Brandeis’ African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) Department was founded on April 24, 1969, not long after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The department was formed after 70 black students occupied Ford and Sydeman Halls with a list of 10 demands to better their representation. The students, led by Roy DeBerry ’70 and Ricardo Millet ’68, publicly refused to leave the occupied buildings until every demand on the list was met. The list included ideas such as the expansion of minority recruitment, the introduction of scholarships exclusively for black students and the establishment of an African Studies program. While not all of the demands on the list could be satisfied, the students did eventually agree to leave Ford and Sydeman halls, and the school did fulfill one of the requests, establishing of the African and Afro-American Studies Department.
Since its establishment, the AAAS Department has blossomed into an enthusiastic and scholarly community. The department is active on campus, holding a wide range of open events. Recently, it held a screening of the movie “Selma,” a talk on hip hop and social change and candlelight vigils for victims of police violence. Many of these events are organized and attended by the department’s accomplished professors. One of the most striking things about the AAAS professors is their incredibly diverse fields of expertise, which range from feminism to Caribbean literature to military history.
Despite the high levels of achievement among the faculty, Department Chair Professor Chad Williams believes that the students are the department’s most admirable aspect. He described his students as “serious and dedicated,” proudly proclaiming that they “never cease to surprise [him] with their brilliance.”
Black history is an integral part of social justice at Brandeis, even outside of the AAAS program. Groups like the Brandeis Black Student Organization, the Queer People of Color Coalition and the Women of Color Alliance keep issues related to racial minorities at the forefront of on-campus political and social discourse. The combined power of organizations geared toward black students and the AAAS Department promote and maintain a widespread awareness of racial issues. Many of Brandeis’ black programs and organizations are at the center of social justice and political discourse more than ever, and their history is far from over.
The AAAS Department plans to continue maximizing its influence and broadening its horizons. Williams’ goals for the department include “increasing excitement,” “broadening faculty” and building “a new level of interest amongst Brandeis students.” While most Brandeis students show some interest in racial justice, many are unaware of the legacy of the AAAS program and how its students have fought for that justice. During Black History Month (along with all the other months), it is important that we acknowledge the efforts of black student activists. The tragic killing of Michael Brown, and the protests and vigils held at our school in his honor, serve as a grim reminder of the social importance of African Studies programs. The presence of the AAAS Department increases campus awareness of racial issues, provides a historical and intellectual context for current activism and creates a network of support for future black leaders. Professor Williams describes the AAAS Department as “part of the struggle” of the black American experience. It’s important that we remember the department’s history, as well as the universal history of black students.