KINGSTON, R.I. — May 17, 2023 — When he headed to college four years ago, Joe Amaral got the same advice from teachers and mentors that many high-achieving students get: Study a STEM field. But after taking a few computer science classes, he found that path was not quite right for him.
It wasn’t until he took his first class in Africana studies that he knew he had found an intellectual home.
“I took one Africana class, and I was shell shocked,” he said. “It was the first time I actually felt passionate about what I was learning. Africana studies has provided me with a space to understand Blackness and how people define it as an identity, which informs my relationship and connection to my identity as Black in a way that I’ve never before had the opportunity to cultivate being in predominantly white spaces throughout my educational background.”
This week, he’ll graduate with a double major in Africana studies and communication studies with a minor in English. And for the past year, he’s been working with a group of fellow students to help reshape the Africana studies major at URI. Working with Catherine John-Camara, professor and department chair, the team hopes to build a new major that will provide a vibrant, supportive home for many more students in the years to come.
“I wanted to have a student advisory council for a few reasons,” John-Camara said of the group, which formed last fall. “One was to hear from students about how effective the major had been for them, and to think about what things we could possibly improve. Another reason was to ask them to think about future students—literally and figuratively their younger brothers and sisters—and what this major should look like in the future.”
‘Change your mindset’
The council, which includes Amaral; sophomore Brandon Feliz; senior Mia Foley; and sophomore Talia Scott, had countless meetings and brainstorming sessions over the past year. The team says that over the course of their work, a motto emerged that describes the impact of the major: “Change your mindset.”
“We have to re-educate, in a way,” Scott said. “A lot of times when our history is taught running from elementary schools all the way to high school, it’s [centered on] slavery. There’s slavery, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and that’s about it. And a lot of it is misinformation.”
In light of that educational gap before college, the students decided that it’s important that the major present a more holistic view of the Black and African diaspora experience—one that’s rooted in the rich cultural and intellectual history of Africa and of all of the African diaspora through time. That means not only teaching a broader version of African and African American history, but also drawing connections with the present.
“When we think about hip hop, for example, almost every single aspect of that art form and culture connects back to Africa—back to the things that were stolen from us,” Feliz said. “Those contexts allow us to see ourselves as full people. If you’ve only learned what they’ve taught in public schools, there’s a part of you that may not feel that yet.”
Another key theme that emerged was making sure the major was well suited to fuel students’ other interests and passions. The Africana studies major, they concluded, should encourage double major opportunities that foster such connections.
Scott, for example, is a double major in Africana studies and wildlife and conservation biology. She says that the conservation movements in the West often ignore the perspectives of Black and Indigenous people around the world.
“Those are the people who have spiritual connections with these environments, so leaving them out kind of defeats the purpose of conservation,” Scott said. “That’s what drives me to be in Africana studies as well as wildlife conservation because I’m able to add that different lens.”
Foley, a double major in Africana studies and psychology, found similarly important connections between her fields of study.
“A therapist that grew up feeling the effects of systemic racism is a lot different than a white therapist who grew up in the suburbs,” she said. “And so you can’t really have that connection with your clients.” But a therapist with a deeper understanding of the Black and African American experience, she says, may have a better chance of building those relationships.
Feliz found a new focus for his ambition to be a screenwriter.
“I want to be a screenwriter and I was looking for an academic space that connected to that,” he said. “I craft my identity around the things I write, and I wanted to keep doing that through a Black academic lens.”
The students hope that the revamped program will help to forge new connections between the Africana studies curriculum and disciplines studied across campus.
New faculty, new pathways
John-Camara said that those insights are crucial to her as department chair, in helping her reshape the major. That reshaping is already underway.
John-Camara is working with multiple departments—economics, political science, gender and women’s studies, and others—to deepen connections with Africana studies. Those connections will help in developing cross-listed courses and in streamlining things for students who want to major in Africana studies and another field.
Plans are in motion to offer Africana studies majors two new pathway concentrations. A pathway in “Black Atlantic histories” broaden the notion of traditional history to literary, economic, political or gendered histories with cross-listed courses in those units with a focus on the African or African diaspora realities. A pathway in “Black arts and performance” will encourage both study and participation in the visual, musical, and performing arts. Topics of study will include African dance, hip hop, jazz, and more. In the coming years, John hopes to introduce two additional pathways in “Africana/Indigenous environmental studies” and “Africana studies, sports, and culture.”
Helping to guide these new programs are four new faculty members who will start in the fall—two exclusive to Africana studies and two with joint appointments in other departments. Rachel Ansong, a poet and scholar of Ghanaian descent who earned her Ph.D. from URI in 2022, and Hannah Francis, a historian who focuses on slavery and the history of Louisiana and is currently a visiting professor at URI, will have full appointments in Africana studies. Development economist Cruz Caridad Bueno will have a joint appointment with economics, and Janet Kong-Chow, who studies racialization, power, and language, will have a joint appointment with English.
In addition to the academic expansion, John-Camara says the department will continue to serve as a support system to students and faculty of color across campus. The importance of that support system was another theme that emerged in discussions with the student advisory council.
The council hopes the community function of the department will send a clear message to people of color at URI: “You don’t have to feel alone because you’re not alone,” Scott said. “We’re working toward creating that space, that community.”