do great with what we have, but it would be amazing to do more.  Among those committed faculty members is President Valerie Smith, who holds appointments in Black Studies and the English Department. An opportunity to teach a cross-listed course on Toni Morrison this spring is especially important to her, she says.

“Black Studies faculty have contributed in a variety of significant ways to the intellectual and cultural life of the College,” Smith says. “I am delighted that with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we will be adding a new faculty position in Black Studies and music that will enhance our cross-disciplinary curricular offerings.”

“Black Studies offers a cross-disciplinary approach to some of the most urgent, persistent and intractable challenges we have confronted over time,” adds Smith. Through curriculum, research, performance, and forms of creative expression, she says, Black Studies explores “the complex interplay between the political, economic, and cultural forces that shape our understanding of the historic and contemporary achievements and struggles of African-descended people in this country and around the world.”

The opportunity to explore Black culture, history, music, and literature is an ever-expansive journey for all Swarthmore students. Participants of Black Studies have expanded on the wealth of information and knowledge they absorbed as students, sharing it in their own organizations, communities, and classrooms. The original stories reverberate, enriching each new generation and the world as a whole.