The University should not look at the Africa Center, the only space exclusively devoted to Africa at Penn, as a space that can be shut down. Following cuts of federal funding, the University recently announced both the closure of the Africa Center and the merging of the African studies major with the Africana Studies Department, decisions that sparked anger and dissatisfaction among students. On April 13, in a protest led by African studies majors, the Penn African Students Association and Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation, students took to College Green to display their disapproval of the decision to close the center and the injustice of the conflation of Africana and African studies.
While some may follow Penn’s lead and assume that since both contain the word “Africa” they must be similar enough to simply be merged into one program, this thinking is unfounded and wrong. This oversimplified reasoning serves as yet another example of the suppression and the overgeneralization of black voices in the world and within our own University.
According to the Penn website, the Africana studies major centers on “experiences of African-descended people in their contemporary and historical multi-faceted, multi-dimensional expressions throughout the Diaspora” — that is, the dispersion of people of African descent all throughout the world, largely as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. African studies, on the other hand, encompasses the study of “historical and contemporary Africa.”
To make it even clearer — Africana is the study of African dispersion throughout the world while African studies is explicitly centered on the study of Africa itself. While the two studies certainly do have intersections, combining them implies a sameness of experience that destroys the distinct narratives that deserve to be represented in their entirety.
The Africa Center is the only space at Penn exclusively centered on the continent of Africa, and is a space that benefits both African students and the whole University through a much-needed recognition of the significance of historical and contemporary events occurring throughout the diverse continent. The Africa Center encompassed not just offerings within the African Studies major but also provided speakers and other events centered on expanding students’ knowledge.
School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty has stressed that the decision to close the Africa Center was purely a financial one, as federal support for international research and education has recently been cut. We wonder exactly how much effort was put into attempting to find the means to support the Africa Center — which employed just three staff members — when a number of other more costly projects are currently underway.
While administrators, including the dean, claim that both the study of the history of the continent and the Diaspora will be honored, we have to question how much energy is being put into maintaining the dignity of the department when neither students nor Africa Center faculty were ever consulted prior to making the final decision to close the center and house the majors in a single department. It was not until after protests that a special committee was formed to begin to properly address the issue with the voices that should have been heard from the beginning.
The continent of Africa has a history — a rich and complex one that has power and meaning outside of the influences of other areas. It is only right that there be a space devoted exclusively to Africa — a continent of 1.1 billion people with a long history of being oversimplified and misrepresented in the United States and all over the world. We need more students seeking to understand and appreciate the intricacies and complexities of African studies, not less.
While the University obviously has a budget to adhere to, the Africa Center is not a space that can simply be cut. The Africa Center is an essential space at this University, and we encourage students to continue pressuring the administration to honor this need.
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