Why You Should Major in African American Studies
Ongoing social activism, combined with the recent surge in Black Lives Matters protests, has drawn national attention to issues of racial equity and justice as well as the Black experience as a whole. But it's important to put everything that's happening into context.
An African American studies major — also called an Africana studies or Black studies major — provides students with a nuanced understanding of African Americans' historical, political, and cultural impact, in addition to the unique challenges they continue to face today. This field also offers the opportunity to advocate for and contribute directly to the Black community.
For this article, we interviewed Angela M. Siner, director of the University of Toledo's Africana studies program and instructor of several Africana studies and cultural anthropology courses, for her perspective on the benefits and value an African American studies major holds in today's society.
Angela M. Siner
Angela M. Siner is the director of the Africana studies and anthropology programs at the University of Toledo. There, she serves as the advisor of the Africana studies program and teaches courses on cultural anthropology and African American history and culture. She holds an MA in history from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a BA from Grambling State University. Siner is an active member of several social and academic organizations that work to promote African American history, culture, and community development.
How would you describe the field of African American studies to a first-year student?
African American studies, Black studies, and Africana studies are part of an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary academic field, which seeks to understand the historical, social, political, and cultural development of Africans and African-descended people in the Diaspora.
“[S]tudents learn about the experiences of Black people from a variety of fields in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.”
In this discipline, students learn about the experiences of Black people from a variety of fields in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Specifically, students can take courses in history, English, psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, music, art, biology, public health, and so on.
Another major focus of this field of study is social justice. Students have opportunities for social engagement through community development programs.
What do you consider the value or importance of a major in African American studies?
The value of pursuing African American studies is gaining knowledge and an understanding of the past and present situation of African-descended people in the United States. This discipline prepares students to critically examine, explore, and analyze the unique experiences of African-descended people.
As an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary field, African American studies exposes students to all facets of the African American experience. It also offers multiple opportunities to engage in social justice and local community development programs.
What benefits and skills does an African American studies major offer students?
An African American studies major offers students a plethora of transferable skills.
- Critical Thinking Skills: Ability to think independently, read critically, and write analytically.
- Research Skills: How to apply theoretical approaches to research questions, locate and interpret data, and define problems.
- Communication Skills: How to write effectively and construct persuasive arguments. Related skills include public speaking and social relations, as well as the ability to understand diverse populations, appreciate diversity, and apply academic theories to community development.
- Knowledge of the Historical, Cultural, and Political Experiences of African Americans: The ability to appreciate the diversity of African people and African-descended people in the Diaspora, and to recognize a multiethnic, multicultural society and world.
Are there unique challenges associated with an African American studies major?
The unique challenges associated with an African American studies major has more to do with institutions than it does students.
“[T]he first Black studies program was born out of faculty and student activism [and] eventually led to the establishment of … Africana studies programs across the country.”
Established in 1968 at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), the first Black studies program was born out of faculty and student activism. This activism eventually led to the establishment of Black studies, African American studies, and Africana studies programs across the country. It also influenced the creation of other ethnic studies and women's/gender studies programs.
Unfortunately, many of these programs today face issues with funding, limited staffing, and low student enrollment. Some argue that African American studies is constantly in a state of having to prove itself relevant.
Who should consider majoring in African American studies?
African American studies attracts a wide range of students because it offers both a specific and multidisciplinary perspective of the African American experience. Students interested in social justice, learning about the Black experience, and connecting academia with the community can benefit from a degree in African American studies.
This academic discipline is open to all students — not just Black or ethnic students. One need only look at African American studies scholars to realize that broad groups of individuals study the Black experience.
What types of careers does an African American studies degree prepare you for?
An African American studies degree can provide students with a wide range of career options, similar to other humanities and social sciences degrees. According to the National Council for Black Studies, "The answer to those asking what can a person do with a Black studies major is simple[:] ANYTHING!"
Potential African American Studies Careers
- Medicine and health
- Science and technology
- Law and criminal justice
- Politics and government
- Business, industry, and labor
- Performing arts and entertainment
- Visual and decorative arts
- News, media, and publishing
- Social and community services
Has the current political climate impacted how you teach classes in African American studies?
Yes. In addition to teaching about the historical, social, political, and cultural experiences of African Americans, I now emphasize the inequality and racism that has affected the Black experience. I've also become more deliberate in choosing course resources, such as books and visual aids, and in how I lead class discussions and compose and deliver lectures.
Additionally, I give students more opportunities for experiential learning by requiring participation in the African American experience through assignments like interviewing African Americans or attending and participating in African American social and cultural events on campus and in the community. Social justice and community service projects will soon become course requirements.