April 9, 2003: From the Editor

Photo: Ruth Simmons, now Brown University president. (Office of Communications)

Three years ago, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Princeton’s Program in African-American Studies, alumni contributed reminiscences and thoughts about what the program had meant to them.

“African-American studies at Princeton shaped my life,” wrote Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie ’75, an associate professor of Afro-American studies at Indiana University. “It provided me with intellectual validation at the university where I felt invisible. It contextualizes how I view the world, and has been my ticket to world citizenship.”

Beverly Canzater Jacobs ’74 wrote, “At a time when the Shockleys of the world questioned my right to attend an institution like Princeton, these courses validated my people’s history and culture, and in a very real way, my very existence on campus.”

Princeton’s African-American studies program has had its share of ups and downs; the recent arrival of professors such as K. Anthony Appiah and Cornel West *80 has sent the trajectory skyward again. But the personality-based publicity that accompanied their moves from Harvard University has obscured important aspects of the program, including its research and the role it plays in the lives of students.

In this issue, Gerald Horne ’70, a professor of African-American studies at the University of North Carolina and one of the first students to take courses in the Princeton program, writes about research trends in the field. Kathryn Beaumont ’96 looks specifically at Princeton’s program, including faculty members whose names you probably don’t know.

The interdisciplinary African-American studies program was launched in the fall of 1969. “Though the program will be open to all students, one of its advantages will be to make this campus more hospitable for the black students who are arriving in increasing numbers,” reported the committee that designed it. At the same time, “whites have much to learn from a study of the culture and experience of black Americans.”

In 1993, the university published a booklet titled African-American Intellectual Life at Princeton: A Conversation, a discussion with some of Princeton’s best-known black professors. “There have been other times when African-American scholars and intellectuals have been together, but for the most part, that predates integration,” noted then-Vice Provost Ruth Simmons, who was widely credited with recruiting top black professors. “Today it’s quite extraordinary to find such a group; well, it’s more than extraordinary, it’s unparalleled.”

Toni Morrison, soon to win the Nobel Prize, discussed the Princeton program’s significance. “What’s interesting about Afro-American studies,” she said, “is that it’s a rip in the tent, and you can get through it, not primarily to understand the experience or intellectual life of African Americans, but to understand a number of things in the history, language, art, and culture of this country. It’s like an ignition, an engine that is turned on and distributes itself among virtually all of the disciplines” in the humanities and social sciences.

Within eight years, several of the faculty members the booklet highlighted – including Simmons – had left and student interest waned. But the impact of Princeton’s program on many students who participated never diminished, as alumni have made clear.


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