Black histories and Black futures

Professors and students reflect on 50 years of Black studies at Penn.

herman beavers lecturing with students
Herman Beavers teaches a course, Lynching in the U.S.: Rhetoric and Representation, 1885-2015, during the 2018 Africana Summer Institute.

When the global pandemic first blew up, Gigi Varlotta had to consider their options. “What do I actually want out of my Penn experience?” they asked themself while quarantining at home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I need to take the classes I like in the things that I care about.” For Varlotta, that was Africana studies.

“Africana studies is English, history, and political science, through the lens of race and 400 years of oppression,” says Varlotta, now a junior Africana Studies major with a Spanish minor. Later events in 2020, including the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, only reaffirmed their decision. Varlotta, who identifies as Latinx, is interested in exploring the intersection of education and race. As a product of Pennsylvania public schools whose parents are both educators, Varlotta had a front-row seat to the issues they’re now learning about on a systemic level. “Whatever you are looking to do after school … this is one of the best majors because it makes you think critically about race relations, how systems of oppression manifest in our daily life, and solutions grounded in justice,” they say.

Africana Studies includes an academic department, which offers an undergraduate major and minor and a doctoral program, and 14 standing faculty members. The Center for Africana Studies also falls under the Africana Studies umbrella, supporting faculty research and hosting cocurricular programming, including faculty lectures and the annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture in Social Justice.

When you are teaching African American history, you never have to try to convince students about the relevancy of what they’re learning, because the contemporary resonances are so present and so in their face. Barbara Savage, professor of Africana studies

Programs are always free and open to the public, a purposeful aspect of Penn’s community engagement, says Camille Charles, the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences, professor of sociology and Africana studies, Africana Studies Department chair, and faculty director of the office of Penn First Plus. “We have a lot to offer the student body in terms of their liberal arts education,” she says. “We offer courses that bring the community in or take our students out into the community,” both within both the Philadelphia community as well as the broader global community. Charles hopes to continue this endeavor and to expand Africana’s reach as the department marks its 10th year of existence and 50 years of Black studies at Penn.

Student activism

It’s the winter of 1969. More than 800 students stage a six-day College Hall sit-in to protest the construction of the new University City Science Center—and the military research it was conducting—at the expense of 2,653 West Philadelphia residents in an area once known as the Black Bottom. In the heyday of anti-war protests and counterculture activism, the students asked for the end of military research at the Science Center, student and community involvement in Penn’s growth, and a commitment to affordable housing.

black studies article
A Philadelphia Daily News article from Feb. 6, 1976, notes that Penn offered 24 Afro-American studies courses per semester, compared to the 71 courses listed for the spring 2022 semester. “In the late ’60s, people would say, ‘these courses counteract the oppressor society,’” former director Houston A. Baker is quoted as saying. “Today they say, ‘I’m taking this class because it really interests me.’” (Image: Courtesy of University Archives)

Nine members of the Trustees’ student affairs committee happened to be on campus during this time for a scheduled meeting with the Society for African and Afro-American Students, the precursor to the current Black Student League (BSL). Society members canceled their meeting to create space for the sit-in leaders to negotiate with the Trustees, according to the book “Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000,” written by John L. Puckett, professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Education, and Mark Frazier Lloyd, the former University archivist.

“There was a sense that we were in a common struggle together against racism, against militarism, for peace, for issues of equity and an anti-racist society,” says Ira Harkavy, who, as a Penn undergraduate, was a leader of the sit-in, and currently serves as associate vice president and founding director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. He remembers collaborating with leaders from the Black community, as well as student leaders such as Cathy Barlow, who played an important role in the sit-in and was later instrumental in establishing the W.E.B. DuBois House. “Without the Black leaders from West Philadelphia who worked with the students, I’m convinced that things would not have worked out the way they did,” Harkavy says of the successful and nonviolent resolution of the sit-in.

professor washington speaks to students
Joseph R. Washington, Jr., professor of religious studies and former director of the Afro-American studies Program, speaks with students Donna Stockton and Michael Randolph in this image from the November 1980 issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette. (Image: Joan Ruggles, courtesy of The Pennsylvania Gazette.

