Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2006
Vol. 4, No. 1

FEATURES

> OUT OF AFRICA
   The Diaspora and Beyond
   On the Cover

A MAJOR CHANGE

SHOP TALK

cover

ON THE COVER »

 

 

 

At right, professor Ben Vinson engaged in discussion with his students.


COVER STORY
adjust type size + -

Out of Africa

With several recent key hires, including that of director Ben Vinson, the fledgling Africana Studies Center is poised to take off—with a tripartite approach that transcends cultures . . . and continents.

Historian Ben Vinson has led a peripatetic life.

The son of a U.S. military Air Forcemaster sergeant, he spent much of his childhood in Europe, attending the local Italian and military base schools in Vicenza and Sovizzo. His collegiate studies brought him to the United States, first to Dartmouth (BA), then to Columbia University (PhD). Vinson’s research interests took him next to Venezuela, where he examined black religious festivals, and then to Mexico, where he conducted research while serving on the faculty of Barnard College and most recently Penn State University. He’s spent the last several summers in North Carolina at UNC’s Institute of Latin American Studies, and has just completed a year-long residency at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

“In many ways, I am a living ‘Diasporan,’” Vinson says.

He is referring to the term “African Diaspora,” a field of discourse that is rapidly gaining currency in scholarly circles around the world, and one that’s a linchpin of the Krieger School’s three-year-old Center for Africana Studies, which Vinson joined as director this fall. As Vinson explains it, the African Diaspora paradigm “strives to understand the movement of black peoples from their ancestral homelands to a variety of hostlands.”

Vinson settled in his newest “host city” in August, and he’s convinced, he says, that Baltimore is an area “uniquely situated to be a pioneer in the future of Diaspora studies.”

Barely pausing a beat, he ticks off the reasons why: The city has a large and prominent African-American population (and during the antebellum period was home to one of the largest concentrations of free blacks in the United States). Until very recently the home of the NAACP, it boasts “a powerful tradition of black journalism,” with the Baltimore African-American. Positioned close to Washington D.C., it offers easy access to think tanks, NGOS, and other policy-oriented institutions that are working with black populations. And finally, Baltimore “has an eye out” for attracting immigration. A study completed by the Abell Foundation in 2002 suggested that immigration may be a solution to sustaining and increasing Baltimore City’s population, thereby preventing urban population decline.

“A Center for African Studies poised to take off in this environment,” says Vinson, “seems ripe for a whole panoply of possibilities.”

African Diaspora studies are just one part of the three-part mission of the fledgling Africana Studies Center. For the other two parts, the center builds on the Krieger School’s existing strength in the study of Africa (the school boasts world-renowned scholars in African history, anthropology, and politics, among other disciplines), and also encompasses African-American studies. It offers both an undergraduate major and minor.

“One of the challenges for us was to create a program that built on our existing faculty strengths,” while also moving in a “direction as responsive as possible to the broader interest of students in African-American studies,” explains Adam Falk, James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School.

Africana Studies provides a “rubric large enough” to encompass both and yet still be “coherent.” It’s “cross cultural, and cross-continental,” he says.

History professor Sara Berry, who had been leading the center since its launch, sees tremendous potential in its interdisciplinary basis. “There are lots of possible ways of developing and expanding; individual faculty emphasize very different parts of this broad field,” says Berry, whose research and teaching has focused on the economic and social history of Africa. “It’s not a field with a finite number of well-defined slots that are full or empty. It’s a developing one.”

She continues, “I’m just thrilled that we’ve come as far as we’ve come. We’re beginning to expand faculty resources and I think Ben Vinson is going to bring marvelously energetic and imaginative leadership.”

Sociology professor Katrina Bell McDonald shares her colleagues’ enthusiasm for the new center’s potential. “I have never been more excited,” she says.

Her enthusiasm does not come easily. McDonald joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1994 and over the past 12 years has served on a succession of faculty committees and task forces aimed at boosting the representation of African-American faculty and students at the Krieger School. Throughout that period, students (and some faculty) have pushed university administrators to establish a Black Studies program. For most of those years, efforts toward both goals met with frustration.

“It’s been a really painful process,” says McDonald.

Falk acknowledges that pain. “There’s no question that the School of Arts and Sciences has been profoundly challenged in terms of achieving ethnic diversity in its faculty,” he says.

The establishment of the Center for Africana Studies three years ago, Vinson’s arrival as its first director this fall, and a series of recent African-American faculty hires gives McDonald and others confidence that genuine progress is now being made.

