Being built to blaze a trail in higher education with its focus on Black Feminisms, Black Genders Studies, and Black Sexualities Studies, the architects of the Department of African American and African Studies (AAAS), the newest department within MSU’s College of Arts & Letters, are unapologetic in this focus as they build the unit they have long dreamed about.
Leading this new build are Ruth Nicole Brown, Inaugural Chairperson and Professor of AAAS; Tamura Lomax, Foundational Associate Professor of AAAS; Kristie Dotson, Executive Academic Advisor to AAAS and Professor of Philosophy; and April Baker-Bell, Associate Professor of AAAS and Language, Literacy, and English Education. These department visionaries, each experts in Black Studies and Black Feminisms, are very aware of the importance of their work and the potential impact it will have on these fields.
“This is the department we’ve all been waiting for and we’ve all needed for a very long time,” Baker-Bell said. “I needed this department as an undergraduate student. I’m thinking about my daughter; this is the department she will need to be part of to explain our history and to map out the future we need. I’m so excited about what this will mean for our future students to come, not just at Michigan State, but everywhere, and how this particular department will transform Black Studies all around the country.”
I’m so excited about what this will mean for our future students to come, not just at Michigan State, but everywhere, and how this particular department will transform Black Studies all around the country.Dr. April Baker-Bell
One way the department seeks to transform Black Studies is through its emphasis on Black Feminisms. MSU’s AAAS Department aims to be a leader in this field as it builds on and extends Black Feminist arts, scholarship, activism, and praxis. As a unit, they feel the urgency of this moment and are also giving themselves time to build a department defined by collective processes and attentiveness to wellness.
“Anyone who knows the history of Black Studies knows that the emphasis on Black Feminisms is revolutionary,” Lomax said. “I don’t mean in terms of offering a few classes here and there or sprinkling Black women faculty here and there. I mean literally to specifically and unapologetically center and weave Black Feminisms in our curriculum, in our values, and our bylaws. We’re the response to questions that have been asked for over a century and we are the answer.”
AAAS at Michigan State University began as a Ph.D. granting program in 2002. An undergraduate minor was added in 2014, and on February 15, 2019, the MSU Board of Trustees voted to support the creation of the department.
We insist that Black Studies uncovers and creates ‘technologies of living’ for Black people and Black futures. And when we say Black people, we mean all Black people.Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown
Now in the midst of a global pandemic, the new department is growing and being built from the ground up. The four faculty members leading this momentous effort are working together the best they can amid COVID-19 restrictions. Work is being done virtually to shape new curriculum, hire additional faculty, and re/envision old and novel “technologies of living.”
“We insist that Black Studies uncovers and creates ‘technologies of living’ for Black people and Black futures,” Brown said. “And when we say Black people, we mean all Black people. And when we say Black futures, that is to say beyond survival into wellness, that is our vision that we created together. It guides our work, it guides our interactions, it guides our curriculum, and it will guide the work that we continue to do in the new build.”
The AAAS Department recognizes the need to continually evolve its curriculum in order to reflect the goals and needs of students, faculty, staff, and Black communities. This evolutionary process and continuous assessment of student need is what prompted AAAS to transition from a program into a department.
“To make good on the promise of the new Department of African American and African Studies, it has been critical to integrate the intellectual and creative life of Black Studies into the curriculum,” said Christopher P. Long, Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. “The energy and creative imagination this visionary group of faculty bring to this effort is inspirational. To have created a new major, revised the minor and the M.A., and to have re-imagined the Ph.D. program all in the first year of the Department is an unparalleled accomplishment, and eloquent testimony to the urgency and importance of this work.”
We are not just about inclusion, we are also mostly about wellness. And we specialize in community and cultural works, cultivating radical imagination, and collective revolutionary knowledge production.Dr. Kristie Dotson
AAAS is committed to the public good and well-being of Black people and aims to be a hub for collaboration and research with Black communities locally, nationally, and transnationally.
“We are not just about inclusion, we are also mostly about wellness,” Dotson said. “And we specialize in community and cultural works, cultivating radical imagination, and collective revolutionary knowledge production. As a unit, we are committed to making concrete connections between our scholarship, pedagogy, and social justice.”
As they continue to build and work to make their vision and dreams come true, the department leaders continue to reflect on the importance of their mission and never lose sight of the generations of students who will be influenced by the work they are doing.
We have this amazing opportunity to shape students in a more inclusive and forward-thinking way, so they don’t forget about…those who are on the margins of the margins.Dr. Tamura Lomax
“We have this amazing opportunity to shape students in a more inclusive and forward-thinking way, so they don’t forget about…those who are on the margins of the margins,” Lomax said. “I’m expecting those students to go out and do something and fight for this world, this other world that we want, where everyone can be a part of it and everyone is living well and has an opportunity to access wellness. Right now, that’s not the case. Black folks know that’s not been the case forever in these United States.”