The result of this, the largest demonstration in Penn’s history, included a new commitment to Black students. The following fall, 150 Black students were admitted (up from 40 the year prior), 31 of whom were from West Philadelphia High School, in a new pledge to the community, as noted in Wayne Glasker’s book, “Black Students in the Ivory Tower: African American Student Activism at the University of Pennsylvania.”

“We wouldn’t have had Afro-American Studies at Penn without student protests,” says Herman Beavers, who came to Penn in 1989 and is now the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences. These students demanded courses relevant to Black history, culture, and literature, he says.

This story wasn’t unique to Penn, Beavers adds. At college campuses across the country, student protests were happening alongside current events and national activism. The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “was an impetus for universities to begin to think differently about how they structure their curriculum,” Beavers says.

students collaborating in a classroom
Students in the 2018 Africana Studies Summer Institute work on essay planning. The Institute is “part of students’ very first Penn academic experience,” says Africana Studies Department Chair Camille Charles, “helping them to create community but also to create a space, or a language for talking about race.”

By 1972, the Afro-American Studies Program was established at Penn, with intellectual roots in the liberal arts tradition. “Yes, Afro-American Studies is a discipline, and yes, one can assume as constructive a role in society by majoring in it as one can by majoring in economics, history, English, sociology, etc.,” wrote Houston A. Baker, former director of Afro-American studies and professor of English in the 1970s brochure, “Why Major in Afro-American Studies?”

In 1972, 13 standing faculty members were Black; four of these held tenure. According to Puckett and Lloyd’s book, Afro-American Studies was an interdisciplinary program with no established faculty lines; professors affiliated with the program were cross-listed elsewhere, their courses housed in other departments. Initially, the program struggled to establish legitimacy.

original course descriptions
An early planning document for Afro-American studies shows the program’s interdisciplinary nature and the extent of the courses relating to Black studies that were already being taught at Penn. (Image: Courtesy of University Archives)

With a small number of faculty members with responsibilities spread across the University, Africana studies had limited control. “We had to count on those professors to teach the courses often enough for students to major,” says Charles, who came to Penn in 1998. “The only class we controlled was Intro to Africana Studies,” she says. It would be 40 years until the Department of Africana Studies was established in 2012.

The history of Black studies at Penn is entwined with activism, says Beavers. The year 1969 was a pivotal moment, along with 1985, he says. In February of that year, the BSL led protests and an eight-hour vigil with approximately 300 people on the President’s lawn. A petition signed by 109 members of the faculty, staff, and administration in support of the BSL requested mandatory, Universitywide racism awareness workshops, and an increase in minority faculty members.

“One of the things that came out of that was a promise from the administration” to create the minority permanence fund, says Beavers. While the $34 million fundraising goal fell short by $20 million, and the funds were not endowed, the money was used to hire Black faculty, including Beavers, he says.

Establishing community through the Summer Institute

The following year, the Provost’s Office gave Africana Studies funding for what has become one of its hallmarks: the Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen, established in 1986.

During the Summer Institute, students experience a weeklong introduction to the field of Africana studies and to college life, learning about campus resources and establishing community while choosing from a variety of mini courses like Africa through Literature and Innovation for Health Equity.

“There’s a tendency to think that once underrepresented groups get access to elite white spaces, it’s sort of game over and everything is rosy,” says Charles, who often teaches sociology courses during the Summer Institute, including content on the Black university experience.

new black middle class symposium
Like the current Center for Africana Studies, the Afro-American Program hosted major public events, like this symposium on the Black middle class in March of 1980. (Image: Courtesy of University Archives)

Black students often struggle with the feeling that they don’t belong. “The way to get over imposter syndrome,” Charles says, is “to continually put yourself in positions and succeed in them. But it’s also being reminded that you aren’t expected to be perfect, that you aren't expected to know everything, and that there’s value in the things that we each bring to the table.”

