Grinnell Celebrates the Launch of New Department of African Diaspora Studies

August 08, 2023

In 1971, the members of Concerned Black Students presented Grinnell College President Glenn Leggett with a list of 10 demands to improve life on campus for Black students and faculty. Among these demands was the creation of a Black studies major.

In the decades that followed, institutional offerings in Black studies at Grinnell were cyclical, waxing and waning over the years. The College created several programs, including an interdisciplinary concentration, Africana studies, which lasted almost a decade.

Beronda Montgomery
Dean of the College and Vice President for Academic Affairs Beronda Montgomery.

According to Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs Beronda Montgomery, an exciting new chapter is about to begin at Grinnell as the College launches a new academic department, the Department of African Diaspora Studies, as recommended by the faculty and approved by the Board of Trustees.   

“The creation of this new department — to be led by a senior-level endowed chair with plans for two additional tenure-track faculty lines — will provide permanence and continuity for Grinnell students and faculty working in this important academic area,” Montgomery says.

“Grinnell is making a long-term and significant commitment to create the Department of African Diaspora Studies, with a strong foundation and ongoing support,” Montgomery adds. The College will recruit a senior faculty member who will hold an endowed chair, which represents an additional investment in the new department. The chair will work, with guidance from an ADS steering committee, to design the new curriculum and major.

“This robust start demonstrates the seriousness and commitment the College brings to this expansion of Grinnell’s academic landscape, in this moment,” Montgomery says. “It’s a deeply impactful thing to have such an investment.”

Considered in light of ongoing national conversations around affirmative action, critical race studies, and more, establishing an African diaspora studies department highlights Grinnell’s commitment to diversity.

“To start a department at this moment is a strong statement about Grinnell’s continuing commitment to ensuring that we’re supporting diversity, not just by the presence of people, but actually in terms of the intellectual engagement and investment as well,” Montgomery says.

Black studies is not just about the past or history — it also provides us with so many paths forward toward more equitable community building.

Assistant Professor Makeba Lavan

Associate Professor Stephanie Jones, who co-chaired the faculty steering committee with Assistant Professor Makeba Lavan, agrees. “I think it sends a strong message about what we value as a college in terms of education, but also in terms of the types of the citizens we are continuing to turn out to the world.”

She adds, “Part of Grinnell College’s mission is to help create citizens that go out to do wonderful things in terms of social justice and community. I think we’re living in a time right now of grave misinformation, of suppression of history, and of rolling back of civil and human rights, and we need to know how we got here.” The area of African diaspora studies offers an excellent lens through which to explore these issues, she says.

Headshot of Makeba Lavan
Assistant Professor Makeba Lavan.
Stephanie Jones
Associate Professor Stephanie Jones.

The department will offer a curriculum aligned with Grinnell’s commitment to social justice and human liberation. ADS will reside within the Division of Social Studies; however, its course offerings will be highly interdisciplinary. Coursework will focus on Black intellectual and cultural activity, drawing on past and present contributions from Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean

Although Black students first raised the idea of a Black studies major in the 1970s, Lavan says we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this major is only for Black students — its work is significant campuswide. “I think it’s more important to look at it as a framework for working toward anti-racism,” she concludes. “Black studies is not just about the past or history — it also provides us with so many paths forward toward more equitable community building.”

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