New ethnic studies course offered this spring sparks passion for new center on campus to celebrate Black culture
Ruth Woldemichael vividly remembers when Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was walking home, was fatally shot by a neighborhood watchman in Florida, nine years ago. It was a horrific event, igniting a spark that would explode into the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I remember marching up to the Colorado Capitol building in Denver with my peers in high school shouting, ‘Hands up, Don’t Shoot,’” she says.
Today Woldemichael, a junior at the University of Colorado Boulder who is double majoring in international affairs and ethnic studies with a minor in Spanish, is one of 37 students enrolled in Reiland Rabaka’s Black Lives Matter course, which is designed to study the evolution of combatting racial injustice.
“Through this class I am able to look back at these specific moments and critically analyze the movement,” Woldemichael says. “But most importantly, I am reminded of the Black love and Black joy that carry us forward, together, amidst all the Black death and Black pain. Dr. Rabaka's class goes beyond academics to foster self and social transformation.”
The Black Lives Matter course, offered through the Department of Ethnic Studies, is part of a larger evolution—that of CU Boulder’s efforts to diversify its student body and faculty, as well as coursework within the interdisciplinary field of African and African American studies.
It’s a path that has been slow to build, those in the field lament. But on Feb. 17, Rabaka took a step forward by submitting a proposal to CU Boulder administrators for a comprehensive research center for African and African American studies with on-site student resources and a spotlight on performing arts.
If approved, the center or CAAAS (known as the Cause), would be the first of its kind at a public university in Colorado.
African and African American Studies programs have been happening across the country starting this past summer with protests of racial inequality, says history professor and faculty chair Chad Williams of Brandeis University, where the African and African American Studies Department began in 1969.
If approved, “CU’s center will definitely be a step forward and that’s positive,” he says, adding, “it’s important to recognize the significance of Black studies in the West because there is a long history of African Americans migrating West through Colorado; it’s really important for Black studies to have a firm presence in Colorado.”
Black studies matter
Rabaka came to CU Boulder in 2005, attracted by those who had previously held his position, including renowned African American scholar Manning Marable, who taught at CU from 1989-93. But the lack of additional faculty has been “shameful,” Rabaka says.
“They seem to be bringing us here, one at a time.”
Sixteen years later, Rabaka remains the sole professor with a doctorate in the field, and while CU has Centers for Asian, Native American and Indigenous, and Latin American studies, it does not have a counterpart dedicated to African or African American research.
This would change if the new center were established as an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter class, which kicked off in 2019 and has attracted students from all departments, including engineering, math, biology and the College of Music.
“Our class is open to everyone; that is what makes it rich and diverse,” Rabaka says.
The Black Lives Matter class has been an inspiration for Audrea Fryar, 21, a senior majoring in political science with a minor in sociology, and director of diversity and inclusion for the CU Student Government.
“Dr. Rabaka is one of very few Black professors at CU, and it is fulfilling to finally see Black representation in prestigious intellectual settings,” Fryar says, adding, “It is also relieving to be in a safe space to discuss my experiences at CU. This inspires me to want to create a safe space for all Black students to discuss, collaborate, create and cultivate a support system for all Black students on campus.”
Woldemichael, president of the Black Student Alliance, agrees.
“We are only two months into the semester, and this class has already had such a large impact on me as a Black woman and as an organizer,” says Woldemichael, who along with Fryar and another student, Karia White, are leading the charge for a Black cultural and research center.
In the Black Lives Matter class, students learn about previous Black freedom movements, while organizing calls to action for killings like that of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, a violinist who played for shelter animals and had autism. McLain died after Aurora, Colorado, police put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with ketamine, a horse tranquilizer.
“I’m not just angry about that,” White says, “I’m morally outraged, and these feelings don’t just stay in the classroom but affect my life.”
Call it BLM 5280, Rabaka says, referring to the elevation of Denver. “I feel very proud teaching African-American studies that are real and relevant.”
“The Black Lives Matter course definitely lit a fire in my students to make this center happen,” Rabaka says. “We have a shared vision.”
White, a senior majoring in international affairs and ethnic studies with a minor in political science, remembers the moment Rabaka invited her to help the cause.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” says White, whose expertise in social media helped her to virtually gather more than 800 signatures. Many supporters added personal comments.
“One thing that stood out for me is an African-American woman who wrote that she was an ex-CU student, and she would have stayed if the center had existed then,” White says. “That really made me upset.”
The idea of a petition stemmed from knowledge of the campus climate, says co-leader Fryar. “In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, we recognized a rise in white allies for Black lives on campus. … So we created a petition to prove to administration that it is not a small subgroup at CU that believes in the necessity of a center. Within a few days we received over 500 signatures from students, faculty, staff and community members.”
Student Body President Isaiah Chavous, 21, a senior majoring in political science with a minor in business, has held at least 10 public and private meetings this month with top CU administrators to “give the seal of approval that this is what the students want,” he says.
“It’s been my role as the university’s third Black student body president to push the needle forward because historically things need to change and the time is now,” he says.
The grassroots effort to create CU Boulder’s center “is certainly in the tradition of how the first Black studies programs came to be,” says Williams, who received his PhD at Princeton University, where its cultural center recently grew into a full-fledged African American studies department able to bestow degrees in the field, set curriculum, hire multiple faculty, and support graduate and undergraduate students.
The oldest Black studies program was established at San Francisco State University in 1966, followed by Cornell, Brandeis and Harvard. Stanford University recently added a department, while University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern now offer PhD programs.
If established, CU’s center would be “long overdue,” Williams says, adding, “You really cannot engage in the history of this country or the world for that matter, without understanding the experience of people of African descent. As an intellectual matter, this curriculum matters. Black studies are a critical part of any university.”
Interim Dean of CU Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences Jim White says he is “enthusiastically in favor of this new center and the visionary approach that Reiland is taking.”
CU Boulder’s center would create a certificate in African and African American studies that students could pursue in addition to their chosen major.
“So you can have a BA in biology, for example, and a certificate in African American studies with a deeper focus in Black radical feminist literature,” Rabaka says. “And that shows a specific commitment to anti-racism, to raising the platform of a multicultural society in the real world, in light of Black Lives Matter and the recent struggles.”
The center would be a hub for creative work, including contemporary slam poetry, rap, and neo soul, Rabaka says, with music being an integral part.
Additionally, the center will bring artists to campus. “We don’t have to look far for talent,” Rabaka says.
“People don’t understand the brilliance of Black culture we have right here,” like Boulder’s American Blues musician Otis Taylor, he says, adding, “We want to offer the full range of the African American experience.”
In the big picture, the Center for African and African American Studies would celebrate Black culture, Rabaka says. “It’s a place where we can be who we are and celebrate cultural pride. Has America really celebrated the grandeur of African American culture and its contributions to America? We hope to share this with the Boulder campus and with the Boulder community.”
It’s going to take a lot to make this happen, says Karia White, including “fundamental change in hearts and minds” of powers that be, she says.
“This is deeply personal. Black students just want to know that our university cares—that at our school, we matter.”