On a hot July day, 22 University of Pennsylvania pre-freshman made their way across campus, found the classroom, and took their seats. The group, part of a total 65 participants gathered for the Africana Studies Summer Institute, turned their attention toward the front.
“Let’s just jump right in,” says English Professor Herman Beavers, “this is ‘Lynching in the United States.’”
It’s a challenging subject for students who just a few weeks ago were finishing up high school. “Lynching in the U.S.: Rhetoric and Representation, 1885-2015” was one of six courses offered during the weeklong Institute, with topics including slavery, religion, and music.
“Africana studies is about placing African and African-descended people at the center, and looking at civilization and history and social relations from their experience, instead of typical, Eurocentric orientation. It’s an alternative perspective,” says Professor Camille Charles, director of the Center for Africana Studies and the Summer Institute.
“You study all of it. You don’t sugarcoat the bad parts,” she says. “Africana studies isn’t about that. To understand what it means to be human, you have to do that. The lynching course is pretty intense, but it’s an important part of understanding how we got to where we are with respect to race relations and inequality in the United States.”
Helping understand what it means to be a student at Penn is another central mission of the Summer Institute, which just completed its 32nd year. Students prepare for and attend demanding academic courses, but also find their way around campus, live and eat in a college house, and get to know professors and their graduate-student teaching assistants.
“We convey to them that they are becoming a part of a family,” Beavers says. “We are concerned about them and are devoted to their success.”
It’s about creating a community, engaging with professors, and also making what for many will be lifelong friends.
“I recently ran into an alum from the first Institute. She told me she met her best friend that week, and there are many others who’ve told me the same thing. They are in touch even 32 years later with the people they met,” says Charles. “This experience is one of the most meaningful of their Penn experiences.”
Incoming freshman with an interest in Africana studies or one of the affiliated disciplines are invited to apply to the Institute. All costs are covered by the University, except travel. Usually all students who apply by the deadline are admitted. About three quarters are in the College of Arts and Sciences, but students are from each of Penn’s other three undergraduate schools as well: Wharton, Nursing, and Engineering and Applied Science.
“I haven’t really had a chance to study anything about Africana studies in an academic setting before. I’ve also never had a black teacher, never had someone teaching me who looks like me," says Kennedy Crowder, from Landenberg, Pa. "So coming to the Institute, having my professors being able to relate to an African American-based struggle, was very important.”
The Institute has tripled enrollment and become increasingly diversified since its beginning in 1986. This year’s participants represented a wide array of birthplaces and backgrounds.
“I have met people from all over,” says Chinaza Okonkwo, from Los Angeles. “I stayed up last night until three in the morning talking to the other students. We didn’t always agree, but we were listening to views and issues and different options. It was a deeply intellectual space.”
Hakiem Ellison of West Philadelphia says one subject unites them all. “We can all agree that we worry about getting the work done,” he says, laughing. “All of us are sharing that. That’s another form of community right there. We’re all going through this together.”
Each student takes two of the six courses offered, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. The coursework is accelerated and rigorous, with copious reading and writing assignments sent to the students a month in advance, to be completed before arrival. Like an “academic boot camp,” Charles says, the week is designed to give students a sense of what midterms will be like their first semester. A half credit, pass/fail, is awarded for successful completion.
“This is not in any way a remedial program,” Beavers says. “These are the best and the brightest, and we are going to give them a week to demonstrate that. We drill down into topics they have never had a chance to talk about before.”
Only three of the 22 students raised their hands when Beavers asked who in the class had spent time on the subject of lynching previously. “Does thinking about lynching, and police brutality, make you feel a sense of powerlessness?” Beavers asked, starting what became an impassioned discussion on that first day.
The courses and professors are chosen to “cover the African diaspora,” based on their academic research, Charles says. Colonialism and its consequences are a main focus, subjects often not covered in high school history courses, “and not from the point of view of the people who were and are oppressed,” she says.
Student Jean Hsu, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., says she and other students tried to convince her high school to offer new history courses from the Asian, Africana, and Latinx points of view, but they did not succeed.
“I recognized then that learning and understanding my culture and history, as well as that of other minorities, is one of the ways that I can start to truly understand and take action on things such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in film, music, and politics, as well as the struggles of the American immigration policies,” says Hsu.
This year, in addition to Beavers’ course, Heather Williams taught “Getting to Know the People in Slavery,” and Anthea Butler taught “God Is Black: Race, Religion and Nationalism in America.” Topics also focused outside of the U.S.: Professor Cheikh Anta Babou’s “Islam in African History”; Timothy Rommen’s “A Borderless Caribbean?: The Creole Geographies of Dominica’s Popular Music,” and Grace Sanders Johnson’s “Love, Anger, Madness: History, Memory, and Silence in Haiti.”
Music plays throughout Professor Rommen’s class, the discussion moving from the history of the Caribbean region, to de-colonization, to new music genres born of the transformation.
“That’s konpa, how awesome is that? Infectious rhythm,” Rommen says, turning up the volume. “Ah! This is so good! Do you hear it? That is classic konpa.”
The Institute is “one of my absolute favorite things to do at Penn,” Rommen says. “I choose topics that allow students to connect to popular music. I like to give students a chance to think about their relationship to sound.”
Jonathan Scotto, from Miami, Fla., took the courses taught by Rommen and Beavers.
“The Institute was an amazing way to explore my interests in cross-cultural analysis, especially through my Creole studies,” he says.
As a new faculty member, in her second year at Penn, Johnson says she appreciates the chance to teach the students in the summer and get to know them.
“What is most amazing about this group of students is that they are willing to learn new approaches. They are fresh,” Johnson says. “They are willing to experience reading and writing in a different way.”
Penn graduate students who serve as teaching and resident assistants are crucial to the success of the program, the professors say, running the recitations, living in the dorm, helping the pre-freshman learn to manage their time, giving feedback on assignments, managing the nuts and bolts of the courses. The experience is important both for the graduate fellows and the students.
“It’s a great way to professionalize our graduate students and imbue them with a sense of responsibility, and that their role as a professor is to care about students,” Beavers says. “They are going to be mentoring students assigned to them for the rest of the year. We have built this into the program.”
Advice from graduate fellows was key for Hsu, who identifies as Asian-American. At first she says she sat in the back of the classroom and was silent because she “felt it was not my place to speak up about my opinions because a lot of the struggles were not directly experienced by me,” and she worried about unintentially saying something that would be perceived as racially insensitive.
Hsu shared her concerns with a graduate fellow. “She encouraged me to participate in class because my opinion mattered, too,” Hsu said. “Help from her and a couple of the other graduate fellows allowed me to become confident enough to participate in my classes and get the most out of my experience at the Institute. I couldn’t have had such an amazing week without their help.”
The graduate fellows and professors, as well as other Africana studies faculty, continue their relationship with the incoming freshmen, serving as mentors and academic advisers.
“Yes, it’s about this week, but it is also about building relationships over the next four years,” Johnson says. “You know you have a set of professors and a set of graduate students that you can come to. And, they have each other.”
With that in mind, not every minute of the week was packed with academics. A mid-week barbecue, with music and games and lots of food, gave the students time to hang out together, along with about a dozen Penn professors, and Provost Wendell Pritchett.
“I feel I’ve found a place here at Penn,” Ellison says. “Finding that community early and that base of support and friendship at the Institute has really helped me establish myself.”