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The time is now: Princeton, make African Studies a concentration

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Following the release of spring courses, I looked at the courses in the African Studies program for this upcoming semester. My face became crestfallen with disappointment: there were only seven courses to choose from, which paled in comparison to many other departments.

Upon further research, I realized that all the current courses are cross-listed with other departments, indicating that there are no present faculty that consider African Studies their home department. In addition, I also discovered that many of the professors within African Studies are not of African descent. For a university that claims to be at the center of academic excellence and research across the globe, the fact that African Studies has only been a program is puzzling. 

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I spoke with Max Jakobsen ’24, who plans to get an African Studies certificate, and he concurred. “I think it is frankly unacceptable that Princeton does not have an African Studies department. Coming to Princeton as an African student, it is really important to take classes that allow me to explore not only my own heritage, but also what I believe are the most central regions and topics of study of the 21st century,“ he said. 

Without a doubt, Princeton can vastly increase investment in African Studies. Compared to our peer Ivy League institutions, Princeton is the only one that doesn’t have a concentration that includes African Studies in some form. Although Yale is the only Ivy League to have African Studies as its own major, Dartmouth and Harvard both have African and African American Studies majors. Meanwhile, Cornell, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia each have Africana Studies majors, which span the entire African diaspora.

Currently, Princeton undergraduates can only obtain a certificate

Seeing as the University has the highest endowment per student, there are simply no excuses; Princeton should be able to invest the appropriate amount of resources to attract and retain faculty for the African Studies program and upgrade the program to a concentration. 

A specific area of growth for African Studies at the University is the breadth of its language offerings. The Program in African Studies website says that “Swahili, Twi, Wolof, and Yoruba are the four African languages offered at Princeton. Completion of all four terms of a sequence will satisfy the University language requirement.” However, Wolof has not been offered as an option this year in neither the fall nor the spring, much to my disappointment as the daughter of Senegalese immigrants. Beginner Yoruba was going to be offered in the fall semester, but ultimately ended up being canceled. Two students had signed up for the class, so why did the University deem that interest too small? 

Even still, offering three African languages doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the thousands of languages spoken across the continent. Looking at Harvard’s expansive African Language program that offers over 30 languages and even individualized study, the University desperately needs to expand African language courses to match our peer institution. 

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Particularly for students who might not have had the opportunity to learn their ethnic languages, the University offering a variety of African and Afro-diasporic languages is crucial to maintaining their legacy. 

Fatima Diallo ’25, who is of Guinean descent, told me she had a disappointing experience with the current African Studies program. “When I found out Princeton had an African Studies [program], I was really excited and planning to get a certificate in African Studies or take some classes [in the program]. Though my family is West African, I’ve never learned much about Africa, especially not in school. I was excited to finally explore that part of my identity in an educational setting.”  

She continued: “But as I talked to upperclassmen, I was discouraged to hear that [...] there weren’t a good range of classes offered. I was encouraged to take African American studies instead. African Studies is not even a concentration like African American Studies and East Asian studies are but even the certificate is subpar.” Diallo being encouraged to take classes in the African American studies program instead of the African Studies program illustrates how the University gravely fails its African students in their academic pursuit to learn more about their continent.

As Oluwatomisin Fasawe ’21 and Nosakhare Eghe-Abe ’21 aptly articulated in an article written last year about the #EndSARS movement, “With no African Studies department, and only about 3 percent of our population being African students or faculty, how can we say that we are pushing the boundaries of holistic and cross-cultural learning?”

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In a damning statement, Jakobsen said that “the fact that Princeton is not prioritizing the study of Africa is rooted in white supremacy.” 

If Slavic Languages and Literatures is given status as a concentration when it pertains to a specific region of Europe, why not Africa — a continent containing over 50 countries? Given the University’s historical ties to slavery and the exploitation of Black people, it has a moral obligation to expand the African Studies program into a full-fledged department. 

In fact, about six years ago, the Black Justice League presented a list of demands to the University which included elevating African American Studies and African Studies (both certificates at the time) to departments/concentrations. Although African American Studies has since become a department, the University has not yet deemed African Studies worthy of expansion. 

We need only to look at the success of the recent African American Studies concentration to see what African Studies at Princeton could potentially become, if given the necessary support. This semester, 30 classes will be offered in the department ranging from AAS367/HIS387: African American History Since Emancipation to DAN222/AAS222: Introduction to Hip-Hop Dance. Students in and out of the African diaspora have relished the opportunity to concentrate in the department, obtain a certificate, or simply take a few classes. In African American Studies, Princetonians learn from esteemed academics including Professors Eddie Glaude and Imani Perry. Although the University has a lot of work to do in ensuring the development of a department “that is African and embraces Africa” as Jakobsen emphasized, the immense progress of African American Studies in only a few years offers profound inspiration and insight for African Studies. 

Working in conjunction with African professors, students, and PASA (Princeton African Students Association), the University can successfully establish an African Studies concentration. As it stands, many students are deprived of the chance to concentrate in this incredible academic field. 

Many students, including myself, want to further educate ourselves on our continent and its history, culture, politics, and languages. With the money from the increased endowment, the University urgently needs to expand African Studies into a department to not only benefit students of African descent but Princeton students as a collective.

Ndeye Thioubou is a first-year from The Bronx, N.Y. She can be reached at nthioubou@princeton.edu. 

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