State of African American Studies in Houston-area colleges
Claremont Graduate University

How are Houston-area African American Studies (AAS) programs fairing amid a growing thirst in Black students to learn more about our history bumping against a national atmosphere dominated by the criminalization of Black books, lectures and though that have been labeled critical race theory (CRT) by GOP-dominated state legislatures?

To find out, the Defender spoke with Dr. Anthony Pinn (Rice University), Dr. Will Guzman (Prairie View A&M University), Dr. Linda Reed and Dr. Kevin Thompson (University of Houston) and Dr. Merline Pitre (Texas Southern University).

UH

UH African American Studies students. Photo courtesy UH AAS.

Program Founded:

1968; became a department in 2021

Director:

Dr. Linda Reed, interim director

Strong Points:

  • Cultural competency: Allowing students, whether they be African American or not to understand the African American perspective of education and other systems. (Thompson)
  • Exposure to Impact of Other Cultures
  • Facilitates students’ agency: The concept of agency that an individual has the power to control their future, by learning about the past, applying those lessons to the present and thereby creating the future. (Thompson)
  • Multi-disciplinary: We are one of the units that touch so many different areas of any campus. We have contributed to great accomplishments in medicine, in engineering, and then also arts and sciences and the humanities.
The late Dr. James Conyers, who served as the UH AAS program’s director and oversaw its rise to department status before his passing in 2021.

Room to Grow:

Notoriety/Recognition: We need to have more people understand that we are here on campus, as historic as we are. Once students find out, they fall in love with the curriculum. They fall in love with the teachers. They fall in love with the ethos, the spirit that’s imbued here. I think just getting the word out, like Outkast at the ’95 Source Awards. “Hey, we’re here!” Then, a lot of students don’t understand that they can do something with this major and minor; that it’s applicable within every industry.

Programs & Area(s) of Specialization:

  • African American History as American History: If it had not been for the contributions of people from Africa to the United States, America would not be the great nation that it is today. (Reed)
  • Study Abroad Program to Accra, Ghana: When they come back, they’re never the same. They’re a little more conscious. They’re a little more vigilant. They’re a little more eager to get back to Africa. And they’re also eager to do something here to contribute to the greater community. (Thompson)

Impact of Critical Race Theory Attacks:

AAS is not a place where critical race theory is a big focus. I understand that’s a big thing in Texas. But we want the Texas legislature to understand that we know what we’re doing and that they need to be more open-minded and knowledgeable about what it is that they’re trying not to do. (Reed)

Future:

  • “Blackstar,” an AAS podcast featuring Reed, Thompson and Van Roundtree
  • Public health focus: I suggested that the area that really needs attention is public health due to so much discussion on disparities because of the pandemic. As a result, we, AAS and the Department of Sociology, are in the process of hiring a person who will pay attention to public health. (Reed)

RICE

Rice University names school Provost Reginald DesRoches as next president Photo: Twitter

Program Founded:

The Center for African and African American Studies, founded in 2019, offers an undergraduate curriculum, and a certificate program for PhD students.

Director:

Dr. Anthony Pinn,Inaugural Director, Center for African and African American Studies

Strong Points:

We offer a creative and interdisciplinary approach to African and African American Studies that works to present the links and continuities between these two areas.  We work to do this in a public facing way that involves curriculum, new faculty hires, but also programming free and open to the public.

Room to Grow:

We are looking to expand what we can offer in terms of curriculum—to extend the reach of African and African American Studies across the campus.  Rice is also one of the four schools (the others—Prairie View, Texas Southern, and University of Houston) that has partnered to develop the Southeastern Texas African and African American Studies Consortium. The aim for Rice, as well as the larger Consortium, is to grow national recognition and impact.

Programs & Area(s) of Specialization:

Our curriculum is interdisciplinary in nature and cuts across the School of Humanities and the School of Social Sciences.  Our affiliated faculty represent a range of departments—with particularly good numbers in Anthropology, Sociology, History, English, and Religion.

Impact of Critical Race Theory Attacks:

Not being at a public institution, the situation regarding critical race theory isn’t the same.

Future:

  • Rice is also one of the four schools (the others—PVAMU, TSU and UH) that has partnered to develop the Southeastern Texas African and African American Studies Consortium. The aim for Rice, as well as the larger Consortium, is to grow our national recognition and impact.  
  • At Rice we are always working to expand our offerings and programming. We received $250,000 from the Mellon Foundation for the development of a Sawyer Seminar that will involve attention to life within the African Diaspora through material cultural across four geographies—Texas, Brazil, Ghana and Jamaica. We are excited about what this seminar will mean in terms of innovative thinking and international collaboration.

PVAMU

Founded:

Currently, PVAMU does not have an African American Studies program. However, in the fall or 2021 the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved for us to begin offering the Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies beginning in the 2022 Fall term. This is an important milestone that President Ruth Simmons put into motion during her 2018 inaugural ceremony.

Director: Dr. Melanye Price, endowed political science professor and principal investigator of the Mellon African American Studies Initiative.

Strong Points:

  • Talented faculty
  • Relationships with national foundations
  • Existing campus centers
  • Community partners
  • Public history component
  • International and interdisciplinary approach
  • Marketable skills with a required internship for each graduate
Students of the HBCU Prairie View A&M University

Room to Grow:

  • We intend to establish relationships with the W.E.B DuBois Center in Accra, Ghana, the Steve Biko Center in Salvador, Bahia, the Nelson Mandela Foundation Archive in South Africa, and the University of Puerto Rico’s newly created Afro-Diasporic and Racial Studies program in order for our students to have study abroad programs within these countries.
  • PVAMU along with UH, Rice, and TSU recently established the Southeastern Texas African and African American Studies Consortium, which we expect to expand for institutions to formally collaborate on grants, programs, and activities in order to enhance the experience for both minors and majors of AAS of each respective school.

Programs & Area(s) of Specialization:

  • Community engagement
  • Public history
  • Internationalism

TSU

Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young, TSU’s 13th president, is flanked by members of TSU regents during the June 17, 2021 reception. Photo by Aswad Walker.

Founded:

TSU doesn’t have an AAS program. It does offer AAS as a minor.

Future:

It is my hope that there will be an AAS program, and as we get more students, a department. My hope is that this AAS would evolve into a specialization on African American political history. And the reason I say that is most Blacks in the legislature attended TSU. Also, securing the okay for a certificate in AAS would be huge. (Dr. Merline Pitre)

Programs & Area(s) of Specialization:

Minor in AAS