Like many undergraduates, LSA junior Birchie Whitman had trouble choosing a major. After trying several concentrations and filling her transcript with various courses, she enrolled in an African history class, although she had no intention of majoring in Afroamerican and African Studies.
“After that semester, I decided to become an (AAS) major,” she said, adding that she found the department more thought provoking than the more traditional majors, such as business, communications and political science.
Students like Whitman have contributed to the growth of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, causing the department’s enrollment to increase by 34 percent over the last five years, with 530 students taking CAAS classes in the fall term of 1999 and 708 in the fall term of 2004.
In addition to increased enrollment, CAAS has seen a huge swell in concentrators in the past five years, growing from just eight CAAS majors in the fall term of 1999 to 31 in the fall term of 2004.
CAAS advisor Nathan Connolly said this interest is sparked in many students when they come to the University and discover African culture and history courses for the first time.
“A lot of things we deal with in CAAS programs don’t get taught in elementary, middle and high-school education,” he said, adding that for many students, their elementary and secondary education included little or no discussion of African society or slavery.
“When students take a CAAS course to fulfill a general studies or race and ethnicity requirement, this often represents students’ first encounter with black studies,” he said.
Because an African history curriculum is often not available to students until college, many CAAS instructors say they are worried that many students believe the continent of Africa and the African Diaspora have no history at all.
History graduate student instructor Christian Williams said this idea is fairly popular.
“It’s a pretty widespread idea,” he said. “A lot of prominent thinkers have been saying things like that for a while.”
While most students know important events and people from Western history, Whitman said, African historical figures are largely unknown.
“Ask them who Mansa Musa or Sundiata was,” she said, and they won’t know the stories of these African leaders.
Sundiata is the main character in a tale passed down through oral history of a 13th-century ruler in Mali. Mansa Musa, also from Mali, was a famed pilgrim, who gave out so much gold in Egypt on his way to Mecca that he caused large-scale economic depreciation. While both of these men are prominent figures in African history, they are largely unknown to many students.
For Whitman, CAAS is a necessary part of her education. “Being a CAAS major does not give my education depth,” she said. “It gives my education validity.”
She added that if she “went through life with an education of only people with my (white) skin color, I would go through life with a very incomplete education.”
For some black students, studying CAAS and these famous people in African history is a chance to learn about their own heritage.
LSA junior Jennifer Jones studies CAAS to learn more about her African-American background, and this interest has been lifelong.
“My entire life I’ve been interested in the history and struggles of black people,” she said, adding that the education most people get in high school about blacks is very limited, leading them to think that “black people kind of pop up sporadically,” in historical events.
Jones said through her CAAS studies, she has gained a greater appreciation for the role of people of African descent in American history.
Connolloy also addressed the increase in CAAS majors, saying that many students are now adding Afroamerican and African studies to other concentrations, allowing students to have a multicultural backdrop to their education.
Many students end up double-majoring in CAAS and biology or education, he said, so they can “meet the standards of a given profession while developing an understanding of the complex issues affecting people of color within those various lines of work.”
Engineering sophomore Barney Charles said after taking an introductory CAAS course, he became very interested in African-American and African history.
“(An engineering) degree will get you a job, but I will spend four years here, and I want to learn about something that interests me,” he said. “I find engineering very interesting, but I find CAAS interesting also.”
Regardless of their motivations, Connolly said students who have a background in Afroamerican and African studies will have a vantage point in understanding the politics and world economy of the future.
In the next 25 years, he said, Africa will become a major force in international economics, as previously colonized countries such as Kenya and South Africa build their economies.
“This means that any fruitful conversation about globalization is going to have to consider not only majority-black countries outside of America, but also how the processes of globalization affect black people within the United States,” Connolly said.