The Summer Institute is “amazing for the students because they’re coming in before their first semester and getting a chance to develop their own community before they arrive. It winds up being really important for them throughout their career,” Timothy Rommen, Davidson Kennedy Professor in the College Professor of Music and Africana Studies, told Penn Today in 2020.

Growing the program into a department

With the Africana Summer Institute, the demand for majors was growing. But the program was still a program, with no dedicated faculty. At Penn, the difference between a program and a department are graduate students. Graduate students invigorate the field, says Beavers.

Charles, who held the faculty associate director position from 2006 to 2009, says she started by revamping the major to make it attractive to students that might be interested in a double major. The faculty then developed a graduate certificate in Africana Studies in 2010. “Very quickly,” says Charles, the University “saw that that there would be interest in a full-fledged Ph.D. program in Africana Studies.”

In 2010, the University commissioned a minority equity report. “We weren’t making any progress in recruiting and retaining Black faculty,” says Charles, who was part of the faculty Senate leadership. She noticed that peer institutions with better recruitment and retention numbers had Africana or Black Studies Departments and took this argument to former president Amy Gutmann and provost Vincent Price, who supported her argument. “It was the moment when we were pushing for greater faculty diversity on campus,” she says. The Department of Africana Studies “signals for other [Black] candidates that the school takes this seriously and it takes us seriously,” Charles says.

The Africana Studies Department was established in 2012. On Jan. 30, 2013, the senior faculty of Africana Studies signed their names to a Daily Pennsylvanian op-ed, “Guess who’s not coming to dinner,” protesting a lack of diversity in the senior administration. “Two years after the Action Plan for Faculty Diversity was established, there was still no diversity in senior leadership. The appointment of several new deans continued that trend, and so a group of us decided it was time to speak up,” Charles says.

[Africana studies] has really kept me in touch with myself and my own Blackness, and connected me with other Black students that are similarly ambitious and similarly curious about the world. Sophia Weglarz, a sophomore in the School of Arts & Sciences

“We thought that there just needed to be a completely different conversation … and that’s why we went public with the letter,” says Barbara Savage, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of Africana studies. “To her credit, [Gutmann] responded, in time, and began to let that commitment show and be reflected. You see that in place now, but it was a long, hard struggle.”

As with most campaigns for change, “the benefit of that letter did not go to its organizers, but to others and not just at Penn, as most institutions were also lacking in leadership diversity,” Savage says. “It’s one of the things I’m proudest of having been a part of, at Penn and in Africana.

“I trust and hope that the incoming president … will continue Amy’s legacy around diversity issues, which is always an incomplete project, and redouble those efforts and keep them going forward, and beyond,” Savage says.

Grounding the contemporary in history

Black history brings a certain amount of poignance, says Savage. “When you are teaching African American history, you never have to try to convince students about the relevancy of what they’re learning, because the contemporary resonances are so present and so in their face.”

In 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed, Savage discussed the case with her class, drawing a parallel to the murder of Emmett Till. “I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me,” said Till’s mother, who insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she said.

Regardless of race, class, or gender, all of Savage’s students identified with Martin, she says. This 12-year-old boy in a hoodie on his way to buy Skittles at the 7-11 could have been a brother, a nephew, a friend. He could have been them. It hit hard because Martin was so young and the violent response so painfully irrational, Savage says. There was not even the pretense of an offense, as there was in the Till case. “No one could really make sense of it except through the lens of race,” she says.

The challenge in teaching students how history informs the contemporary moment is to point to progress and hope, “even if the underlying dynamics are not gone,” Savage says. She does this by highlighting moments of “Black joy,” which can always be found in music, film, and literature, she says, an important counterpoint to pervasive racial violence.

“Students feel like they need a refuge and our courses become that for them, not to mention the idea of seeing a Black face at the front of classroom,” Beavers says.

Black futures

The persistence of survival and the insistence on contentment and beauty in the face of pervasive societal denigration is an integral part of the Black diasporic experience, one which Ph.D. candidate Daniel Morales-Armstrong hopes to teach.

