As of May 2021, CU Boulder has established the Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS and also referred to as “the Cause”) to support teaching and research on the history and culture of people of African descent. (Learn more about this announcement here.)
Reiland Rabaka, professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, will serve as director. CU Boulder Today spoke with Rabaka about what it means for CAAAS to be established at CU Boulder, what he envisions it becoming, and how students, faculty and the community will benefit from it now and for years to come.
What is African and African American Studies?
African and African American Studies is an established area of scholarship that is setting global standards for innovative intersectional and interdisciplinary work. More than 50 years after the birth of Black studies in the 1960s, our discipline has explosively evolved into African and African American studies.
Today, African and African American Studies asks compelling questions about the nature of Africanité (i.e., continental and diasporan Africans’ distinct humanity and creolized identity), Blackness and anti-Black racism in an international context while also retaining an intense emphasis on national and local African American history, culture and struggles.
What does it mean for CU Boulder to have a center like this?
The Center for African and African American Studies will support CU Boulder’s goal to become one of the great comprehensive public research universities of the 21st century.
CU Boulder’s mission to educate and serve the people of Colorado will be furthered through its support of the CAAAS, which will provide an avenue for cultivating meaningful dialogues with and about African Americans and other people of African ancestry in the Denver/Boulder metropolitan area. The CAAAS will advance CU’s goal of excellence in research, creative work, teaching and service by providing a locus around which African and African American studies innovations and achievements can be showcased and shared with students, faculty and the general public.
The Center for African and African American Studies will demonstrate CU’s continued commitment to interdisciplinarity and intersectionality emerging out of a marginalized and often misunderstood area of critical inquiry such as African and African American studies. This is a particularly important point considering the relatively low number of Black students on the Boulder campus and the general lack of consistent (as opposed to occasional) African and African American studies course offerings beyond those annually offered by the Department of Ethnic Studies.
What does CAAAS mean to you, as its inaugural director?
I have been campaigning behind-the-scenes for the CAAAS since I joined the faculty in 2005. To say the least, the Center for African and African American Studies has been a long time coming. When I was informed the center proposal had been approved, I was ecstatic. It was as if a dream long-dreamed had materialized and become reality. I simply do not have the words to adequately express what the new center means to me.
It is no secret that Boulder can often be an incredibly alienating place for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other people of color) students, staff and faculty. The CAAAS will provide Black students, staff and faculty with a permanent space on the Boulder campus where we can build community and gain much-needed knowledge of our history, culture and ongoing struggles. In other words, the establishment of the Center for African and African American Studies means that Black students and faculty will be able to feel a greater sense of belonging at CU Boulder.
What is the vision for how scholars and artists from across different disciplines will work together within the CAAAS?
Conceived of as a cross-college, university-wide academic unit, the Center for African and African American Studies will facilitate dynamic intellectual exchange and intersectional and interdisciplinary engagement with scholars, artists, students and community members on a broad spectrum of topics that range from history, culture, politics and economics, to education, religion, law and language, to literature, music, dance, theater and art.
Drawing on faculty with research, creative work and teaching expertise in African, African American and African diaspora studies throughout CU, the CAAAS will provide a much-needed research, teaching, performance, exhibit, consciousness-raising and community-building space on the Boulder campus. The faculty affiliated with the Center for African and African American Studies will be committed to making concrete connections between their scholarship, artistry and pedagogy, and the cause of racial, gender and economic justice.
How will undergraduate and graduate students be able to get involved and experience the center?
Students, both undergraduate and graduate students, are central to the vision for and mission of the Center for African and African American Studies. In fact, students played a pivotal role in all of the efforts leading up to the launching of the CAAAS. A groundswell of interest and activities grew out of my Black Lives Matter Movement and Hip Hop Studies classes over the last several years. Indeed, there would not be a center without remarkable student leaders and organizers, such as Audrea Fryar, Ruth Woldemichael, Karia White and Isaiah Chavous, among others.
The CAAAS will have three major points of emphasis and program areas: research; visual and performing arts; and student services. The students fought hard to have a student services program in the center, which will provide student programming, supervision, advising, mentoring, outreach, etc.
Along with student services, the Center for African and African American Studies will provide undergraduate and graduate students with work-study jobs that will allow students to use what they learn in their African and African American studies classes and put their new knowledge into practice in real-time to raise awareness about the historic and current Black struggle and build Black community on the Boulder campus. In addition to the work-study program, the Center for African and African American Studies will annually offer the CAAAS Dissertation Fellowship for doctoral students specializing in African, African American or African diaspora studies across all colleges of the campus.
What do you hope the center is able to achieve in the next decade?
Over the next decade I hope that the Center for African and African American Studies will become CU Boulder’s principal unit for teaching, research, creative work and community outreach related to Africa, African Americans and the African diaspora.
Within the first decade of the center’s existence I envision developing: certificates in African and African American studies for both undergraduate and graduate students; an annual distinguished lecture series; an annual concert series; an annual performing arts series; an annual “Africana Cinema Series,” which will screen feature films and documentaries about Africa, African Americans and the African diaspora; an annual series of African, African American and African diasporan art exhibits; collaborate with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement (ODECE) to organize and host CU’s annual Martin Luther King Day of Service Celebration; organize and host campuswide annual Black History Month events; and hold an annual CAAAS conference.
Lastly, we want to work with the CU administration and various colleges to recruit and retain African, African American and African diasporan students, staff and faculty. If the Center for African and African American Studies can secure the funding, faculty and space to carry out the aforementioned, I believe CU Boulder will become renowned for African, African American and African diaspora studies both nationally and internationally.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.