Revived Africana studies major brings 'the other half of the story' back to Buffalo State
Buffalo State is the first SUNY campus to get funding for new hires as part of an initiative to increase faculty diversity, and the first thing the college is doing with those funds is reviving a long-defunct Africana studies major.
For Dr. Marcus Du Bois Watson, the journey to becoming a professor of Africana studies started at birth.
“I was named for Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois, who are two prominent Black freedom fighters in our history,” Watson told WBFO. “And my brother’s name is Malcolm.”
Watson is one of three new hires starting at Buffalo State this fall, all of whom are African American men. And for him, assuming the title of assistant professor of individualized studies and Africana studies at Buffalo State in August marked a homecoming.
“When I look out at the students, I see myself,” Watson said. “And I don’t mean in the literal sense of Black students. I mean all the students, the diversity of students. This is where I grew up [in Buffalo] in a very diverse albeit segregated community.”
Watson said that, like many African American children, he was raised with a “side curriculum” taught by his parents and family members, outside of school, about Black history. That helped him understand how American society and education often overlook the contributions and perspectives of people of African descent.
“Our cultures [and] histories deserve mention as opposed to being silenced or just absent or objectified in curricula,” said Watson, who went on to complete a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Cornell University. Now, after teaching for nine years at the University of Wyoming, Watson is helping bring an Africana studies major back to Buffalo State for the first time since the early 1980s.
Watson described Africana studies, sometimes called Black studies or African American studies, as a discipline that centers African people globally.
Many programs focus on history, literature and foreign languages and culture, which the Buffalo State major will include, but program coordinator and professor of history Dr. Kenneth Orosz said it will stand out by also offering philosophy and arts-based electives, among other interdisciplinary courses.
Orosz got involved with the Africana studies minor when he joined Buffalo State in 2008. Since then, there’s been growing demand from students for greater diversity in terms of both faculty and program offerings. That’s what SUNY’s Promoting Recruitment, Opportunity, Diversity, Inclusion and Growth (PRODI-G) initiative aims to achieve across the state university network.
The tenured and tenure-track SUNY faculty is currently 78% white, according to a 2017 SUNY report, even though the population of New York State is only about 65% white. Black professors make up just 4% of SUNY’s faculty while representing about 16% of the state’s population. Similarly, Latinx and Hispanics represent 3% of the faculty but make up 18% of the population.
With the PRODI-G initiative, SUNY’s goal is to roughly double the percentage of faculty it considers as representing “underrepresented groups”—8.5%—within the next decade. Buffalo State is the first SUNY campus to get salary support through the program and it still has funding for two more hires.
Joining Watson as the first PRODI-G hires are Dr. Cameron Herman, assistant professor of sociology, and Dr. John Torrey, assistant professor of philosophy. Both Herman and Torrey will teach courses that satisfy requirements for sociology, philosophy and the new Africana Studies major.
“Africana Studies seeks to understand from the perspective of people whose voices have been marginalized,” said Herman, who previously taught at Northern Arizona University. “We’re not talking just about Black people and people of African descent, we’re asking what people of African descent and Black people, how they make sense of the world. How do we make sense of the world?”
Herman specializes in how marginalized groups experience and navigate inequality in urban environments, and he looks forward to engaging with the Buffalo community beyond the university.
“When we’re walking this street in 2019 in Buffalo, how do people in Buffalo understand what’s happening in the city around them? What kind of knowledge is produced, what kind of ideas are produced from that perspective?”
Torrey joined Buffalo State as a visiting professor in 2018. His research interests are unique in that they combine social and political philosophy and African American philosophy.
“It’s very peculiar to discuss freedom and rationality when the same people who are discussing freedom and rationality are settler colonialists or they’re carving up Africa and the scramble for Africa or they’re slave owners,” Torrey said. “These, to me, are natural philosophical discussions, but unfortunately, across the discipline, and I guess not here at Buff State either until now, we haven’t been able to have those conversations enough.”
On a recent Friday, Watson played Common’s “A Song for Assata” as students—mostly Black, but a few white—trickled into his introduction to Africana studies course. He plays a different student-suggested song before each class.
“A Song for Assata” pays tribute to the former Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur, a Black icon who was convicted for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper in 1977, escaped from prison and now lives in exile in Cuba. Shakur was the first woman to make the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, and her case remains controversial.
The music is just one way Watson’s class is different from others. Three students WBFO spoke to said they’re learning about subjects they’ve never encountered before.
“It’s still early [in the semester], that’s what’s crazy. It’s still early and I’ve learned so much about things that I’ve never heard of,” said Aniyah Williams, 20, a junior biology major from Brooklyn.
Williams said she’s taking Watson’s class to get a “sense of home.” She attended a predominantly Black high school with mostly African American teachers, and she said it’s been difficult to have only one or two Black professors since starting at Buffalo State.
Similarly, Matthew Miles, 19, a sophomore industrial technology major from Long Island, said Watson is the first Black professor he’s ever had.
“I feel this effort to increase diversity on campus and have the faculty [become] more representative of the student population would be, like, unbelievable, to just one day to be able to go speak with somebody who more understands where I’m coming from,” Miles said.
Miles isn’t considering changing his major, but he said he decided to take Watson’s course because he recognized that a lot of Black history was missing from the education he received up until now.
“It’s almost like not getting told the whole story and then kind of getting told the other half, like, way later. It’s just interesting to see how everything played out.”
Creasha Caldwell, 22, is another student in Watson’s introductory course. She’s a Buffalo native and a junior studying criminal justice.
“This is important to me because I feel like history repeats itself,” Caldwell said. “It’s a lot of police brutality still going on currently. It’s still a lot of segregation, a lot of racial tension, especially between the Black community and the criminal justice system.”
Caldwell told WBFO she thinks the new Africana studies major is important for students like her who grew up in Buffalo, which is one of the country’s most racially-divided cities. Echoing Buffalo State’s new professors, she also said Africana studies isn’t just for Black students.
“A lot of racism or prejudices and discomfort comes from being uneducated [or] misinformed,” she said. “If people of other races take the class and they start to understand, there can be more empathy and then more understanding between one another. So, I think it’s very important because with Africana studies it’s not just for us to know about ourselves. It’s for everyone as a whole to get both sides of the bigger picture in America.”