Morales-Armstrong is from the Bronx, New York, where “the school to prison pipeline is alive and well,” he says. Now in his fourth year of graduate work in Africana studies and history, Morales-Armstrong started his post-college career engaged in college access for Latinx students and is passionate about the “past, present, and future of knowledge about Black people,” he says.

When Morales-Armstrong was teaching high school students, he found them to be deeply intrigued by identity issues. “We were having all of these conversations that I didn’t have growing up” about ethnicity, class, gender, and race, he says. He soon connected this inquiry to the larger history of Black people in the Americas. While some might assume that Black Caribbean history is just about slavery, there is a strong history of agency and resistance to erasure, Morales-Armstrong says. “It’s important to tell these histories that have been silenced, particularly to young people who are working through these concepts of identity.”

martin luther king symposium
Gina Dent, Angela Davis, and Margo Natalie Crawford on stage at the 19th annual MLK Lecture in Social Justice, held in January 2020. (Image: Ellis Photography, Inc.)

When reading through a list of names in an archive, Morales-Armstrong will pause and consider. It’s important to remember that each name represents a person, not a data point, he says. Piecing together their stories is “an act of service,” he says, “an intervention in the way that we think about enslaved people.”

Through his work, Morales-Armstrong hopes to spark new conversations about Black history “in a context in which Black history is often silenced or swept under the rug,” he says.

Larissa Johnson, a fifth year Ph.D. candidate in music and Africana studies, has found a connection with history and identity through music. In South Africa, “I’m what’s called ‘colored,’” Johnson says. “It’s a weird racial term” with a long history of colonialism for people whose historical ancestors were mixed, going back the 17th and 18th centuries, she says.

This means that while Johnson speaks both English and Afrikaans, “two colonial languages,” she doesn’t speak the languages of her African ancestors. “In the contemporary moment, colored people in South Africa are often considered lacking in culture” because they are cut off from cultural practices, she says.

Then Johnson encountered the musical mouth bow instrument umrhubhe while studying the violin as a conservatory student in Capetown. The umrhubhe puts “you into this meditative state that practitioners understand as the conditions for being in communication with ancestors,” she says.

Johnson, who came to Penn on a Fulbright scholarship, decided she wanted to pursue this concept in her studies. “What has become my dissertation project actually started as this very personal experience,” she says. “I’m trying to make this argument that there are many ways of being Indigenous.” Music has become a way for Johnson to connect with her roots daily practice, she says.

As a cultural space, Africana “has really kept me in touch with myself and my own Blackness and connected me with other Black students that are similarly ambitious and similarly curious about the world,” says Sophia Weglarz, a sophomore from Chicago, Illinois. “Africana studies professors encourage students to explore the community and engage with the community in a thoughtful way” through Academically Based Community Service courses and historical site visits to the Marian Anderson Museum and the Paul Robeson House in West Philadelphia, where Weglarz works.

Weglarz, who is majoring in Africana studies with minors in cognitive science as well as legal studies and history, is on a pre-law track. Many of her peers are choosing to concentrate in politics or history, but Weglarz chose Africana studies because its interdisciplinary nature helps her to learn a broader range of skills, she says.

The Africana studies major has helped Varlotta better understand their own identity, as well as actively learning what anti-racism work looks like, they say. While taking Herman Beavers’ course August Wilson and Beyond, Varlotta remembers him talking about the West Philadelphia community and relating it to Wilson’s work. “You need to always think of people’s lives as sacred,” Beavers told the class.

In the seminal play “Fences,” Wilson writes of his main character that, “together with his Blackness, his largeness informs his sensibilities and choices made in his life." Each person has their own experiences and way of moving the world. Varlotta says this understanding, especially pertaining to marginalized communities, has helped them navigate their academic study and their personal life. All lived experiences are sacred, they say.

students in lecture hall
Homepage image: Chinaza Okonkwo of Los Angeles was one of 65 students enrolled in the 2018 Africana Studies Summer Institute, now in its 36th year. The Institute is one of the hallmarks of the Africana Studies Department.