September 16, 2013
A Celebration of Inclusion: The African American Studies Program
“African American Studies at VSU offers a
world of new and exciting possibilities!”
- Dr. Shirley H Hardin, director of African American Studies
It was shortly before Dr. Shirley H Hardin received her doctorate in English in 1988 that she casually mentioned to Dr. Jerry L. Hardee, then assistant to the president for Equal Opportunity Programs and Multicultural Affairs, that she had always dreamed of working to establish an African American Studies Program at Valdosta State. Having taught a year at an HBCU (historically black college/university), she was somewhat surprised upon her arrival at Valdosta State that there were no African American Studies courses offered at the institution.
“The history of black studies courses previously offered was equally depressing,” said Hardin. “Only two (African American history and African American literature) that had been offered and they never really got off the ground.”
In the fall of 1994, that story changed drastically. Hardin, along with three other contributing writers, successfully proposed the academic minor in African American Studies. Hardee, along with Dr. John Gaston, then head of the Department of Communication Arts, Dr. Benjamin McClain, professor of education, worked to ensure that a strong and academically sound minor would become a part of VSU’s academic programs. Other committee members included Dr. Ebele Eko, Fulbright Scholar in English; Dr. Okete Shiroya, professor of history; Dr. Ouida McDougal, professor of education; and Dr. Bob Bauer, professor of education.
“It wasn’t until the fall of 1996 that the African American Studies (AFAM) minor was officially approved by the Board of Regents and established on the VSU campus,” said Hardin. “Initially, there were approximately six courses offered with me teaching at least three of those courses. Student interest grew, and more courses were created and negotiated with university department heads whose faculty were interested in teaching interdisciplinary studies courses.”
In the first four years, the program grew tremendously with the recruitment of at least 10 professors and the development of more than 20 courses – many of them cross listed between disciplines.
“I never dreamed that our program would have taken off so swiftly to become the largest minor on VSU’s campus,” said Hardin. “Even today, the enthusiasm and sheer excitement of strengthening our program remain strong.”
Some of courses provided through the AFAM program include African American Literature, African Literature, Dissecting Race, Class, & Gender; African American History African American Theater, History of African American Music Culture, African Americans and the Criminal Justice Program, African Americans and Mental Health, African Americans and Obesity, Black Families, Images of Blacks in the Mass Media, African American Art History, and other AFAM special topics courses.
Despite its strong enrollment and interdisciplinary course offerings, African American Studies is still challenged in its attempt to propose a Bachelor of Arts degree.
“I have always felt that any major academic program needs its own main faculty and that is something that we do not have,” said Hardin. “Because we are an interdisciplinary program, we must negotiate courses every semester with other department heads who, rightly so, are already committed, in some instances, to offering only those required classes that mainly benefit their own majors. Nonetheless, I am grateful that our College of Arts and Sciences professors have been so supportive of our program as well as the College of the Arts professors.”
Hardin added that in spite of a steady decline in physical and human resources, the program’s efforts to move forward with a proposal for the academic major still remains strong. In fact, AFAM is seriously engaged in the Complete Georgia College initiative and has been tracking its graduates to see how the academic minor has affected their employability.
“In most cases, students report that the AFAM minor significantly enhances their career and employment opportunities,” said Hardin. “Many of the AFAM students, having completed the minor certification and having graduated, are professional educators teaching in culturally diverse environments, working in healthcare facilities, pursuing law degrees and working in law enforcement, serving as counselors in juvenile correctional facilities, and working as state and federal government employees, advanced officers in the U.S. military, and business managers. Moreover, some are pursuing bachelor’s and the master’s degrees in AFAM studies at other institutions. Although I am very proud of the work the AFAM team has accomplished, my greatest regret is pursuing the academic minor instead of the academic major, but it was a choice we did not have in the early 90s.”
The AFAM program has contributed greatly to the creation of a more diverse culture at the university, both academically and socially. For years, AFAM professors have served as advisors for diverse student organizations and have provided guidance and support to a number of students, regardless of their race or ethnicity. Since its inception, AFAM has also hosted or co-hosted several well-known entertainers, visual and performing artists, authors and literary critics like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Ossie Davis, Olympia Vernon, Allison Joseph, John Hope Franklin, Molefi Kete Asante, the Tallahassee Boys’ Choir, Nathan McCall, Tony Brown, the Tuskegee Airmen and most recently, the American Spiritual Ensemble.
The AFAM program also hosts the annual Multicultural Sankofa Celebration at the end of every spring semester. This celebration provides an opportunity for all graduating students to have their academic achievements and organizational service acknowledged before parents, spouses, other family members and friends. At this event, the AFAM teacher of the year, the AFAM student of the year, the AFAM community servant of the year, and the AFAM student mentor of the year are acknowledged.
When asked about her greatest joy during her tenure as director, Hardin smiled and said “Although I don’t do as much of it as I would like because of my related administrative duties, I love, love, love interacting with the students – in and out of the classroom. When my students discover the potential for greatness within themselves, I am delighted. When they can stand before a class and intelligently discuss a given assignment and answer follow-up questions, thus demonstrating critical thinking skills, I am overjoyed. When students email me, call or just drop by to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ after five, 10, 15 or 20 years, I am grateful. It means that somewhere along their educational journey, African American Studies made an impact on their lives.”