UC Berkeley News


The 10-year-old 'jewel in the crown'
Scholars of African diaspora find themselves in high academic demand

| 08 November 2007

Graduates of Berkeley's decade-old African Diaspora Studies Program have begun a diaspora of their own, landing plum academic appointments across the country.

Rather than focus on African American history and culture, the program examines the influence of African cultures in the Caribbean, South America, and Europe, among other parts of the world. Since the Department of African American Studies launched the program, each of the 12 graduates has landed either a tenure-track faculty position or a postdoctoral fellowship at a respected university.

What makes them such hot properties?

"Universities want to expose their students to scholars who are able to cross disciplinary boundaries to get at important historical and contemporary questions," says Elisa Joy White, who received her Ph.D. from Berkeley in 2002. "They know that we represent the future of academia."

Indeed, White, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, has become a prominent voice in such emerging fields as black European studies and global black communities in cyberspace.

How fare blacks in Ireland?

Elisa Joy White
White started out in the African Diaspora Studies Program looking into relations between African Americans and Irish Americans in 19th-century New York, but then got interested in how blacks were faring in contemporary Ireland, where the economy has been booming due to globalization and the country's computer-technology industry.

White says she began by sending out queries to various scholars around the world, asking, "Are there blacks in Ireland?" Ultimately, she received statistical data from another Berkeley graduate student confirming that work permits had been issued to blacks in Ireland. She then traveled to Ireland to see firsthand how blacks had integrated in the country.

She found that Ireland's economic boom had, in fact, drawn immigrants from Africa, mostly from Nigeria and the Congo, but that the newcomers were not necessarily welcome in the Emerald Isle, despite a "national narrative that professes the contrary," White says.

That led to a Fulbright grant and a dissertation on the topic. "The work I was doing in the program, and the support of various faculty members, really made it possible to conduct research on a very rich subject that many thought inconceivable," White says.

African American studies at Berkeley has come a long way since 1970, when it was just a unit with six faculty members, most of whom were part-timers, within the newly formed ethnic-studies department. It officially joined the College of Letters and Science in 1974 with an emphasis on activism and community involvement.

Today the Department of African American Studies is thriving, with 20 majors, 60 minors, and 11 full-time faculty members. And the African Diaspora Studies Program is unmistakably a jewel in the department's crown.

"Our graduates, who are currently assistant professors and postdoctoral fellows, are a living example of the program's rich intellectual goals," says department chair Ula Taylor.

Indeed, the multinational, interdisciplinary nature of the African Diaspora Studies Program has been a bonus on many a résumé.

"I remember being told that I might struggle to find a job with a degree in African-diaspora studies because it was not a traditional discipline," says Xavier Livermon, who landed a postdoctoral fellowship in communications at the University of North Carolina after graduating from the Berkeley program last year. He's headed for a tenure-track faculty position at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Marisa Fuentes
Livermon, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the influence of South Africa's popular music and performance art on sociocultural change in that country, says he was drawn to African-diaspora studies because it crossed so many boundaries, and that excited him: "It seemed like the scholars in the program were breaking down both the barriers of traditional disciplines as well as geographic barriers, and I wanted to be a part of that."

Like Livermon, Marisa Fuentes, who graduated from the Berkeley program in July, is also a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Fuentes was a history major at UC Santa Cruz when she became intrigued with West Africa as the ancestral homeland of many Southern blacks.

As an undergraduate junior she traveled to Ghana as part of her research into the history of slavery, continuing this exploration in her graduate work at Berkeley. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow, she is looking into the issues of power, race, gender, and sexuality pertaining to enslaved women in 18th-century Charleston, S.C., and in Bridgetown, Barbados - both of them Atlantic port cities.

Her research, which has taken her to Barbados, Britain, and South Carolina, taught her that although people of African ancestry throughout the world share experiences of racism, sexism, and classism, "there are conditions that make our experiences vastly diverse and unique," she says.