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This Matters: AU Unveils New African American and African Diaspora Studies Major

By Gregg Sangillo

AU professor Theresa Runstedtler spoke at a September event rolling out the new African American and African Diaspora Studies major. Photo: Professor speaking at a lectern.

AU professor Theresa Runstedtler spoke at a September event rolling out the new African American and African Diaspora Studies major.

As American University rolls out its new African American and African Diaspora Studies major, much of the coursework is already in place. Yet forging this new program is a powerful symbol that the university is committed to this vital subject matter.

“It really gives more visibility to a lot of the classes that have been offered on campus already. It gives us the opportunity to now think about expanding the offerings, and potentially down the road expanding the number of faculty we have on campus to teach in this field,” says Theresa Runstedtler, an associate history professor who chairs the collaborative overseeing the new major. “When you have something being offered as a major, it speaks to the importance of that field on a university campus.”

AU associate literature professor Keith Leonard wrote the proposal for the African American and African Diaspora Studies major, an interdisciplinary program in the College of Arts and Sciences that is part of CAS’s Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies Collaborative (CRGC), which Runstedtler chairs. In an interview, she laid out the details of the African American and African Diaspora Studies discipline, and why students should consider signing up.

“We’re really excited about the launch of this. It’s been a long time coming,” she says. “It’s a way to really have a sustained conversation on this campus.”

The Larger Framework

That conversation has renewed significance, with racist incidents occurring at AU and on college campuses nationwide. Runstedtler notes that the rise of student activism around race and inclusion issues at AU helped make this program a reality.

“It really set the context for us to respond with something concrete. That we can say, ‘Hey, this is the time. We have the momentum.’ We’re now finally getting the faculty lines in various spaces on campus, to actually be able to mount something like a major,” she says.

On college campuses, racism is typically dealt with through student services, she says. But, she adds, these issues also should be integral to college curricula. “For those reasons, it was important for us to signal the legitimacy of African American and African Diaspora Studies as a field in its own right, and one that has its own interdisciplinary rigor. Just as sociology or history or any other field would have.”

In addition, majors like this help make U.S. colleges—which were generally founded on Western educational traditions—more global in theory and practice. “It works to try to decolonize, or decenter, some of the Eurocentric foundations of universities. Albeit in a very small way, it is gesturing to that,” she points out.

Though this major is new to the AU campus, Black studies courses in general became more prominent during the counterculture period of the late 1960s-to-early 1970s. AU Professor Ibram X. Kendi studied how these programs developed. “Black students provided the vision for black studies. Their activism led to its institutionalization,” wrote Kendi, in his book The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.

Coursework and Flexibility

In 2016, CAS launched the Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies Collaborative (CRGC). In addition to this new African American and African Diaspora Studies major, CRGC houses American Studies, Arab World Studies, Asian Studies, Multi-Ethnic Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The idea behind CRGC is to create something akin to a mini-college within a college, with a focus on marginalized groups.

“It puts them all in one unit, so that we now have more administrative support. We have a community of faculty who can confer with each other and brainstorm about curriculum,” she says.

The African American and African Diaspora Studies major will have a strong variety of course offerings in the coming year. There are classes on 20th century African American history (which Runstedtler teaches), black feminist thought, Black Lives Matter, and an examination of race, gender, and sexuality through the music of Kendrick Lamar.

Runstedtler says the interdisciplinary program will provide students flexibility, in case they want to double major with a more professionally focused degree. There will also be an internship component—the abundance of civil rights organizations, think tanks, museums, and historical sites in DC, should give program majors plenty of options.

“The typical AU student doesn’t want to just do what’s related to the classroom. They want to figure out how to put that into action off campus as well,” she says.

Growing and Elevating

Though there was an African American and African Diaspora Studies minor—which students can still take—Runstedtler believes elevating this to a major will make it more visible. While this may help empower black students, she thinks the major is about more than personal identity.

“It’s also about saying, ‘We have to critically study this, because we can’t contextualize the present without understanding the historical context and its ongoing manifestations,’” she explains. “And it’s not just about the history of white supremacy, but a larger worldview that’s developed in the context of African American slavery and the creation of black communities.”

Drawing on her time as a student, Runstedtler notes that people of all races and backgrounds usually take these classes, and she believes white students can benefit from the experience as well. At the outset, though, she assumes the number of student-majors will be modest.

“But the major has to be there,” she says. “If you don’t create it, then there’s no opportunity for it to ever grow.”