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Why Africana Studies?

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Coming to Notre Dame, I had no idea that Africana Studies existed. I did not know until I met Dr. Richard Pierce, former chair of the department. He gave a talk that he gives to every group of athletes in the freshman class. In the midst of lectures on NCAA rules and procedures, Dr. Pierce spoke about what it means to be a student-athlete. But it was less a speech and more a poem, a charge, a call to action, a challenge. He told us, “Don’t fear the specter” – the daunting challenges that lie ahead. Some of the challenges are there, motionless, to be surpassed. Some will actively resist, but progress only results in confronting the specter with the full knowledge of its reality. It is a message for everyone, and ultimately, it is the reason I am an Africana Studies major.    
In Africana Studies, an important symbol is the Sankofa bird. Sankofa literally means, “to go back and get it” and is associated with the Akan proverb, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The symbolic bird is portrayed as reaching back into its feathers with its beak, while thrusting its chest forward, indicating the direction of its forward motion. The protrusion of the chest exposes the most vital part of the bird. It signifies that the bird is vulnerable in the present, but that the quest for truth is still necessary. The bird’s feathers represent that truth, a source of self-criticism and analysis. The talons of the bird are gripping the earth firmly, signifying that this quest is rooted in history. Inferred from the symbol of the bird is the concept that the past influences the present, in order to move forward and think about the future.  
Isn’t this ultimately the challenge that education provides? Two prominent Africana Studies scholars state that education “dispels ignorance, bolsters courage and gives insight into the important social phenomena that shape human relationships.” The Sankofa bird is the embodiment of one who does not fear the challenges of a self-critical education. Africana Studies is a series of courses that acts as a set of practical applications for discovering and addressing one’s own socializations. It forces students to tear down preconceived notions of Africa and the diaspora, providing the wisdom necessary to move forward in the pursuit of justice. It forces students to confront their own internal prejudices in examining African and African-American influence on multiple facets of society. Rather than simply administering course material that is the expansion of a body of knowledge about the world and the way it functions, the African and African-American experience as a course of study is an inherently socially and politically active experience. It is prophetic and a social corrective without being self-exculpatory.
Africana Studies is inherently prophetic as a basis to better understand the world, and one’s own socializations and how they impact perspective of this world. The combination of this understanding creates an indissoluble and formidable platform to move from the way the world is to the way the world should be.  
We have to go back for what we have forgotten, whether that is a previous relationship or mode of understanding. We have to be willing to see the world as it was, because our current environment is a product of that world. If we are truly going to make progress as a society, we must be agents moving forward in our pursuit of justice but always being grounded in the realities of the past and present. Africana Studies focuses on agency in human history by creating the space for the voices of those silenced throughout the historical process and silenced by the dominant paradigms in which we are socialized, a study rewarding in and of itself. Africana Studies stresses respect for each individual and his or her diversity, addresses the lack of appreciation for and knowledge of other cultures within academia and the need for a social and corrective dimension within education and establishes multicultural education as a tool for one to learn to be comfortable in the midst of paradigm shifts.  
 Symbolically, the most important part of the Sankofa bird is its vulnerability, and its pursuit for truth nonetheless. One of the most frightening moments in our lives is when the pillars of our socializations upon which we rely for our bearings and paradigms are no longer veiled in a mythical past untouchable to the inquiry of the mind and crumble down until what is left is the foundation and soul of humanity. Upon that foundation we can build. This moment is the most frightening, but it is also the most liberating. Africana Studies begins this process. Africana Studies in and of itself is a call to action and a challenge of self-analysis. No matter how frightening, it is a task we must undertake. Indeed, we must not fear the specter.
Alex Coccia is a junior Africana and Peace Studies major and a Gender Studies minor. He appreciates classroom conversations in Black Politics in Multiracial America.  He can be reached at acoccia@nd.edu    
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.