African American Studies (AAS) came into the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) as a department in 1979. Prior to becoming a department, it existed as a program for eight years (since 1971). As a program, AAS had no affiliation with CAS or any other college or university within Syracuse University (SU). It was academically isolated, under-resourced, and its prospects of surviving the 1970s were slim. According to Professor and current Department Chair, Renate Simson, when AAS was a program, “the students who took our courses could not fulfill any kinds of requirements by taking those courses. They could not fill their primary requirements. They could not fulfill their secondary requirements. So they were just taking them because they were interested.”
In 1979, AAS became an institution and a force within SU and, once it became a department, within the field of Black Studies. The decision to become a department was not made lightly. The faculty was split, with some members wanting the program to dissolve and have Black studies covered in traditional departments like English and History by professors who happened to be interested in having the study of the creative and intellectual contributions of African Americans as central subjects in their courses. However, the setback to this approach was that there was “no real commitment on the part of the people in the department[s] that existed to teach those courses”, because their first obligation was teaching departmental/non-AAS courses. Moreover, “these departments had not taught courses in African American Studies before.” Driven by the pursuit to have Syracuse University critically and consistently commit to Black Studies, most AAS faculty pressed the university into becoming a department within CAS in 1979.
Ten years later (1989), AAS had a strong foundation and a burgeoning enrollment. However, it had few new faculty hires, faculty post-doctoral positions, and no teaching assistants. To resolve the prospect of being overworked and not recognized for excellent scholarship and teaching, AAS faculty, including Professors Renate Simson and Janis Mayes, successfully worked with SU in creating a set of bylaws, called the 13-Point Document, that institutionally fostered departmental growth and status. In this document, departmental provisions are made for items such as new faculty hires, faculty post-docs and teaching assistantships—provisions that created a path for the department to expand in faculty size, the visiting professorships of esteemed scholars like Patricia McFadden and Angela Davis (2008-2010), and the creation of the Masters Program, Pan-African Studies (2005).
Additionally, even prior to SU adopting “Scholarship in Action” as its current mission, AAS has been connecting its scholarship to the Syracuse community since its inception. This has been most notably done thru affiliated programs such as the Community Folk Art Center (formerly the Community Folk Art Gallery) (1971), Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company (1989-2010), and the Africa Initiative (2005). Other affiliated programs include The Martin Luther King Library, Paris Noir Summer Abroad Program, and Black Syracuse Community History & Mapping Project.
Looking forward, AAS continues to strengthen its foundation and thrive as a Black studies unit founded under stress during the first generation of Black Studies departments and programs in the late-1960s-70s. For Professor Simson, “Students have really been our allies all the way through. From the formation of the program way back around 1970 to getting into the College of Arts and Sciences to the 13-Point Document, the students have really been big allies here. They were very supportive of the department and also supportive when the MLK library was established—[i.e.,] they contributed [the] first books.”
Written by Professor Herb Ruffin II on behalf of AAS Department.
Professor Renate Simson was interviewed by Herb Ruffin at Syracuse University on 22 November 2010.
Interview was transcribed by Kendell Bryant, Class of 2011.
Edited by Renate Simson and Genevieve Beenen.