Farah Jasmine Griffin Chairs New African American and African Diaspora Studies Department

Wilson Valentin
January 03, 2019

On December 1, when Columbia’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to create the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department, the cry heard around the University was, “It’s about time!”

In reality though, the development is the latest growth spurt in a scholarly interpretation of the black experience that began at Columbia in the early 20th century.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, who will be the new department’s first chair, traces its beginnings to the years that Harlem Renaissance literary icon Zora Neale Hurston (BC’28, GSAS’34–35) spent here studying with Franz Boas, a pioneer of modern anthropology who joined Columbia in 1896 and was its first professor in that discipline. Boas was largely responsible for establishing critical studies that drew distinctions between race and culture. His work helped discredit “scientific” theories of race. Hurston’s focus was on her own people: African American folklore, music, customs and—as anyone can read in her novels—ways of speaking.

“The study of black life, in the western hemisphere in particular, is something that Columbia has been engaging in, and has been at the forefront of, since Zora Neale Hurston began her work here,” said Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies. The new department will bring a fresh approach to the discipline at a crucial moment for race relations and black identity in our society, she added.

“Now more than ever, we need to have both an understanding of that history, and of the ways that history contributes to a sense of possibility and vision for the future,” she said. “The creation of this department is right on time because our nation and our world need the kind of knowledge we produce.”

First on Griffin’s agenda is adding to the faculty and developing a Ph.D. program, work that will build on the 25- year legacy of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS). Founded in 1993 by the late Manning Marable (whom Griffin hopes to honor with an endowed chair) the multidisciplinary institute has been home to the field at Columbia. With the new department in place and producing the degrees and the research, IRAAS will continue to serve as a bridge between scholarship and public life, developing public programming, conferences and related efforts.

“Departments and academic institutions don’t produce knowledge for the moment, they produce knowledge for the long term,” said Griffin, who currently directs IRAAS.

She recently spoke to Columbia News about the state of the field of African American and African Diaspora Studies, the new department’s mission, and the social, political and cultural landscape that is the focus of its scholarly eye.

Q. Why is it important for this new department to be created at Columbia now?

A. It’s an investment in producing a kind of knowledge that is very useful and valuable for our country at any time, but especially at this moment—to remind us of our historical legacy, the ugly part but also the potential of it, and to remind ourselves of a vision of America that might not be what we’re engaging in right now. We also have an institutional commitment to creating just societies. African American and African Diaspora studies have always been at the forefront of studying such questions as what does a vision of a just society look like? What has that experience been like for those people who haven’t experienced our country as a just society? We need to have both an understanding of that history and also of a kind of visionary possibility. Even though we are later than many of our peers in taking this formal institutional step, it feels like we’re right on time because we’re needed right now.

Q. The Institute for Research in African-American Studies has been doing this work for some time. How will the creation of the new department change things?

A. I always have to remind people that African American and African Diaspora studies at Columbia are much older than IRAAS. What’s happening now is institutionalizing that work in the form of a department, because departments have the most power at universities, they have the most longevity. We haven’t had autonomy of hiring and tenure until now, but in terms of the books that have been produced, the articles, the essays, the classes, the graduates, and the influence—we’ve been doing that. Columbia has a great configuration of people who are widely recognized in the field. Now we are positioned to take a leadership role. We see ourselves as on the cutting edge of Columbia, the future. This is Columbia turning in new and exciting directions.

Q. By its nature African American and African Diaspora studies are multidisciplinary. How will the faculty accommodate the new department?

A. Our intention is for the faculty to expand. Currently, core faculty members have half-appointments in the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. They will now move to the new department, and we’ll all still be jointly appointed with our disciplines. Our plan is that most new hires will be 100 percent in the new department. We would like to bring in more academics with expertise in diaspora work. Our colleagues Steven Gregory, Frank Guridy, and Kellie Jones already focus on that, but we want to strengthen that area, and in ways that people don’t always think of. We’re also looking at the humanities, another literature position, perhaps adding to the sociology and political science aspects, even an economist, housed in the department. We have very strong relationships with history, with English, with anthropology, and those relationships will be maintained.

