PVAMU African American Studies Program, one of few in HBCUs
Dr. Ruth Simmons addressing attendees of the Defender's inaugural HBCU Presidents Classis Aug 25, 2022. Photo by Aswad Walker.

Prairie View A&M University has recently become the only HBCU in Texas with an African American Studies program. Thanks to a $1 million initiative, Enhancing the Humanities at PVAMU, students have the option to major or minor in African American studies in addition to school’s more traditional offerings in the arts and sciences, education, agriculture, engineering and nursing.

“A part of the HBCU experience for many students is a journey to self-identification, Blackness, and trying to understand the Black experience better,” said PVAMU’s Director and Associate Professor of AAS Jeanelle Hope, Ph.D. “[African American Studies] provides students with the language to understand the world around them and an opportunity to engage key theories, concepts and methods that seek to make sense of the Black experience and amplify our narratives.” 

Funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an anonymous contribution, and a matching grant, the new Bachelor of Arts in AAS Program will prepare the emerging generation of leaders to communicate effectively, think critically, research and examine any field of work through a comprehensive cultural lens.

The long-awaited program is a vision of President Ruth J. Simmons who made it a priority to establish an AAS program at PVAMU when she became the school’s leader.

Here’s what Simmons said about AAS during the Defender’s HBCU Presidents Classic:

“When we were coming along as institutions, somehow we were sold a bill of goods, and that bill of goods is, ‘You people need to imitate everything that you see someplace else. Don’t worry about that stuff that’s about you, because that’s not going to ever get you anywhere. So, for heaven’s sake, don’t have African American Studies. Don’t do poetry and the arts, because you need to be doing something concrete, and that’s going to advance you people.’ That’s the bill of goods we were sold.

“And so, a phenomenal thing happened. When American institutions started being integrated, a flood of institutions developed African American Studies departments. And so, you have this interesting phenomenon where you can go to Tokyo, you can go to Germany, you can go many places around the world and find African American Studies departments. Some of the best scholars of African American Studies actually are German or Japanese, and so on. But guess what. Trying finding it in HBCUs.

“So, we have not developed appropriately the expertise that we should have in the field that is most particular to our circumstances, and that is the history and culture of African Americans in this country. And it is a great shame in our history that we did not have the common sense a century ago to understand that it was our duty first. It’s not Princeton’s first. It’s not Harvard’s first. And I’ve been traveling around this country for decades helping other institutions start African American Studies programs. I helped Harvard structure its program and recruit Dr. Henry Louis Gates there. I helped Princeton start its program.

“So, the first thing when I came to Prairie View, you know what I said. ‘What is the matter with you people? We have got to have African American Studies.’ And so, we do. Now. But we have got to claim the responsibility for doing this, and not leave it to others to interpret us and who we are and where we come from and what we produce, and so forth. Because if we leave it to others, guess what will happen? Policy-makers will start talking about CRT, and ‘Don’t teach The Bluest Eye.’ It’s outlawed in a lot of schools because other people say so.”

Currently, there are only a handful of HBCUs nationally that have African American Studies programs or departments.

For more information about PVAMU’s new BA in African American Studies Program, visitwww.pvamu.edu/bcas/departments/swbps/programs/aastudies

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...