The Ohio State University Alumni Association

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Makio '68, Getty Images, Library of Congress

Department born in time of strife

Chair and Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor Simone Drake contrasts two eras.

This is called the information age, but it’s a very particular kind of information; it’s not historical. Students today live in the moment. You have to connect the dots for them. My vision as chair of Ohio State’s Department of African American and African Studies is for students to receive a comprehensive and interdisciplinary education that connects those dots.

Our department was born out of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. There was a real consciousness in that specific time period that certain knowledge had been denied students, and they were seeking it. The department formed [in 1969] because the other traditional academic units weren’t researching, producing and teaching black subject matter, and most certainly not from a black perspective. They had not incorporated culture and race into their curriculum in a critical way. Our department served that purpose.

I don’t think the department’s mission has changed, but sometimes it can get somewhat diluted or lost as the university moves on and is not mindful in its intention to expand. We must remain conscious of what makes this unit distinct and how it came to be. It was designed to bring forward academic excellence, but it also was designed with an awareness of social responsibility, because it’s an academic discipline born out of protest. That’s what really makes us different from other departments. We bring the academic and the community engagement together.

Our department’s extension center provides a space for that kind of work. There really aren’t black studies departments in the country that have their own center like ours in the community. As department chair, I want to revitalize our social responsibility component. That’s called praxis: putting the theories that we are teaching students — and that we applied in our own research — into practice.