Pan-African Studies commemorated 50 years at Cal State LA with a ceremony honoring Black leaders and community members.
More than 200 faculty, staff, students and supporters gathered in the Golden Eagle Ballroom on Oct. 29 for the Department of Pan-African Studies 5th Annual Black Community Honors Dinner, an evening that looked back on the department’s history and recognized the contributions of individuals who have committed their lives to the liberation and empowerment of the Black community.
“This moment affords us an opportunity to vision the world we want to live in—not simply reform what is, but vision and build what we want it to be,” said Melina Abdullah, professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA. “Think about what we’re celebrating tonight—50 years of Pan-African Studies.”
The event marked the launch of a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary.
Pan-African Studies is the second Black Studies department in the nation, founded amid the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s. The Cal State LA Black Student Union, which was pushing for more Black students and faculty members, helped lead the effort to establish a Black Studies program in 1967. It became a department in 1969.
Two of the Black Student Union’s earliest members attended the night’s event: Hiram Channell, who now works in admissions at Cal State LA, and Ayuko Babu, who is executive director and a founder of the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. As a student, Babu helped found the Department of Pan-African Studies.
Pan-African Studies is part of the Black Studies discipline, which includes academic programs that examine the history, culture, politics, economics and worldviews of people of African descent.
The first Black Studies department and first and only College of Ethnic Studies were founded at San Francisco State University in 1968. The establishment followed a five-month student strike, the longest campus strike in United States history, and was led by the Black Student Union and a coalition of student groups.
Representatives from across the California State University system came together prior to the dinner at Cal State LA’s Downtown facility for a daylong conference marking 50 years of ethnic studies at the CSU and looking ahead to the future of the field.
The night’s honorees were U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents the 13th Congressional District in the Bay Area; Cal State LA Pan-African Studies alumnus Akinyele Umoja, chair of African American Studies at Georgia State University; Teri Williams, president and chief operating officer of OneUnited Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in the nation; and Nana Lawson Bush V, professor of education and Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and a traditional African priest.
“I visit many, many colleges and universities around the country and I get a chance to meet professors and heads of departments and students, and I just have to say that this is number one if you ask of me,” said Lee, who received the Black Community Honors 2018 Peace and Justice Award. “What a moment this is—in the middle of all that I am doing—to be here with you to be revived and rejuvenated and inspired and motivated to keep fighting the good fight.”
With a week until the Nov. 6 midterm election, Lee emphasized the importance of voter participation. “Voting is but one vehicle to our liberation, one path to it, but it’s an important one,” Lee said.
Pan-African Studies is housed in the College of Natural and Social Sciences, which is headed by Dean Pamela Scott-Johnson.
Cal State LA Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lynn Mahoney delivered the university welcome, reflecting on the history of the late 1960s and similarities with the present day.
“As we navigate what’s left of 2018, I am blessed to work at a place where it’s almost an antidote to the national news,” Mahoney said. “As the national news is unrelentingly negative, here every day I see signs of that hope, I see signs of solidarity, and I see signs of resistance. Our commitment to and our legacy of educational equity is still very much alive.”
Abdullah, who introduced the night’s honorees, also recounted her experience taking Black Studies courses while attending Berkeley High School in the Bay Area and the profound impact it had on her life.
“It planted seeds in me,” Abdullah said. “So for me, the work that we do in Pan-African Studies is definitely about the subject matter, but more than that it’s about the pedagogy and the epistemology—it’s about the way that we teach and the way that we do our work in communities.”