Brandeis at 75

From Black Studies to Everybody’s Studies

By Chad Williams

Illustration of a fist raised in protest.

Illustration by Nick Lu

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Brandeis Magazine.

Part of Past as Prologue

The question of where African and African American studies will be in 25 years pulls me back to another commemorative moment.

In February 2019, Brandeis’ African and African American studies department celebrated its 50th anniversary. The historic two-day gathering featured alumni panels, which included participants in the 1969 Ford Hall occupation; a conversation between Angela Davis ’65 and Julieanna Richardson ’76, H’16; and a closing keynote address by Hortense Spillers, GSAS PhD’74, who also received an Alumni Achievement Award.

Spillers, who was part of the Ford Hall occupation, reflected on the evolution of African and African American studies, and its impact on intellectual history — how “a moment of protest becomes a curricular object,” as she put it. More than any other field of inquiry, the discipline has been responsible for excavating the richness of Black life, and making race both visible and legible, she said.

But Spillers acknowledged the discipline was “not entirely clear of danger even today,” pointing to “the forces of race hatred and revanchism, and their quite astonishing powers of renewal and quite impressive shape-shifting capacity.”

She concluded with a poign­ant question: “Are we bound for the day when Black studies are everybody’s studies?”

In 25 years, Black studies will have grown in intellectual sophistication and curricular innovation, and will remain at the forefront of shaping our understanding of Black life, in the academy and beyond.

Those who fear Black studies and believe it has no place in American education will remain persistent in their efforts to attack the discipline and those who practice it.

Nevertheless, the same visionary spirit of creation, perseverance, and commitment to transforming the world that led to the creation of Brandeis’ AAAS department in 1969 will propel Black studies into the future, a future in which Black studies will inevitably be everybody’s studies.

Chad Williams is the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History, and African and African American Studies.