Episode #5: A History of African American Studies at Yale University 

with Professors Hazel Carby, Gerald Jaynes, and Robert Stepto

On the importance of Yale's African American Studies Department: "This is American history and literature and this is actually diasporic and transatlantic and global history…but we’re also about opening up areas of knowledge that other disciplines have ignored...It is not just about what we have been or are, but what we want to become” - Hazel Carby

Black Studies in the University  edited by Armstead Robinson, Craig C. Foster and Donald H. Oglivie (Yale University Press, 1969)

Black Studies in the University edited by Armstead Robinson, Craig C. Foster and Donald H. Oglivie (Yale University Press, 1969)

It is sometimes easy for people to forget that academic departments develop and change over time. While previous episodes have focused on the individual’s encounter with the university this episode sketches an oral history of Yale’s African American Studies Department through a collective conversation with Professor Hazel Carby, Professor Gerald Jaynes and Professor Robert Stepto. These three pathbreaking scholars share both their personal and professional experiences within different departments at Yale, all the while explaining the challenges which remain today.

Filled with anecdotes, memorials, and eulogies this episode moves quickly across time. Jaynes explains his initial hiring at Yale as an economist and his later role as an administrator, Stepto narrates his arrival at Yale and the importance of dialogue among disciplines, and Carby elaborates on the tireless effort of black women in black studies who reshaped the discipline. Together today’s guests reveal the various curricular and instructional questions and concerns at critical moments where the future of the program was not assured. All the while a long list of graduate students and faculty from African American Studies at Yale are acknowledged.

Rather than a singular narrative, this discussion features the collaborative building of history as Carby, Stepto, and Jaynes describe moments they have shared during their time at Yale.  Amidst these varied experiences the importance of the collective project of African American Studies is made clear: as Carby explains “we were prepared to fight for what we believed in.”

This episode, then, is ultimately as much about the past it is about the present. In 1968, following calls from student organizers including Armstead Robinson and the Black Student Alliance at Yale, the groundbreaking “Black Studies in the University” symposium was staged at Yale. By 1969 Afro-American Studies was a program. Beginning in 2015 students and the Next Yale movement challenged the allocation of resources, respect and scholarly valuation, calling for the university to establish a department of Ethnic Studies. This episode builds linkages between these different moments.  With care, sincerity and a refusal to flatten history Carby, Jaynes and Stepto highlight the past forty years of African American Studies at Yale.

Listen below:

Artwork provided by Claire Schwartz.


Music in this episode provided by Daniel Fears