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2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the University of Michigan Department of Afroamerican and African Studies within LSA. DAAS is committed to African studies and conducting research to support the broader African and African American communities.

Throughout the 1960s, Black student organizations joined together as the Black Action Movement, demanding racial justice at the University. In 1968, BAM organized on-campus protests to urge the University to increase Black enrollment to 10%. Among BAM’s achievements was the creation of an Afroamerican and African Studies Program, which later became DAAS.

As a product of social activism at the University, DAAS was founded upon the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, according to Matthew Countryman, DAAS department chair and associate professor. Since then, these foundational principles have been integrated into DAAS’s undergraduate major and minor in addition to its graduate certificate program. 

Countryman said the department seeks to create a safe space for students and values inclusivity greatly.

“We can be a home for students, whatever their major or however many courses they take with us. We can be a place that affirms their presence and values their presence on campus in ways that, unfortunately, they don’t always experience in their other classes,” Countryman said. “That’s crucial to our mission and something that all of our staff and faculty are aware of on a daily basis.”

LSA senior Thomas Vance, an AAS major, said this 50th anniversary is a testament to what Black activism can achieve.

“The 50th anniversary, to me, is just a celebration and a highlight of what happens when Black students fight for change,” Vance explained. “It’s something I’m always thankful for. I don't think that my Michigan experience would be as positive without DAAS.”

LSA senior Tiffany Harris, also an AAS major, found that DAAS faculty foster a welcoming environment where students of color feel comfortable discussing race in the classroom. 

“In a lot of political science classes, I’ll be the only Black girl, and it’s uncomfortable to have to fight for the whole Black community consistently in class,” Harris noted. “I really value DAAS because not many majors allow me to sit in a room with people that look like me and discuss Black resistance, Black freedom and Black anything while being comfortable in our Blackness.”

Outside the classroom, DAAS works to establish a close-knit and welcoming community for students of color and the student body. By coordinating events with student organizations, the DAAS faculty hopes to teach students to understand their cultural and racial differences. Though many of their 50th anniversary events were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department has adapted this semester to host virtual events to celebrate the milestone.

DAAS associate professor Omolade Adunbi said the department’s greatest strength is its synergy between academics and community, including communities beyond the University. Adunbi pointed to the Semester in Detroit program as one example, which allows students to engage in substantive urban planning that benefits Detroit communities. Similarly, the Pedagogy of Action program has empowered students to learn about the impact of HIV and AIDS on African American communities and teach prevention in the metro Detroit area and Ypsilanti, Mich. 

According to Adunbi, DAAS’s most expansive outreach program is its African Presidential Scholars Program. In collaboration with the African Studies Center, DAAS invites scholars from across Africa to the University. Collectively, DAAS’s outreach programs exemplify the department’s growing reach to both local and global communities.

Countryman said DAAS provides the most integral component of social activism: education. By learning about historical and present-day instances of inequality, students can begin to confront these injustices. Whether they advocate for change on social media, donate to charitable causes or work with policymakers to propose beneficial legislation, Countryman said students in DAAS gain the knowledge and fervor necessary to enact real-world change.

“I think education provides a crucial opportunity for people to be honest about both the promise of society and promise of the institution, but also to confront and look directly at where we’ve come up short in terms of those promises — ways in which the nation and institutions have been built off structures of inequality,” Countryman said. “By itself, education can’t change those structures; but without that commitment to understanding and investigating, we’re not going to make progress toward the goals of a just society.”

As important as it is to reflect upon the past, Adunbi said this milestone serves as an opportunity to also consider DAAS’s future.

“We’re not just remembering the founders, but we are also thinking about the future of Black studies in general,” Adunbi said. “It’s like looking back, taking a pause to evaluate where we have come from and what we are currently doing, and then looking into the future of Black studies.”

Vance said he hopes the department continues to promote the study of Black communities and facilitate their success.

“I hope DAAS continues to thrive, continues to innovate and continues to hire professors and postdoctoral fellows who are really committed to the study of the diaspora and members of the diaspora,” Vance said. “As for the Black community, I really just want to see everybody win. I just want to see everybody succeed where they are, continue to dream big, continue to aspire for greatness and get there.”

Daily Contributor Evan DeLorenzo can be reached at evandelo@umich.edu

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