“The face of an Africana Studies Center is meaningful,” says McDonald, adding, “Seemingly overnight, there are now five men of African descent in the Political Science Department.” The newest appointments include Michael Hanchard, formerly professor of political science and director of the Institute for Diaspora Studies at Northwestern University; and assistant professor Lester Spence, who had joint appointments in Hopkins’ Department of Political Science and the African and African-American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis prior to joining the full-time faculty at Hopkins in summer 2005. They join existing political science faculty members professor Siba Grovogui; lecturer Floyd Hayes, the Center for Africana Studies’ coordinator of programs and undergraduate studies; and visiting lecturer Neil Roberts.

Falk looks to the tripartite mission of the new Center for Africana Studies as its major strength—a “value added” approach to the more singular-minded Black Studies programs that sprang up at universities across the country throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. “Older models of African American Studies have been played out,” says Falk. “By being late to the game, we’re more free to do something different.”

Ben Vinson elaborates, “What the African Diaspora framework is useful for doing is creating an idea for an alternative understanding of blackness that stretches it beyond straight and narrow African-American-ness, the way several Black Studies programs have operated in the past. By stretching beyond African-American-ness, but at the same time referencing back to it, this kind of approach bears more fruit.”

 

An expert on colonial Mexico, Vinson has examined issues of race and class within that nation, where, he says, the many variations of “blackness” (black, mulatto, mulatto mixtures) create a “fluidity” that’s very different from the more fixed black/white binary at work in the United States. His books include Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico (Stanford University Press, 2001), Flight: The Story of Virgil Richardson, A Tuskegee Airman in Mexico (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Afromexico (Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2004).

In recent years, Vinson’s growing interest in the Diasporic approach took him to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where an increasing number of Afro-Mexicans have begun to settle, pushed from their homeland by a lack of jobs. “North Carolina has one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the country,” he says. Given the South’s “legacy of racial antagonism,” Vinson is interested in how these newest black immigrants will relate to the city’s African-Americans, and how they will forge a racial identity. “In the United States, blackness as a category seems poised to be stretched,” he notes. “To what extent do Afro-Mexicans fit into stereotypes of the ‘Old South?’” And to what extent are Afro-Mexicans and African-Americans together creating a truly ‘New South?’”

Vinson envisions coursework and independent research projects that will take students out into the Baltimore/Washington community, researching how African Americans have historically responded to immigration.

To find out, Vinson and Notre Dame de Namur University anthropologist Bobby Vaughn interviewed newly arrived immigrants in Winston-Salem and their African-American neighbors, using a Rockefeller Diasporic Racisms Grant (co-sponsored by the University of Texas’s Center for African American Studies) in 2002. Their preliminary field research indicates that there is a gulf between the two groups, largely due to the language barrier. Most were content to live separate lives.


Among the Afro-Mexican immigrants, Vinson saw at work that racial “fluidity” that exists in their homeland. In the United States, “given the racism and the subordination that blacks have historically sustained,” says Vinson, “it’s not always cool to be black.” Afro-Mexican immigrants “can escape their blackness by being read as Latinos.” On the other hand, he says, “there are some very dark Afro-Mexicans. If they’re here illegally, they can use this to pass as African Americans. As long as they’re not speaking, they’re not immediately read as Latinos.”

For the most part, says Vinson, among the immigrant population he studied, racial heritage may not hold the primacy it does for their African-American counterparts.

“The history of race relations in the South has become sedimented in certain ways,” says Vinson. “Civil Rights struggles and victories have become enshrined within the American experience in such a way that certain debates are part of the fabric of what it is to live in America. I don’t know yet to what extent the surging Latino population wishes to take part in those debates—or perhaps create new ones.”

Vinson is eager to bring to Baltimore some of the ideas and themes that emerged from his research in North Carolina. This year, through the Center for Africana Studies, he is launching the Diaspora Pathways Project, a multidisciplinary effort to examine the effects of immigration in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. At issue: How are the region’s African Americans reacting to recent swells in immigration?

The project has captured the imagination of faculty from a variety of disciplines at the Krieger School, among them Michael Hanchard in political science; history’s post-doctoral fellow Melanie Shell-Weiss, anthropology’s Stanford Carpenter; and sociology’s McDonald.

Vinson envisions coursework and independent research projects that will take students out into the Baltimore/Washington community, researching how African Americans have historically responded to immigration. Students will conduct investigations at the archives at the Afro-American and the NAACP, among other places, and interview current community residents and leaders.

As a tie-in to the Diaspora Pathways Project, McDonald, who is teaching the Qualitative Research Practicum for sociology majors, has chosen African Immigration in Baltimore as the focus for the course this year. “The Census shows that the number of Africans entering the United States now is at a rate higher than at the time of slavery,” she says, noting that these immigrants are considered a “valued” group under current U.S. immigration policy.

