I am deeply concerned about the news coming out of Carbondale regarding the future of the Department of Africana Studies (DAS) at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I heard Chancellor Carlo Montemagno on a radio program for WSIU dismissing the need for the department and his intention to eliminate the department. This will send an immediate uproar throughout the African-American alumni community. I am so appalled by the disdain of the SIUC administration toward DAS that I am in the process of organizing a national campaign to protect the department and we are ready to march onto that campus to express our anger and outrage.

What will you do to ensure that SIUC will keep DAS on campus?

I am currently an associate professor in both the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies (AAADS) and the Department of History at Indiana University. I am an alumnus of the Department of Africana Studies at SIUC and would not be where I am today without the guidance and support of DAS and its faculty. I owe all that I have accomplished to DAS and will fight tooth and nail to defend the unit and prevent its elimination.

What will you do to ensure that SIUC will keep DAS on campus?

I was a history major only because I was unable to major in what was then known as Black American Studies. I, like most black students on that predominately white campus, received a full engagement of the entire student by DAS faculty. I heard Montemagno refer to DAS derogatorily as a social work unit. DAS provided students like me who did not feel safe and included on SIUC’s campus with a safe space to learn and be nurtured by rigorous scholarship as well as faculty who actually sincerely cared about our future and achievements.

I have been on my own since I was 13, born and raised on the south side of Chicago (Englewood), and made it to SIUC as a transfer student from Kennedy King Community College. I did not have any direction and did not believe in myself. I also arrived on campus with my younger siblings and disabled cousin, all of whom I raised as a full-time student. DAS faculty helped me to obtain legal custody of my family members and acquire financial support so that I could focus solely on academics and preparation for graduate school. The history department treated me like an outsider, while DAS faculty forced me to reach my full potential.

DAS faculty were so notoriously tough in the classroom (Joseph Brown, Pamela Smoot, Leo Gadzekpo and others) that my graduate experience in both the MA and Ph.D. program at UCLA was a cake walk. I wanted to stay at SIUC for graduate school but DAS faculty encouraged me to aim higher and I’m thankful for the push. When I was a student there, advisors used to tell students (myself included) not to enroll in DAS courses. I suspect the practice is still alive and well. If I had listened to such racism and disregard for diversity of ideas I would not be where I am today.

What will you do to ensure that SIUC will keep DAS on campus?

Brown and Smoot took me to conferences, forced me to submit my senior thesis for publication which became my first edited book, and influenced me to develop vantage points for how I view the world in a global and inclusive context. DAS in simple terms, literally saved my life and others. This statement is not hyperbole, as I have adopted all the values and methods I learned during my four years affiliated with DAS in all the work that I do as a scholar and mentor. Using the same fervor that DAS provided in order for me to reach my full potential, I am preparing to embark upon a national campaign, spend my political capital, and exhaust my network in academia in support of preventing the elimination of DAS.

Black studies have been under attack across academia, and my colleagues and I who value black studies have successfully defended units at Cornell, Ohio State, Illinois and several other universities. I am hoping that we don’t have to wage such a battle at SIUC. I hope to appeal to the Board of Trustees for help and I seek your support. We live in one of the most racially polarized climates in American history. Academic units like DAS are evermore necessary in such times of racial strife and social justice movements.

Again, what will you do to ensure that SIUC will keep DAS on campus?

DAS is not just a department at SIUC, it is a community. I have returned to Carbondale on many occasions at the request of students and faculty and even staff (Tish Whitlock, DAS office manager who has since passed away and who taught me how to organize and run an office effectively) to mentor, engage the community, provide lectures, and work on joint scholarship/publications.

I can’t stress enough the severely negative impact removing DAS from SIUC’s campus will have on African-American students specifically and the community at large. I appeal to you to employ your influence to help save the Department of Africana Studies and I am eager to assist and support you and others in any way possible in support of DAS as well.

What will you do to ensure that SIUC will keep DAS on campus?

Jakobi Williams, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Indiana University.

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