Posted April 14, 2008

African American Studies Doctoral program turns 20

At a recent graduate student conference, the doctoral program, the first in the nation in African American studies, was recognized as the model for all that followed.

Twenty years ago, Molefi Asante, then the chair of Temple University’s Department of African American Studies, created the country’s first doctoral program in that discipline.

This past weekend, that legacy was celebrated at the 19th annual AYA Spring Conference for Graduate Students. AYA, which is the official African American studies graduate student organization, is named for a Ghanaian Andinkra symbol

meaning “fern” and is a symbol of endurance and resourcefulness.

The event, held at Walk Auditorium in Ritter Hall, brought together 64 presenters from 32 colleges and universities including the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Yale University, Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, the University of Notre Dame and Johns Hopkins University. It was the largest African American studies graduate student conference in the country, said Ibram H. Rogers, a doctoral student in the Department of African American Studies and one of the conference organizers..

But many of the programs from which the student researchers hail wouldn’t have been possible where it not for the work that Asante and his colleagues did 20 years ago to create Temple’s program.

Creating the program wasn’t easy, Asante said. There was some resistance from other departments at Temple to having a doctoral program that looked at the world through an afrocentric prism. An afrocentric worldview puts black people at the center of whatever subject or cultural phenomenon is being discussed.

But it was with the goal of giving the afrocentric viewpoint a prominent place at Temple that then-President Peter Liacouras brought Asante from the State University of New York at Buffalo, he said.

“When he interviewed me, he told me that he wanted the university to have the best African American studies program in the nation,” Asante said. “He said that it was imperative, especially in Philadelphia.”

The first class of 37 African American studies Ph.D. students was seated in 1988 and became the first group to pursue the study at the highest level of academia. Since then, 125 Ph.D. students have graduated from the program, according to the Encyclopedia of Black Studies.

Asante, who was the keynote speaker at the AYA conference’s awards luncheon, is proud of the program’s place in the history of African American studies education.

“It’s successful in that it has been a model for other programs,” he said.