Kwame Essien doesn’t just teach about the African diaspora. He’s lived it.A native of Ghana, Essien came to the United States two decades ago to embark on a personal journey of scholarship that has led him to the faculty of Lehigh’s Africana Studies program. The seeds of that journey were planted in family stories he heard from his mother growing up about the slave trade in Ghana and how a distant ancestor, a great chief, had been involved.
“There was something about that story that shaped my own interest in slavery,” Essien says. He had been trained to be an architect in Ghana but gave that up to pursue his dream in America. He worked jobs that allowed him the time to pursue his studies—driving a school bus, making donuts at Krispy Kreme, delivering the Wall Street Journal—as he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; his master’s from the University of Illinois; and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.
The assistant professor of history, who just completed his first year at Lehigh, shares his personal story as part of his teaching, and his studies include the comparative histories of slavery, liberated Afro-Brazilian slaves who returned to Ghana in the 1830s—what he calls “the African diaspora in reverse”—and race and cultures in Africa.
He is the first in a cluster of faculty hires for Africana Studies that has “brought in some of the most versatile, diverse and intellectually engaging scholars that we were able to recruit to Lehigh,” says James Peterson, director of the program.
Joining Essien in the fall semester are Monica Miller, a religion studies scholar who focuses on youth culture throughout the diaspora and African American religious practices; Susan Kart, an art historian who studies 20th-century Senegalese visual art; and Darius Williams, a theatre scholar, teacher and performer whose research focuses on 20th-century African American theatre, in particular black, gay youth dramatic culture in the South. In addition, Terrance Wiley will join the Africana Studies and Religion Studies faculty in fall 2014 to, as Peterson puts it, “chair and hopefully reinvigorate the Peace Studies program.” After years of what former Africana Studies director William Scott candidly calls “stagnation,”
Lehigh’s Africana Studies program is clearly on the move, just as it is getting ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its founding.
“There are no other Africana Studies programs growing like ours is at the moment,”Peterson says.
And it has made Lehigh a highly attractive destination for the best and brightest young scholars.
“There is no better place, I would say, for any young scholar like me to get a job like this in the 21st century than at Lehigh,” Essien says. The program’s current growth is made possible by the cluster hiring approach embedded in Lehigh’s strategic plan. That process, Peterson concedes, is time consuming and painstaking, requiring negotiations with more than one department because each faculty member hired has shared responsibilities. “What I would argue is that the payoff is worth it,” Peterson says. “Because what we’ve done through the Africana Studies cluster hiring process is we’ve built lifelong relationships with departments that we previously didn’t have.”
A Patchwork Beginning
What became Africana Studies was born of the tumult of the 1960s, largely in response to demands from African American students and faculty that the experiences and history of African Americans be included in what was being taught and studied on college campuses.
“This was a battleground time in the field,” recalls Scott, who at the time was in graduate school at Princeton University, studying African and African American history.
“It was an incredibly hard struggle to get the programs instituted, in the sense of being formalized, on these campuses,” he says. “In addition to being a student, I was also a part of the protests for recognition of the field at Princeton. Other students were doing the same thing elsewhere as well. You might be involved in the taking over of a building in the morning and going to a seminar to present a paper in the afternoon.” The movement to create what initially was known as Black Studies or African American Studies was inseparable from the civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War and the “urban insurrections” taking place in American cities, Scott says.
“The students who were agitating for African American Studies were committed to viable, intellectual endeavors,” he says. “But they saw themselves as an arm of what was also happening in inner-city streets at that time. They really saw themselves as an extension of the broad protest for justice in the country.” In the decades since, Black Studies programs have evolved into Africana Studies, to encompass the whole of the African diaspora, and developed from programs into academic departments at universities and colleges across the land. Lehigh, however, was hardly in the vanguard of that movement. In 1992, the university brought in Scott—who previously had been the founding chair of Black Studies departments at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Oberlin College in Ohio—to direct its fledging African American Studies program. The current program was officially launched in the fall of 1992.
“It was really cobbled together with those faculty currently on campus who taught something related to African American Studies,” recalls Ted Morgan, University Distinguished Professor of political science who chaired the search committee that led to Scott’s hiring. Morgan, much of whose life’s work has focused on the civil rights era and social movements of the 1960s that gave birth to Africana Studies, has been an advocate for the program and diversity at Lehigh for more than two decades. Any attempt to develop a true understanding of American and world history, he says, would be “really deficient if it does not incorporate the contributions and the cultures of the African diaspora.”
