East magazine Winter 2009

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Visiting Africa, Coming Home

By Marion Blackburn

/Users/stevetuttle/Desktop/Links/AfricanAmericanAn experience thousands of miles away changed everything back home for Catherine Rosario. On a trip to the West African nation of Ghana with other students in ECU’s new African and African American Studies program, she felt a powerful emotional connection that awakened a deeper understanding of herself.

“When I went to Africa and studied some of my history, it brought it all back home to me,” says Rosario, 59, one of the first students to major in the program. “Sometimes, it’s as if we are proud of our culture as African Americans, but we still try to be like others. When we were in Africa, we were more free to be ourselves.”

Her experience is one of the reasons the program encourages students majoring in the degree to study abroad, says David Dennard, director. Visiting a successful African nation shows the truth about this vast and complex continent. “Their experience was a kind of defining moment for them,” he says. “It allowed them to get a view of Africa close up, and it’s nothing like what you see on TV. We’re trying to help students understand the African and African American experience by understanding Africa, the Caribbean and North America.”

While African American studies once caused a stir on college campuses, ECU’s new program is generating excitement of a different kind. Now heading into its second year, African and African American Studies attracts students seeking a wider perspective on themselves—and the world. They want to learn about Africa and the dispersal of Africans from their home continent around the world as slaves.

For ECU, which peacefully integrated its own campus in 1963, the new major is a benchmark. “This program says that the university is turning another corner,” says Dennard, a professor of history. “Our students come from the Millennial Generation, and their concerns are different. They are not viewing the world in the same way as Baby Boomers have. They’ve been shaped by different forces.”

African and African American Studies weaves together courses from several departments—history, political science, music, art, language and geography. Students plumb the journeys of Africans to the Americas, exploring modern Africa as well as slavery and the Diaspora that resulted. They also probe how these historic cross-cultural currents produced some of mankind’s greatest art forms, including jazz.

The first course that students take introduces them to the history and ongoing issues among African peoples, both in Africa and around the world. Lectures in the course, which Dennard teaches, include “Freedom Struggles and Emancipation” and “Religion in the Diaspora.” Students hear jazz music, learn about dance and examine today’s health, class and economic disparities.

The program took shape in part to satisfy demands for programs emphasizing global cultures. It also answers many students’ personal and academic need to better understand the African American experience. Indeed, the program is part of a national current in African American studies that places emphasis on research and community service, he says.

“The first programs of this kind were usually established at historically white colleges and universities, when African Americans were first being admitted, and they found their schools were not offering information about their history and identity,” he says. “In some cases, they were managed by activists, and not by the academicians. We have moved away from that. Today, African and African American Studies are standardized academic programs, with scholarship and research.”

At ECU, other factors are at work. Today’s campus is more ethnically diverse than ever: 16 percent of the student body is African American, and nearly 5 percent of students trace themselves to other minority groups. There are students from 56 foreign countries as well. What’s more, students are seeking disciplines that invite long-term research opportunities and offer advanced degrees. For career-minded students, the degree provides a solid foundation for careers in social work, health care—even at museums and state historical sites.

No matter what their future path, all students need to understand the larger world around them, Dennard says. Changes here and abroad mean almost certain contact with people from other cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Study abroad, act at home

Last summer, students spent 15 days in Ghana, one of Africa’s most successfully developed nations. “African Americans have a close relationship with Ghana,” Dennard says. “Ghana has been a progressive leader in Africa, by throwing off the yoke of colonialism in 1957, before the other African countries.”

Students toured fortified “slave castles” or forts where Africans were held, often for months at a time, awaiting ships for transport. These forts were run by Europeans, first the Portuguese and Dutch and later the English.

Back on campus, students are collaborating on projects that explore solutions to pressing social problems with particular relevance to the African American community, such as underage drinking, affordable housing and racial profiling. They examine theoretical information and its practical applications, and develop their own recommendations for improvement. There is a strong emphasis on devising solutions for the community, Dennard says. “Students in this program benefit from their own academic development, but they’ll also be able to change their communities,“ he says.

Sunday Ajose, a native of Nigeria who has been on faculty since 1988, chaired the committee that developed the African and African American Studies program. Although his primary appointment is in math education, he became interested in African and African American Studies when he realized he knew more about his adopted American home than about his native one.
“Though I am an American, I still love Nigeria very much,” Ajose says. “It’s a very dynamic country. I believe very strongly in the concept of ‘Know yourself.’ It’s important to understand your history, and for African Americans, there is an African part of our history and an American part.

“It’s also important for people who are not minorities at ECU to know the true history of African peoples. This program will broaden their views, and make them better students. In the end, they’ll be better able to understand the world.”

For Rosario, whose parents were share­croppers, visiting Ghana means thinking about her life and future in a different way. “Until we can understand everything together, we can never bring about change,” she says. “We have to understand one another.”