Q. Does the department’s definition of the diaspora include Africa or just people of African descent in the Americas?

A. It’s the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. African Studies is still formally housed in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies, and it will remain there. Africa should be studied all over the University. We’re in conversation about collaborations with African Studies, but I think the students and scholars we attract will be focused on the diaspora.

Q. Currently there are programs for both undergraduate and graduate students. Will those curricula change?

A.The undergraduate degree and the master’s degree will move into the department. We have a robust course offering, but as we build our faculty we will be less reliant upon the other departments to meet our curricular needs, to have our students meet their requirements. We also will propose a Ph.D. program because our master’s program is basically preparing our students to get doctorates elsewhere.

Q. What kind of public programming can we look forward to from the department in its first year?

A. We have scheduled our first conference for April 2019, on the state of the field in African American and African Diaspora studies, which will position us as leaders not only producing the knowledge, but as ones who can convene this kind of international gathering. And come fall there will be a symposium in recognition of 1619, marking the arrival of 20 Africans in the Jamestown settlement. Going forward, we will be involved in programming around the multi-year celebration of the Harlem Renaissance “New Negro” movement, because so much of IRAAS’ identity is its connection to Harlem.

Q. How did the field’s development lead to the founding of IRAAS?

A. The first departments and programs in many other colleges and universities were created in 1968 and 1969, largely because of student unrest. For its part, Columbia established a collection of courses in African American studies taught by adjunct faculty who were Harlem-based intellectuals. Then the University began to hire scholars like Charles Hamilton [a political scientist and civil rights leader who joined Columbia in 1969 and became one of the first African Americans to hold an academic chair at an Ivy League university]. Before the 1990s, many of the institutions created these departments, but didn’t invest in them. That’s when Columbia recruited a high powered, highly visible, highly energetic figure to come and do something with African American studies here, and Manning Marable arrived to create the institute. Because institutes report directly to the provost, IRAAS was pretty well resourced. The push for Ph.D. programs in African American Studies began in the early 2000s.

Q. Is this happening as we enter a second civil rights movement?

A. The first one never ended. Studying this history teaches us that this is a long struggle, and each generation has its responsibility and role to play. What I do love about this moment is the ways that young people are confronting what we’re up against, and they have been equipped with intellectual tools that I know come directly out of the work that people in this field have done. They use words that were produced 30 years ago in these burgeoning black feminist study groups. I think we’re producing knowledge for today, but we’re also producing knowledge for tomorrow.

Q. Black Lives Matter is the movement of the moment. Black or African American, are they different?

A. Our initial proposal was for Black Studies. And not many people were comfortable with that, it felt too based in a certain kind of identity, although in the field, and especially theoretically now, Black Studies is being re-embraced. Then we thought about what we actually do. There is this intellectual formation which is African American, and there’s African diaspora, and all of us are engaged in that in some way. We definitely see ways that the work we’ve produced is in a dialogue with what people are doing with Black Lives Matter, and that they are also helping to frame and shape our frameworks and the way we think about things.

Q. Do you believe scholars have a responsibility to be political?

A. I do. And I think that even those who say they aren’t political are political. African American studies at Columbia has always been engaged in important political questions. Simply by studying a people with the history that people in the diaspora have, showing that they have something to say—that’s political. Toni Morrison has said that slavery always existed, but no other group of slaves wrote more than those who came to the Americas. They wrote and they used the ideals of the Enlightenment that were being used against them. It has been the most consistent intellectual challenge to white supremacy because it imagines other possibilities.

Q. How important is Harlem to this field of scholarship?

A. Harlem is still central to African American life. For us it will always be central because it’s what makes us unique, that we’re right here and that Columbia’s libraries have been building up a great archive of Harlem intellectuals. New York is an extension of our campus—it’s all the institutions, all the things that are happening here on any given night. And this is where diaspora folk came. Being here changes a conception of what black is that is not true in other places. There’s always been a much more cosmopolitan sense of what black means here. And like I say to my students, Harlem has always had newspapers in all these different languages, English newspapers, Spanish newspapers, French newspapers, meetings in every language, church services. The world is changing, but that’s always been the case for New York.