New PhD Program in African-American Studies

by Tamara Keith, Public Affairs Student Contributor

At a time when many other African-American studies departments have slipped from the academic spotlight, Berkeley's program continues to thrive, mature and gain acclaim.

"Berkeley is one of the unique places that has a strong and viable African-American studies department," said Margaret Wilkerson, a professor in the African-American studies department and chair of the Center for Theater Arts. "The range and diversity of the classes offered has really grown."

African-American studies began as a unit within a newly formed ethnic studies department in 1970. In the beginning, African-American studies had only six faculty, most part-time. The department now has 11 full-time faculty, numerous affiliated and visiting professors, and five lecturers.

African-American studies' class offerings were limited in the beginning. Until it became an official Letters and Science department in 1974, the emphasis was on community involvement and activism with less time spent on heavy academics. Wilkerson, who has been with the department since its founding, taught the first African-American humanities courses in the department. "They were gap fillers (because) there were so many gaps in the university's curriculum. The rich courses that we offer now didn't exist," she said.

This past fall the department inaugurated the nation's first PhD program in African diaspora studies with an entering class of 14. The new doctorate has greatly widened the curriculum. The African-American studies major now includes studies of Africans in the Caribbean, South America, Britain and Europe as well as the African experience in the United States.

Nearly 1,200 undergraduates enroll in African-American studies courses each semester. Graduation rates were high in the '70s, and dipped in the '80s. Now more students than ever before are graduating as African-American studies majors, with an average of about 15 graduates per year. The department offers 64 cataloged courses and several community projects, including the Black Graduation, Poetry for the People, Break the Cycle and the Black Theater Workshop.



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