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Africana studies at Penn has at its center the study of Africa and peoples of African descent around the globe. This is the very first sentence on our website: “The field of Africana studies has been devoted to the critical study of the historical and contemporary experiences of Africans and peoples of African descent who live outside the continent of Africa, particularly in the Americas.” If you want to see that for yourself and learn more about the history of Africana studies, please do by looking at our website at

Indeed, Africana studies at Penn focuses on Africa with an inter-disciplinary and cross-regional emphasis. Our faculty teach and train undergraduate and graduate students who study contemporary Africa and its history, and in wide-ranging fields in the humanities and the social sciences.

Our graduate students are doing exciting, pioneering work across the continent of Africa, in interconnected regions in the Middle East and Turkey and in North and South America and the Caribbean. One of our first doctoral students returned home to South Africa where he is now a university professor.

Last spring, the Office of the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences transferred all the funding and functions of the Africa Center, including the African studies program, to Africana studies. So, to say that the Center was “closed” is misleading.

Our highest priority was to ensure that the four students who are majors and the eleven who are minors be unaffected by this change. Their requirements are exactly as they were before the merger. Indeed, for continuity’s sake, the former undergraduate faculty advisor from African studies continues to advise those students in his office which is now in Africana studies right next door to our offices.

We also reached out repeatedly to majors and other students interested in African studies to meet with faculty and to join our Undergraduate Advisory Board, but to little effect. Faculty met with students last spring and offered to do so again last fall. A meeting was held as recently as last week. To say that we have not solicited or enabled student participation is simply not true. We value student opinion as our faculty moves through this period of transition and planning.

All of the courses, programming and language offerings on Africa have gone forward undisturbed since the consolidation. We plan to expand and strengthen course offerings, student opportunities, conferences and events related to Africa.

Africana studies has its origins in student protests and post-civil rights movement activism, which also had strong commitments to studying Africa and its diverse peoples, and people of African descent the world over. But long before the 1960s, an interest in and commitment to Africa was a defining characteristic of African American political, cultural and intellectual history and life.

That there is any ongoing disagreement about Africana studies’ commitment to Africa may be another relic of the tortured history of African Studies in the United States and at Penn. African studies had its genesis in Cold War US politics aimed at furthering colonialist aims in Africa, and thwarting the Continent’s political independence and development. Unease and suspicion between the two approaches to studying Africa has its own long political history.

Here at Penn, the shift from Afro-American studies in 1971 to Africana studies in 2002 was part of a long intellectual trajectory. Perhaps that is best reflected in its naming which holds within it as a core mission – “Africa.”

BARBARA D. SAVAGE is the Chair of the Department of Africana studies and the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought.

CAMILLE Z. CHARLES is the director of the Center for Africana Studies and the Edmund J. And louis W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences, and a professor of sociology, Africana studies and education.

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