The program also plays an important role in the university’s diversity efforts, helping to increase the representation of students and faculty of color while enriching Lehigh’s campus culture, Morgan says. By the mid-1990s, under Scott’s leadership, African American Studies at Lehigh reached a milestone when a major was created. But the program still relied on faculty from other departments, supplemented with adjunct faculty, to sustain it. Lack of available resources, coupled with the departures of President Peter Likins and Provost Al Pence, who hired Scott and initially championed the program, led to years of “not making significant progress,” Scott says.
But a core group of faculty in history, sociology, political science and English, among other departments, kept the program alive.
“We were covering an extremely small slice of the black experience,” Scott says. “But we did what we could do under the circumstances and kept hope alive that things would improve.” They did.
In 2007, then-College of Arts and Sciences Dean Anne Meltzer approved a two-year predoctoral/postdoc fellows program for Africana Studies. Scott, having shepherded the program to that point, felt it was a good time to return to his research in black religious history in 18th-century America, and Morgan was tapped to serve as interim director. From fall 2009 to summer 2010, three external Africana Studies experts were brought in to review the program and its needs. The cluster hiring proposal was developed starting in fall 2010, made the cut for the final
round of seven proposals in January 2011 and was approved in April 2011. During that time, Morgan led the search for a new director that resulted in Peterson’s hiring at the end of April 2011.
“The success of the cluster hire process was, in my view, the key to the resurgence, growth and new energy in the program,” Morgan says.
A New Direction
Peterson, an associate professor of English in addition to directing the Africana Studies program, came to Lehigh from Bucknell University and previously served as an assistant professor of English at Penn State University – Abington. While Peterson says he was attracted by Lehigh’s reputation and location, “the deciding factor for me was understanding that this was an opportunity for me to both reinvigorate and also build the Africana Studies program at Lehigh University. There are going to be very, very few times, if any, in your lifetime where you will be hired with the opportunity to participate in the process of hiring your own core group.”
In the past, faculty from other departments— such as Kashi Johnson in theatre, Berrisford Boothe in art and Seth Moglen in English, among others—essentially donated their time to teach in Africana Studies, Peterson says.
“All of these hires are different in the sense that they’re 50-percent Africana Studies, which means we have a core group of young scholars who are officially contributing their academic and professional time to the Africana Studies program.”
Peterson says building the program “has been a collaborative effort from beginning to end”and credits Donald E. Hall, current dean, and Sherry Buss, in the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs, with helping the program advance. Africana Studies is now the hub “of some of the most exciting intellectual work being done in the college. James has built a world-class program in very short order,” says Hall. Peterson plans a multi-pronged approach to continue building the program. First is to retain the bright young scholars hired through the cluster process. Second is to cultivate their research, making sure they have time and support to pursue scholarship along with their academic responsibilities. Third is to draw on the knowledge of those who have built the program and kept it going over the years—including Scott, Morgan, Moglen, Betsy Fifer, Rick Matthews and others—to ensure that it is passed on to new generations of Lehigh scholars. And then there’s what Peterson calls his “secret weapon”—media relations. Since arriving at Lehigh, Peterson has been a frequent guest, offering his expertise on popular culture, urban youth and politics, on national news networks, including Al-Jazeera English, CBS News and MSNBC, as well as on various local television networks. He blogs for the Huffington Post and has published his scholarly work in Callaloo, Criticism, Black Arts Quarterly and African American Review.
“I want us to be one of the most media-savvy Africana Studies programs in the nation,” he says. “My media work is very, very important to the community I come from. I’m from inner-city Newark, N.J. I come from a neighborhood and a community where education is the greatest pathway to transcending your circumstances. For my entire life, I’ve been committed to giving back and working with my own community.
“We need to do our academic work, and we need to make sure we’re publishing in academic journals and publishing monographs with academic university presses. But I am also going to challenge my colleagues to join me in contributing to the public discourse because that, to me, is an important service of Africana Studies.”
His long-term vision is that, 10 years down the line, Lehigh will have been able to retain the young scholars the university has hired and that Africana Studies will be an academic department with as many majors and Study Abroad opportunities as Global Studies now offers. He also hopes that “our faculty will have a significant footprint in the community of Bethlehem and in the surrounding communities of the Lehigh Valley, but also on the national scene; that the work that we’re doing will have impact on the public discourses as well as the academic discourses for the foreseeable future.”