A petition for Africana studies at USC and the employment of a black professor in the history department brings to light a serious issue on this campus, specifically within its history department, that has not yet been solved: representation of the African American community among professors and doctoral students of history and the availability of courses.
The authors of the petition are calling for “the history department [to] hire a traveling scholar, or a professor of Africana studies or African-American history to teach black history courses.”
USC has undeniably made notable efforts to create a more culturally inclusive campus climate for students of color in recent years. One recent and overt example of this support can be seen in the signs on Trousdale Parkway that spread awareness of and encourage celebration of Black History Month.
However, there is much work to be done. Representation in education and the integration of multiple perspectives on subject matter, especially in the subject of history, are arguably the most important ways that the University can actively create an academic environment and community that is inclusive to its fullest extent. Studying the African diaspora and its history through the field of Africana studies is a powerful and informative way for students of all races to understand the horror of institutions of oppressions such as the Atlantic slave trade. Africana studies would educate non-black students about aspects of the past that may not directly affect them, but will instill in them empathy for their peers and a desire to learn from the mistakes of history.
These efforts are important to pursue if the University seeks to rectify damages and abuses of the past. For the better part of U.S. history, American universities were incubators of political and social privilege which excluded black communities, and USC was certainly no exception to this trend. It was not until five years after its founding that the University declared that no student would be barred from entry on the basis of “race, color, religion or sex.” In 1903, a black student named John Alexander Somerville caused an uproar among the mostly white students on campus for enrolling to study dentistry. It’s important that this oft-untold history is taught to students in institutions of higher learning, and it is crucial that we allow this story to be told and represented by individuals who were affected by this history.
Furthermore, USC’s history department has participated in the perpetuation of a Western-dominated narrative of history. In spite of its current institutional dedication to inclusion of a variety of minority communities, it seems that the history department still has not entirely rid itself of the remnants of this exclusive and damaging academic practice. According to the petition, over the course of its 137 years, USC has had only two black doctoral students accepted to study in its history department.
Although two black professors currently teach in the history department, they will be leaving the University in May. As the petition also points out, “USC does not have enough GE courses or history courses teaching the broad and international perspective of the African diaspora, Great Black Civilization.” Overall, these problems demonstrate the lack of appropriate representation of black history at USC.
Ultimately, USC’s history department must prove its dedication to an open-minded, holistic study of history by responding to this petition and putting in more effort to be inclusive of black narratives in its subject matter and faculty members. The colonial legacy of our society and its oppression of black people and other people of color is important for us to learn about as students. In its call for an Africana diaspora studies class, the authors of this petition give a specific answer to the question of how these narratives can be included among USC’s fields of study. Institutions of higher learning are obligated to offer well-rounded history curriculum, and USC’s history department must prioritize the inclusion of Africana studies in order to achieve this.
We cannot continue to have a single, Eurocentric narrative of history. Doing so directly hurts black students by depriving them of their cultural legacy in education. Implicitly, it tells black students that their narrative is not important because it is not widely studied or respected and is not represented by professors with whom black students can identify.
Black history cannot continue to be sidelined, or we will have learned nothing from the pain, sacrifice and hard work that it took to bring our institution to the inclusive and progressive space that it is still struggling to become today. As the adage goes, those who do not understand and learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We must choose to learn from our history and make every effort to look forward to a more representative future.