Africana Studies’ 50th celebrates Black life and art

On Friday, Feb. 1, UJIMA featured Bryan Smith ’21 in a performance of “Ella’s Song” at the Fergusson Dance Theatre in front of a standing-room-only audience. Courtesy of Monericka Semeran.

On Friday, Feb. 1, Vassar’s Africana Studies Program celebrated its 50th anniversary by showcasing a variety of creative student endeavors, including spoken word, poetry, dance, live music and visual arts. Like many educational institutions, Vassar’s history features discriminatory policies. Until the 1940s, any Black students present at Vassar were accepted unknowingly, having been presumed to be white. Acknowledging this legacy, the packed event, directed and organized by Savannah Smith ’19, showcased students of colors’ talent to celebrate the progress the college has made in its diversity and recognition of students of color on campus.

The Africana Studies Program, which is the longest-running multidisciplinary program at Vassar, was started in 1969 by a group of student activists. “Africana Studies grows out of the student protest movements in the late 1960s, where students across the country formed Black studies programs at the time,” Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies Quincy Mills explained. “Africana Studies at Vassar started in the City of Poughkeepsie, where students were taking a bus from campus to the City of Poughkeepsie to take classes and attend lectures.” These classes took place at the Urban Center for Black Studies. It was only after four years that the program moved to campus, and students no longer had to commute to attend their classes.

Vassar’s Africana Studies Program offers over 40 courses, with themes ranging from the political to the artistic, as courses are taught by professors from a variety of disciplines. According to the program’s website, “Its educational mission is to promote a focused and critical study of the people, cultures, and institutions of Africa and the African Diaspora drawing from nearly all of the disciplines at Vassar College” (Africana Studies, “Home,” 01.21.2019).

“Freedom: To the 34 Black Women who took over Main Building,” choreographed by Savannah Smith ’19, featured performers Athena Davis ’20 and Abrianna Harris ’21. Courtesy of Monericka Semeran.

That the Africana Studies Program is celebrating 50 years at Vassar is no small feat—Anita Florence Hemmings, Class of 1897, was the first Black woman to graduate from Vassar and was only able to do so by passing as white. It was not for another 40 years that Black students were knowingly admitted.
Camryn Casey ’21, a member of Ujima, Vassar’s all-POC arts group, reflected on this: “It’s kind of a roller coaster that this school started out where Black people couldn’t attend, and the first Black woman was under wraps, pretending to be white,” she said. “Now, to not only have Black people come to this school but to have that education be centered around that and have funding go towards that is amazing.”

Once the Africana Studies Program arrived on campus, its roots in activism and community-engaged learning began to encourage other multidisciplinary programs. “The early innovations of what community and campus could look like comes out of Africana Studies at Vassar, so other multidisciplinary programs that were developed took a look at what Africana Studies was doing and formed around it,” Mills explained. “I would argue that Africana Studies comes out of student activism, and that means there were other areas of study that looked at Black Studies as a model for what community-engaged learning could look like.” Simply put, Vassar’s tradition of community-based learning is forever intertwined with the birth of the Africana Studies program.

The anniversary event was eclectic in its showcase of students’ creative pursuits. On the stage of Kenyon Hall, students performed acapella songs, spoken word poetry and dances. Cheers reverberated throughout the packed theater, encouraging and appreciating the talent present. There was a sense of excitement and agreement in the relevance of what the night meant—the performances did not shy away from facing some of the bigger questions about what it means to be a person of color on campus and in today’s society. The show also took a step back to acknowledge the steps Vassar has taken to be more inclusive of various identity groups. The collaboration between a variety of creative endeavors, from heartbreaking spoken word poetry to energetic, uplifting dance performances, offered a wide take on the multifaceted experience of being a person of color.

“It was such an honor to see everybody doing what they’re passionate about,” said dancer Emily Lesorogol ’22. “It was so cool to have that collaboration, and I really hope that we do more collaborations between all the arts.”

Mills explained that the Africana Studies Program chose to celebrate its 50th anniversary with an arts program because creativity is the foundation from which intellectual curiosity and activism are spawned. “What better way to celebrate social justice than to have students create, imagine, explore? At the end of the day, questions of freedom and liberation are about questions of the future and what’s possible,” he said. “I think that’s reflected through the arts.”

After the stage performance, there was a catered visual arts performance in the Kenyon Club Room, which students filled with their energy and conversations about Africana Studies’ legacy, the performances they had just witnessed and the visual art on display. “There’s a sense of pride in being blessed to be at a school that celebrates an anniversary like this,” Lersoregol reflected. “It was packed and everybody came out and loved it.”

Considering the significance of the Africana Studies Program having existed for 50 years at Vassar, Mills concluded that the anniversary reflects the increasing diversity of the college itself. “Students have raised their voices to encourage the college and its curriculum to look like them—to be inclusive, diverse, transformative, liberating,” He said. “50 years of Africana Studies at Vassar is a representation of what Vassar should be and should look like, of creativity and intellectual rigor, of excitement, of activism.”

[Revision (Sunday, Mar. 31): The original headline of this article, “Africana Studies’ 50th celebrates POC talent,” was changed to “Africana Studies’ 50th celebrates Black life and art” to more accurately capture the essence of the event. In addition, the original version of this article neglected to mention that Savannah Smith ’19 organized and directed the event.]

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