May 4, 2005

Africana Studies and Research Center is on the ascendant

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The intellectual and academic genius of the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) at Cornell University was fully evident in a brilliant display of scholarship and celebration April 29.

In a keynote address that crowned a colloquium on Brown v. Board of Education, Cornell alumna and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (Class of 1981, Africana studies) delivered a nuanced discussion of the challenges faced by the "post-Brown generation" of black students entering law schools in the 1980s and her efforts to put critical race theory on the academic map. An overflow crowd, many of them Africana alumni on campus for the Mosaic conference, packed the center's new Multipurpose Room, its lobby and another room. 

The Brown conference preceded a formal dedication ceremony for the expanded and renovated center, which opened in January. During the ceremony Salah Hassan, ASRC acting director, announced the creation of a Ph.D. program in Africana studies and the addition of two African languages to the center's curriculum. Regina Little-Durham '78, president of the Cornell Black Alumni Association, announced the launch of a fund-raising campaign for the center.

Crenshaw's talk followed presentations by powerhouse speakers Derrick Bell and Charles Ogletree (read about their talks) and served as testimony to the inherent value of a Cornell education in black studies. Crenshaw paid homage to her former teacher and mentor James Turner, Cornell professor of Africana studies, and the Africana Center, for creating something of a "delta squad" of "guerilla intellectuals who could go deep inside mainstream institutions and live to tell the story of our engagement." 

"Africana studies provided us with the essential building blocks of a critical consciousness, a consciousness that provided a conceptual framework to identify, analyze [and] critique ... the institutional and ideological practices of mainstream legal education," she said. "Black studies ... fueled a generation of new students who would confront and transform the conditions and practices of legal education. It also immunized us to the ambivalence of even our closest allies." 

There was nothing ambivalent about the formal dedication ceremony that followed. After referencing historic concerns among faculty and administrators that the center was too isolated, Professor Robert Harris said that "this facility, this occasion, puts to rest the question of where we should be located geographically. Intellectually, we've always been at the center of the academic enterprise of this campus."

Harris is the vice provost for diversity and faculty development, professor of Africana studies and served on the center's building committee. 

Turner, founding director of the ASRC, spoke of the center's history in terms of partnerships and collective efforts across the campus and in the larger Ithaca community.

"The Africana project ... I hope is now without doubt one of the most innovative and remarkable developments in higher education," Turner said. "In my view it set the pace for interdisciplinary studies and for interdisciplinary teaching which allowed for so much of what we now take for granted in terms of women's studies, American studies, cultural studies, Latino studies and Asian American and Native American studies. Our role continues to be at the cutting edge, to be the model that so many of our colleagues in the profession look to. ... Our mission moving forward shall be what it has always been: commitment to the intellectual, academic and personal development of our students."

Provost Biddy Martin was praised for her steadfast commitment to the ASRC. Former director Don Ohadike had turned to Martin when seeking administrative support for the center's expansion, and the two shared colanut, a gesture of goodwill in some African cultures. 

"It was the colanut that did it," said Martin, drawing an appreciative gust of laughter from the audience. Following brief remarks on the nature of the event, the provost quoted from an essay by Martin Heidegger on "building, dwelling and thinking."

"At the end of his essay Heidegger says, 'enough will have been accomplished if building and dwelling have become worthy of questioning and worthy of thought,'" said Martin. "I hope this building will turn out to have been worthy of questioning and worthy of thought, worthy of a kind of dwelling of the sort you have fought so hard to do over 35 years and that you're still fighting to do; that it is the kind of building that preserves, lets you dwell, lets others dwell, cultivates the new, holds onto the beloved and the revolutionary."

The building project's groundbreaking coincided with the 35th anniversaries of the center's founding, in the fall of 1969, and the Willard Straight Hall takeover at Cornell the previous spring. Although the center was approved prior to the student occupation of the university's student union, the Africana studies program was, in large part, a response to demands from African-American students for representative studies and facilities.

In concluding remarks, President Jeffrey Lehman expressed a profound appreciation for the intellectual spirit of the academic conference that led into the ceremony while praising the efforts of those who helped see the new building to completion.

"The newly renovated and expanded center is strengthening Cornell's position as one of the nation's most respected centers for teaching and research on African peoples and peoples of the African diaspora, and that is something to celebrate," he said. Lehman added that the primary goal of universities is "the pursuit of deeper intellectual understanding and the preparation of students for lives of insight, leadership and contribution. And those are the values that animate the Africana center. I am so ecstatic that the renovation and expansion of the center, which is an expression of those values, is being celebrated today."

Following a ribbon-cutting, Hassan presented 14 recent prints by African-American artist Faith Ringgold titled "Coming to Jones Road under a Blood Red Sky No. 6," to members of the administration, Africana faculty and staff and to Ralph T. Jackson, principal architect for the project.