Nearly 50 years after black students at Kenyon released a statement of policy that asked the College to “provide room in the present curriculum for studies in Black culture,” and 25 years after an African and African-American Studies concentration first appeared in the Kenyon course catalog, on April 23 Meera White ’18 presented the Oral History of African Diaspora Studies at Kenyon College, an independent study project she has pursued this semester.
With the oral history project, White aimed to gather the recollections of faculty, staff and students on the creation of the African Diaspora Studies program and its impact on Kenyon.
White interviewed seven current faculty members as part of the project. Some, like Ric Sheffield, professor of sociology and legal studies, and Ted Mason, associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, were instrumental in the program’s founding. When they first proposed the program, they faced criticism both for its interdisciplinary nature and its focus on race. “We even had a public forum … in which it was … debated,” Mason said in an interview with White. “I’ll be honest with you, I sat there and thought, ‘I’m living in a time warp.’”
In her presentation, White also discussed Crossroads, “a group of Kenyon faculty and administrators who share an interest in the issues of African and African Diaspora Studies.” Established in 2002, the group meets every summer to discuss a topic related to African diaspora studies. Past topics have included cinematic and visual representation, state violence and gender and sexuality, a topic that Crossroads will be returning to this summer.
As part of the oral history, White also took stock of where the African Diaspora Studies program stands today. At the end of the presentation, White shared quotes from Mason and Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff, who both cautioned against making the African Studies Diaspora program the only academic home for black students at Kenyon. “I think African American students at Kenyon need to have a home that’s a much broader base than a particular program,” Rutkoff said. “There should be no place that’s not home.”
In an interview with the Collegian, Associate Professor of English Jené Schoenfeld, who is the current director of the program, noted the program’s importance to students of color at Kenyon. “I think [African Diaspora Studies courses] shouldn’t be the only kind of home,” she said, “but I think another important thing they offer is a chance for students of color to be seen.”
As for White’s project, she will soon publish the oral history online as part of Digital Kenyon’s Community Within collection. White tentatively plans to put the project online by the end of May.