A Perspective on African American Studies

Medgar Evers

As an academic discipline, African American Studies (formerly Black Studies) has been a field of study at major research universities for nearly forty years. Courses in the field were first offered on college campuses in the late 1960s, in response to the civil rights movement and the demands of African American students and their allies for an educational experience that was relevant and inclusive of the history and culture of black people. Since then, African American Studies has evolved into a prominent field of study, offering certificate or minor concentrations, undergraduate and graduate degrees, including the doctorate.

But the study of the black experience predates the modern civil rights movement. Researchers-journalists, historians, sociologists, and literary writers-have been engaged in writing about the African American experience since the eighteenth century. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Dubois, and Richard Wright, are among those pioneering thinkers who provided a positive interpretation of the black past that emphasized the active involvement and important contributions made by African descended peoples in the U.S. Of course, Carter G. Woodson, who, in 1926, started "Negro History Week" to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African Americans, also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (Association for the Study of African American Life and History). Today, some of the most prominent scholars in the United States, including Derrick Bell, John Hope Franklin, Alvin Poussiant, Darlene Clark Hine and Nell Irvin Painter, produce work in the field.

Myrlie Evers-Williams

Why African American Studies? African American Studies is one way to ensure that students get a balanced and thoughtful representation of black people. Historically, black Americans were excluded, marginalized, or described in unfavorable ways in print and in the media. Today, African American Studies provides an intellectual forum that fosters an active and critical exploration of the ongoing dynamics, traditions, histories, and contributions of people of African descent in American society as well as the in the broader global arena.

Students taking courses in African American Studies also benefit from being better prepared for their experiences in an increasingly diverse and global community. All students, regardless of discipline or career path, stand to benefit from the deeper understanding of social issues and questions courses in African American Studies will explore.

Are you wondering how African American Studies can help you after graduation? The faculty in the African American and African Studies Department at the University of Minnesota answered this question for their students, and their findings are summarized in After Graduation (PDF).