MSU African American and African studies seeks “technologies of living for survival into wellness"
On this segment of MSU Today, we explore the vision, mission and values of Michigan State University's Department of African American and African Studies.
We do so with Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, the Inaugural Chairperson and Professor of AAAS, Dr. Tamura Lomax, Foundational Associate Professor of AAAS, Dr. Kristie Dotson, Executive Academic Advisor to AAAS and Professor of Philosophy, and Dr. April Baker-Bell, continuing member of the transition team and Associate Professor of Language, Literacy and English Education.
“The African American and African Studies at Michigan State University (AAAS) began as a program in 2002,” says Dotson. “What was unique about it is that it was a program that was PhD granting. It did not have an undergraduate arm, but it did offer PhDs. One of the things the department is working toward on is a real commitment to supporting Black people, helping to facilitate and create cultural workers in Black communities, and to Black sovereignty.”
I was excited to read about AAAS's core areas and feminism, genders and sexuality studies,” Brown says, in talking about what attracted her to AAAS at MSU, “I was excited by the new build of this department and what we would create. It would be collectively oriented and anew, which meant that this work is bigger than any one person. And I'm interested always in being a part of something that will have impact for generations. The call for that integral chairperson position affirms my long-held commitment to ways that affirm Black communities and Black thought life.”
“The timing, the opportunity, and the people all aligned for me,” says Lomax. “Anyone who knows the history of Black studies knows that the emphasis on Black feminism is revolutionary. I don't mean in terms of offering a few classes here and there or sprinkling Black women faculty here and there. I mean literally to specifically and unapologetically center and weave Black feminism in our curriculum and our values, and our bylaws.
“The second thing is that we share a collective statement and the wellbeing of the whole, that's very important to Black feminism because, just to paraphrase Anna Julia Cooper, ‘When Black women are centered, everyone else's centered too.’ That is what drew me to the department. When I understood the vision for where this department could possibly go, I wanted to be here.”
“We insist that Black studies uncovers and creates technologies of living for all Black people in Black futures,” adds Brown. “When we say Black people, we mean all Black people. When we say Black futures, that is to say beyond survival into wellness, that is our vision that we created together. It guides our work, it guides our interactions, it guides our curriculum, and it will guide the work that we continue to do in the new build.”
“We have three organizing inquiries that motivate and sustain our work: Black Cultures and Institutions, Black Girlhood Studies, and Black Speculative Ecologies,” Dotson adds. “We specialize in community and cultural works, cultivating radical imagination, and collective revolutionary knowledge production. As a unit we are committed to making concrete connections between our scholarship, pedagogy, and social justice.”
“One of the main opportunities and challenges that is before us is that we have an opportunity to shape students who will go out and create alternative futures,” Lomax says. “I’m expecting them to go out and fight for this world, this other world that we want, where everyone can be a part of it and everyone can be a part of it in terms of wealth. One where everyone is living well and has an opportunity to access wellness. Right now that's not the case. But Black folks know that it's not been the case forever than in the United States.
“This is an opportunity for MSU to say who they are through the work that we do. There is a history, there's a narrative, that's not so good. It is important that we do well and that this work is supported. There's a lot at stake for us personally, there's a lot at stake for the institution, there's a lot at stake for the department. We need it to do well. For me, I need it to do well because I need to see this future that I've been dreaming about.”
“This is the department we've all been waiting for,” says Baker Bell. “This is the department we've needed for a very long time. I needed this department as an undergraduate student. I'm thinking about my daughter; this is the department she will need to be part of to explain our history and to map out the future we need. I'm so excited about what this will mean for our future students to come, not just at Michigan State, but everywhere. How is this particular department going to transform Black studies all around the country? I'm really excited and hopeful. I think it's so necessary. It's been necessary, but I'm really excited about the work that we’re going to do.”
The group discusses some its short and long term goals and some of the challenges and opportunities to reaching the goals, especially during a global pandemic. And they describe how people can participate in the evolution of the department.