Faculty, students celebrate new status of African American studies department
Paul Riley Jr. ’15, far right, discusses his thesis with professors and students at a meeting of the African American studies senior colloquium last spring.
Paul Riley Jr. ’15, far right, discusses his thesis with professors and students at a meeting of the African American studies senior colloquium last spring.
Courtesy Department of African American Studies

Professor Eddie Glaude *97 has taught “Introduction to the Study of African American Cultural Practices” on several occasions. The first day of class this year, however, was a little different.

“I opened up the course by announcing that this was the first time that it would be taught in the Department of African American Studies,” Glaude said. “Students clapped and shouted and cheered.” 

The University’s Board of Trustees agreed in May to turn the Center for African American Studies into an academic department. With Princeton’s action, all the Ivy schools offer an undergraduate concentration in the field. 

“It was a historic moment — it further solidifies the place of African American studies in higher education,” said Glaude, chair of the new department. “It sends the signal very clearly that this area of inquiry should be taken seriously and that it should be thought of as making a significant contribution to the education of students around the country.” 

Although Princeton has had a program in African American studies since 1969 and launched the center in 2006, until now, students have been able to pursue only a certificate — not a major. During the last academic year, 839 students took at least one course in African American studies, and 21 students received certificates.

Glaude said the transition so far has been “seamless.” He believes that student activism related to race and racial inequality on campus during the last academic year may have helped to hasten the path to departmental status. 

“I didn’t think it would happen while I was still a student, but I thought it was about time,” said Destiny Crockett ’17, a member of Princeton’s Black Justice League, a group of students focused on promoting justice and equality on campus. “I think it symbolizes a larger message of academia caring about the histories and culture of black people.”

Beginning this spring, sophomores will be able to declare a concentration in African American studies. In the meantime, the department is looking to hire two additional faculty members to add to its roster of 14. A graduate program may be added in the coming years.

“Our unofficial goal has always been for each Princeton student to have some encounter with African American studies during their time here,” said Joshua Guild, a member of both the history and African American studies departments. “Will we ever reach that? Who knows, but we have a broad reach and I think it will continue to build.”

This fall, the department revamped its website (princeton.edu/aas) and added an “African American Studies Response Series.” It features essays and posts by Princeton professors, faculty from other schools, activists, and artists as part of a national conversation on race. The first topic was “Black Lives Matter.” 

“The Department of African American Studies says to alums, particularly alums of color who struggled so mightily here during the early days of integration, that Princeton is changing, growing, and expanding its mission,” Glaude said. “So it’s not only an exciting time for those of us who are here now, but also for all of the folks who languished in the shadows when they attended Princeton, who didn’t feel a possession of this place.”