New Department Augments the Study of African Americans and the African Diaspora

Caroline Harting
December 03, 2018

On Saturday, December 1, Columbia University’s Board of Trustees voted to confirm the creation of the African American and African Diaspora Studies department. This new department will bring a fresh approach to the discipline at a crucial moment in race relations and black identity within our society.

Since the early 20th century, Columbia has played a significant role in African American studies. “Now, more than ever, we need to have both an understanding of that history, but we also need to understand the ways that history contributes to a sense of possibility and vision for the future. Even though we are later than many of our peers, the creation of this department at Columbia is right on time because our nation and our world need the kind of knowledge we produce,” said Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies, who will lead the department as its first chair.

“The establishment of this department serves as a powerful, public acknowledgment of the centrality of African American and African Diaspora studies to all fields of scholarly inquiry,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. “As a university community deeply concerned not only with studying the past, but also with addressing the challenges of today, we could not be more grateful to all involved in making this happen.”

“The strength of our existing faculty in this area and intellectual adjacencies to our top-ranked departments puts us in an immediate position of academic leadership in research, teaching and public outreach in African American and African Diaspora studies,” said Maya Tolstoy, interim executive vice president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “There is enormous enthusiasm from the faculty for the importance of this department both intellectually and academically. It is an exciting and historic moment for Arts and Sciences.”

Long before there was a formalized center for African American studies, leading intellectuals and scholars such as Zora Neale Hurston, Charles V. Hamilton and Hollis Lynch engaged in research and teaching at Columbia. In 1993, Dr. Manning Marable was recruited to the University, where he created the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), a unique, multidisciplinary community that continues to bridge scholarship, teaching and public life. IRAAS will continue to function as an institute, providing rich opportunities to conduct research alongside the new department.

"The late Manning Marable founded IRAAS 25 years ago and it has gone from strength to strength. However, while institutes at Columbia exist to cut across disciplines, African American and African Diaspora studies is itself a discipline. As such, it is entirely appropriate that we create this new department and, in fact, it is long overdue,” said David Madigan, statistics professor and former executive vice president and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences until earlier this year.

In addition to hiring faculty in the field of African American and African Diaspora studies, the new department will be creating a Ph.D. program to produce additional innovative scholarship. Recognizing the significance of being located in Harlem, a center of black cultural life in the United States, the department will continue to reach out to the community around the University.

“Departments and academic institutions don’t produce knowledge for the moment, they produce knowledge for the long term,” said Griffin, who currently directs the Institute for Research in African American Studies. “Creating a new department is an investment in producing knowledge that is valuable for our country at any time, but especially at this moment, as it reminds us of an historical legacy as well as a vision of America that we need to engage more now than ever.”