In Baltimore, there are growing enclaves of Nigerian and Ethiopian immigrants. In McDonald’s course, students will document these demographic trends and conduct “participant observation”-style interviews with immigrants and their African-American neighbors.

The intensive interviewing approach to sociology dovetails nicely with McDonald’s own approach to scholarship. Promoted to tenure late last spring, she has a book due out this fall titled Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity, and Contemporary Black Women. The book explores the question: As African-American women climb up to the middle class and above, does class trump race? Or vice versa? What she found after years of interviewing and data crunching, she says, is that upwardly mobile African-American women retain a strong sense of identification with those they “leave behind.”

“There’a strong draw to ‘keep centered,’” says McDonald. “African-American women have a very strong sense of themselves as a collective.”

Embracing Sisterhood resonates with the findings of a new study that McDonald recently completed with graduate student Bedelia Nicola Richards. Using longitudinal data from the Baltimore Study (1966–1996), the researchers examined the residential mobility patterns of disadvantaged black mothers over the course of three decades. Given the opportunity to move to safer, more advantaged neighborhoods, would these mothers and their families take root and flourish? The question has particular relevance today, given current government-sponsored relocation programs.

McDonald and Richards found some evidence of “downward mobility” among the women they interviewed. “Some of the mothers chose to move into unsafe neighborhoods in order to care for or be near family despite the fact that they had the resources to live in better quality neighborhoods,” they report in the study. For these women, “the importance of kin and community loomed large.” To help slow the tide of such downward mobility, McDonald and Richards conclude that policymakers must invest more vigorously in the inner city “to eliminate the pressure for disadvantaged Black mothers to move out of their beloved neighborhoods and away from kin.”

McDonald hopes that through initiatives like the Diaspora Pathways Project, Krieger School students will increasingly find opportunities to get out into the community and conduct research of this kind—research that can bear directly on public policy affecting African Americans. “I’m excited,” she says, “about what this might yield.”

“The Census shows that the number of Africans entering the United States now is at a rate higher than at the time of slavery...”
Katrina Bell McDonald

 

In a related field, political science professors Hanchard and Erin Chung are co-directing a new program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, which will include undergraduate and graduate courses in comparative racial politics, an introduction to racial and ethnic politics, nationalism, and immigration. Given the overlap in content, many of these courses will also be cross-listed with Africana Studies.

Hanchard, whose principal research interests lie in comparative politics, says he and Chung “will be convening a series of workshops and talks over the next several years, inviting specialists who work in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe to discuss and consider the intersection of racism, immigration, and citizenship in a number of national societies.”

Vinson says he also plans to look beyond the Krieger School to establish connections with other university departments and divisions—including the Sheridan Libraries, Hopkins’ Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, and the Bloomberg School of Public Health—to launch joint research projects and invite faculty from these other divisions to teach at the center.
Says Vinson, “We’re beginning conversations with people now and exploring possibilities of how the center can benefit from the wealth of expertise and resources throughout Johns Hopkins.”

 

While interdisciplinary scholarship is a primary mission of the Africana Studies Center, university leaders hope the center will also go a long way toward building community.

Last year the center launched a series of “rap sessions” in the lobby of Levering Hall—an informal opportunity for graduate students to present their work to undergraduates, faculty, family, and community members. “They were lively sessions,” says McDonald, “on issues ranging from racialized pharmaceuticals to hip-hop music and what it says to African-American men about education.” The discussions were so popular that planners have moved to make them monthly this year.

Vinson also has plans for the center to host workshops, conferences, and speakers’ series. On October 20, for instance, the center is scheduled to host Peniel Joseph, who will speak on his new book, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour, a narrative history of the evolution of Black Power in the United States that makes references to its global origins and roots. And Vinson would like to make connections between the center and the Baltimore public school system.

Falk believes that all of these efforts will serve to strengthen the Krieger School’s continued efforts to recruit and retain more African-American faculty and students—including those whose scholarly interests lie in other areas. “A vibrant Center for Africana Studies sends a signal of inclusiveness,” Falk says.

McDonald couldn’t agree more. “When [African-American] students are shopping for colleges, if they see a vibrant African Studies Center, they will feel more comfortable, to know they are not an anomaly.”

Falk emphasizes that the Krieger School is committed to making other key African-American hires in the months and years ahead. “We’re very proud of [how far we’ve come],” he says, “but our work is really just beginning.”

Sue De Pasquale is the magazine’s interim editor.