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African American Studies Ph.D. Program to Begin Academic Year 2006-07

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March 7, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University will become the seventh university to offer a Ph.D. in African American Studies -- and the first to be located in as large and diverse a metropolitan area as Chicago -- when its doctoral program begins in September. Between four and six students are expected to start in the fall.

Northwestern’s program will build on faculty strength in the field of African American studies at Northwestern and throughout Chicago. “Chicago is well known as a city rich in black history and cultural institutions. Within academia, it also is known as home to the largest contingent of relatively young scholars working in the field today,” says Richard Iton. Iton is associate professor in the African American Studies department and its director of graduate studies.

“Students in our doctoral program will be in a position not only to access the resources of Northwestern’s African American studies department. They also will have access to a multi-institutional community of scholars in Chicago who will work together to train them,” Iton says. “Black studies faculty at Northwestern, University of Chicago, University of Illinois Chicago and DePaul University already cooperate across institutions.”

The Northwestern Ph.D. program will focus on three substantive areas: expressive arts, literature and cultural studies; politics, society and policy; and history. In addition, it will have strong black queer studies and Diaspora studies components. The program is expected to rival the nation’s strongest black studies programs, including those at Yale, Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley.

As an academic discipline, African American studies is relatively new, with roots in black activist politics of the late 1960s and 1970s. “And while those roots are still relevant,” says

Iton, “scholars working in this highly interdisciplinary field have done a lot of path-breaking scholarly work in history, the humanities and the social sciences.”

African American studies is by its nature an interdisciplinary field that combines scholarship by past and present historians; political scientists; sociologists; cultural, literary and performance studies critics; and scholars working on diverse topics and constructions of class race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. The Ph.D. program will draw upon core faculty in African American studies and faculty affiliates from Northwestern’s schools of communication, education and social policy, music, and law as well as the Weinberg College of Arts and Science.

Core faculty members include Dwight A. McBride, chair and Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies, and Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and professor of history.

Hine is a leading historian of the African American experience who helped establish the field of black women’s history and is one of its most prolific scholars. McBride is author of “Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality” and “Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism and Slave Testimony.” 

Like many black studies programs and departments, Northwestern’s Department of African American Studies rose out of protests in the late 1960s by black undergraduates. A sit-in in which students demanded the addition of African American history, literature and art to Northwestern’s curriculum contributed to the establishment of the African American studies department in 1972.

Northwestern’s doctoral program will provide students with historical background in the experiences of people of African descent, analytic preparation to carry out rigorous empirical research, and professional development to pursue careers within and outside of academia.

Some contemporary critics argue that black studies departments are more concerned today about creating a dialogue with the largely white academic world and have lost touch with their community or activist links. “This continues to be a lively debate,” says Iton. “However, academic programs are not graded on their activist commitments and African American studies is not much different in that regard.”

Topics: University