Building upon the Past while Shaping the Future: Columbia’s New Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies

By Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, first chair of the newly formed African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University
June 13, 2019

The creation of the new African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia marks an important development in the history of the field at the University and beyond. The department builds upon existing strengths—including a vibrant and productive faculty, field-defining research, and exciting, informative programming—while providing a unique opportunity to produce new knowledge, strengthen existing relationships with the surrounding community, and create new ones globally.

Throughout Columbia’s history, scholars—such as anthropologist Franz Boas, his graduate student Zora Neale Hurston, and decades later the esteemed political scientist Charles Hamilton and others—contributed to the development of African American and African Diaspora Studies while also informing and transforming more traditional academic disciplines. By the late 1960s, as was the case throughout the United States, the University strengthened course offerings in the field following student protests. In 1993, faculty already engaged in the field recruited the late Manning Marable to establish the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS). The founding of IRAAS was a major step toward strengthening the University’s relationship to its neighboring community and increasing its presence in the field. Professor Marable firmly established Columbia as a leading center in the study of black political thought and socially engaged scholarship. IRAAS’s explicit focus on the black experience in Harlem and other parts of New York gave, and continues to give, Columbia’s African American studies its distinctive urban vision.

The new Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies takes IRAAS’s strong foundation of scholarship and teaching on the African Diaspora, urbanism, political and religious thought, cultural studies, and critically engaged research in new and exciting directions. Our faculty publishes across several disciplines that speak to audiences both within and outside of the University. Given this rich and diverse background—along with the ongoing production of award-winning scholarship, innovative teaching, and impactful programming—our faculty trains students to engage in and shape contemporary intellectual conversations and debates about the study of the African Diaspora, as well as address always important policy concerns regarding neoliberalism, housing, education, criminal justice, health, and other pressing issues. Our proximity to and long-standing relationship with the historic community of Harlem provides a wealth of opportunities for students and faculty to pursue these interests in partnership with neighboring institutions. In addition, the history, culture, institutions, and people of Harlem continue to inform, ignite, and inspire an important creative and intellectual relationship that benefits all of us.

We anticipate bringing new faculty who build upon existing strengths and expand our course offerings on subject matter outside the national boundaries of the United States. In addition, through collaborative projects with existing community partners and newly created ones in Latin America, the Caribbean, and South Africa (to name a few potential sites), we hope to extend the work we do both within and far beyond the walls of the University.

At this time in the history of our University, our community, our nation, and indeed the very planet upon which we live, the new African American and African Diaspora Studies Department plays a vital role in training students to be engaged and informed global citizens, conducting research that helps foster a greater understanding of the challenges that confront us, and building and sustaining strong community ties both within and outside the gates of Columbia University.

This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of The Columbia Newsletter, which is available for download.