This month I have received a couple alarming e-mails from my colleagues at Howard University. It appears that Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau has recently revealed his plans to close the anthropology program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology–along with other programs such as the B.A. in African Studies, Classics, and Philosophy. This reduction in liberal arts programs is a disturbing trend not only among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), but also among smaller colleges and universities across the United States (Southern Arkansas University, where I currently teach, is considering scrapping its sociology major in the near future)…but, beyond the broad trend (which is something I may address in a later post), this specific case is a tragedy in a very particular sense.
Howard University is the only one out of 105 HBCUs in the United States with a five-field approach to anthropology (the “fifth field” in this case is applied anthropology). Moreover, the program has a strong emphasis in bioarchaeology and archeology. The Howard Anthropology program came to national attention in the 1990s when they became an integral part of the African Burial Ground (ABG) project in New York City. The importance of the ABG project lies not only in its archaeology and bioarcheology, but also in its politics. It was an important moment for our discipline when an empowered descendant community wrested control of the project away from a firm that they saw as insensitive to its wishes and interests…they placed control of the removal, analysis and re-interment of 400 venerated ancestors in the hands of Dr. Michael Blakey and Howard University–a HBCU that has a reputation of good scholarship and black activism. If such an event happened next year, will there be an anthropology program capable to taking on such a research project?
My colleagues pointed out in their email that the President’s decision will adversely impact the archaeology of Africa and the African Diaspora for a number of reasons. First, it will frustrate our efforts to recruit and train African Americans, students of African descent, and other minorities. They call attention to the fact that, currently, the total number of registered minority members in the American Anthropological Association is less than 16%, and the number of African Americans is approximately 3%. I will point out that several Howard University alumni (including Blakey who was the bioarcheologist for the ABG Project when he was a professor at Howard, but got his BA at HU in 1978 before going to UMass Amherst for his MA & Ph.D. ) have gone on to important careers in our discipline and made important contributions to anthropology. I have believed for a long time that one of the avenues to increasing the number of practicing African-American archeologists is to get strong anthropology programs in HBCUs. Losing Howard University’s anthropology program will be a definite blow to that endeavor.
The e-mail states that closing the program will…
…hinder our abilities to expose students of all majors to the past of Africa and the African Diaspora.” Approximately 10,500 students are enrolled at Howard, and many of them are African Americans from all corners of the United States, Africa and other countries throughout the African Diaspora. A closing will not only affect our students, but it will also impact local communities, descendant groups, indigenous peoples, underserved populations, and affiliated institutions. Each of us in the Howard U. Anthropology Program works in collaboration with community interest groups.
Last February, I had the honor of being a part of Windows from the Present to the Past: the Archaeology of Africa and the African Diaspora–a conference at Howard University hosted by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Office of the Provost, and Office of the Dean. I was very impressed with the mix of scholars, students and faculty members that the conference brought together. I had a great time, but my colleagues tell me it was much more of a success than that…they say that the conference served as a means for students and faculty members in other disciplines and Howard University departments to learn about our research. Since the conference, they tell me, the sizes of Howard’s archaeology classes have doubled in enrollment.
After a period of discussion, President Sidney A. Ribeau will make his final decisions shortly after December 1, 2010. Therefore, soon there will be a “Call for Action” and you will be asked to send letters to the President, other colleagues, influential community members, and prominent political leaders.
Send comments to either:
Eleanor King; email@example.com OR
Florie Bugarin; firstname.lastname@example.org