The Department of African and African American Studies offers a doctoral degree in African and African American studies, which identifies synergies in theory, concept and method across the African Diaspora. Given shared concerns around race, racism, slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, modernity and other conceptual apparatuses for understanding Africa and the Americas, students are encouraged to think robustly about the similarities, differences and linkages within the African Diaspora. The program affords rigorous interdisciplinary training in the humanities and the social sciences, with a focus in a disciplinary field, leading to the PhD.
Nearly all PhD recipients have secured academic or professional careers in a variety of departments in universities throughout the nation. They can be found in American studies, African and African American studies, English, history, history and literature, music, political science, religion, social studies, and women’s studies. They also make substantial contributions to society through careers outside of the academy.
The program admits four or five students a year into a five- to six-year program. While there are no specific prerequisites, typically students either have undergraduate majors in African American studies or African studies, or have majors in fields such as anthropology, comparative literature, English, history, history of art, music, philosophy, sociology, and religious studies, and have done some undergraduate work in the field of African or African American studies. Additional information is available from the Department of African and African American Studies and specific program requirements are detailed in the GSAS Student Handbook.
All applicants to the Department of African and African American Studies should include with their application a critical or scholarly paper of their most recent work of no longer than 20 pages.
African American Studies
The fundamental rationale for a concentration in African American Studies is that there now exists a substantial body of scholarly writing on African American and Afro-Latin American social, cultural, economic, and political life and history, conducted by scholars with a primary training in a traditional discipline, who have drawn on the work of colleagues in other fields to enrich their work. This interdisciplinary corpus of scholarship is at the core of African American studies, and most serious work on African American literature, history, culture and social, economic, or political life proceeds with an awareness of this interdisciplinary background. There is, as a result, a fairly substantial tradition of writings and a lexicon of ideas that together define a core of knowledge in the field. Familiarity with this core at the graduate level is an important part of the training of those who work on these topics.
Along with this background, there is also a good deal of work on the concept of race, which is clearly central to the field, and that can no longer be said to be rooted in a single primary discipline. It draws on anthropology, sociology and intellectual history, the history of science and philosophy, literary and cultural studies, and political science.
These two corpora are substantial enough and of sufficient importance that training in them provides a significant component of the graduate education of a student who wishes to work in African American studies at the same time as acquiring the intellectual tools of a primary discipline.
Our conception of the “American” in “African American” is capacious (including North, Central and South American contexts) not least because a full history of the African presence in the United States cannot be properly constructed without attention to relations among communities in many parts of the New World. There are many other reasons why this is intellectually necessary: a proper understanding of the concept of race, for example, must be comparative (and thus cross-national); and we are bound to acknowledge the complex role of economic, religious, and intellectual linkages among communities of African descent within the Americas, as well as their connections with Africa and with Europe. These general points can be illustrated by various iconic examples: Marcus Garvey, the founder of the largest African American mass political movement in the first half of this century was a Jamaican; Alexander Crummell, who was born in New York, was shaped by his experiences as one of the founders of the University of Liberia; the decolonization of Africa and the presence of African diplomats in New York at the United Nations affected the politics of the Civil Rights movement.
It is this interdisciplinary, comparative, cross-national approach to African American subjects in the humanities and the social sciences that makes our PhD program unique. Students study these topics from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, participating in graduate seminars in anthropology, government, history, literature, and sociology, for example. Thus, they are able to ask and answer questions from a wider variety of perspectives than traditional disciplinary approaches allow. This interdisciplinary approach enables a student to produce richly contextualized analyses while retaining a principle focus within one discipline. The core seminar assures that students have familiarity with the essential social, political, economic and cultural background, and a body of established questions central to the field.
African studies has existed as a field at the university level for almost 50 years, contributing rich insights and novel paradigms to the humanities and social sciences through its interdisciplinary approach and careful attention to history, culture and lived experience. Emerging at the time of Africa’s political independence, the field has matured over a period of monumental challenges in the continent’s quest for development facilitated by the resilience and creativity of African peoples. In the past five decades, paradigms have shifted in the study of Africa in developmental economics, understandings of state and society, ethnicity and identity, religion and daily life, environment and constructions of environmental sustainability, health, and the burden of disease. Since Harvard pioneered the study of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, there are good intellectual and historical reasons for having a strong African Studies program here. The study of Africa is in fact already part of the literature and discourse of many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Historians have long studied African history, ranging from pre-colonial studies drawing on both oral traditions and written sources to explore the colonial and post-colonial periods. In literature, music, and art, African creativity is of interest in terms of their central roles in African societies as well as their diasporic circulation and influence on expressive culture worldwide. For anthropology, sociology, and political science, Africa has provided major subjects of research and study as well as comparative data and theory. In economics, law, political science, public health, and medicine, Africa has contributed striking new data that has re-aligned thinking in these fields as well as provided grist for comparative studies.
African studies incorporates concerns with many of the central issues and problems of present-day scholarship. The history of the continent, in particular the impact of the colonial period on indigenous peoples and polities, demands close attention as it constructed borders and boundaries of indigenous ethnic, religious, or national identities. Many disciplines have begun to recognize the importance of indigenous African knowledge systems and practices to the global discourse in areas of natural resources, environment, healing practices, spirituality, and cultural creativity. Work in African studies brings to the fore questions about well-worn categories such as tradition, modernization, westernization, and secularization.
The graduate program emphasizes both the local and global dimensions of African studies, at once seeking to convey a broad understanding of African history and culture while addressing a wide array of peoples, languages, and societies past and present on the continent. The program also seeks to recognize important national and regional entities in Africa. The curriculum focuses on individuals and institutions important to Africa’s past and present as it explores the relationship of the continent to the wider world, including the historical African diaspora that emerged in the wake of the slave trade and the late 20th-century movement of African peoples after African independence.
The Harvard Graduate Program in African Studies is interdisciplinary and comparative. In particular, it seeks to look closely at the ongoing dialogue between Africa and the West, most especially the American diaspora, both as historically constituted and as newly formed by waves of immigration in the late 20th century. It seeks both to train scholars across the disciplines and to produce individuals who will in the future contribute to the discussion of social, cultural, and economic development and growth on the African continent. It seeks to incorporate individuals from the widest range of disciplines and experiences, and to engage them with the larger African Studies community at Harvard. Our curriculum conveys a broad understanding of African history and culture while addressing a wide array of peoples, languages, and societies past and present on the continent and in the African/black diaspora. In this respect, we seek to grasp the African and African American experience in a single, unifying perspective that endows this experience with its full historical significance. Thus, our conception of the African diaspora extends beyond the Atlantic paradigm that has dominated academic and intellectual discourse concerned with the black experience, in order to project a larger, more comprehensive view that embraces the Indian Ocean, the Pacific area (Peru, Colombia) and the Trans-Saharan-Mediterranean.