The Department of African and African American Studies offers graduate programs in the fields of African American studies and of African studies. Their aim is to offer rigorous interdisciplinary training in the humanities and the social sciences, with a focus in a disciplinary field, leading to the PhD.

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.

African American Studies

The fundamental rationale for the African American Studies program is that there now exists a substantial body of scholarly writing on African 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, 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

African Studies has existed as a field at the university level for almost 50 years now, 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 at a period of monumental challenges in the continent’s quest for development in the face of marked resilience and creativity on the part 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 was the pioneer among American universities in the study of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, there are strong 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 across 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 exploration of colonial and post-colonial periods. In the fields of 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 a source of comparative data. 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 in relationship to 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 Harvard 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.

Requirements for the Degree


In their first year, students are advised by the director of graduate studies (DGS), who serves as their mentor until they choose an advisor, generally before the beginning of their second year. After consulting with the DGS, a student may change advisors. Students are encouraged to discuss their interests outside of the primary field with faculty from other departments. This process enables students to develop relationships with various faculty members from whom the student will ultimately select a dissertation committee.

Academic Residence

A minimum of two years of full-time study (fourteen half-courses or equivalent) is required.

Program of Study

Students must take a combination of fourteen courses of which eight must be courses in a primary field. The distribution of courses in the first three years of study is as follows:

First Year

African and African American Studies 301/302

This required yearlong course is co-taught by the faculty of the program. It aims to introduce students to central topics and themes in African and African American studies and to major theories and debates. The first term focuses on issues in literature, philosophy, and culture, including: the concepts of race and ethnicity, slavery and the slave narrative, debates about African and African American literature, art, music, and religion, the American literary canon, the African and the American in African American culture. The second term focuses on issues in the social sciences and public policy concerning African and African American peoples, including such topics as African languages, nationalism, colonialism and decolonization, varieties of religious experience, aspects of intellectual history, ethnic conflicts and governance, strategies of economic development, and public health (e.g. HIV/AIDS, sickle-cell anemia, malaria, and the politics of science practice) as well as race and class in America, the role of race in the political system, the study of racial attitudes, racial discrimination, affirmative action, criminal justice, and redistricting. There are two required final presentations to the faculty at the end of each term, one on a humanities topic, the other on a social science topic.

In addition, students must ordinarily take at least six other courses of which at least two must be in the Department of African and African American Studies and two in the primary field.

Save under exceptional circumstances, the Department of African and African American Studies does not give credit toward the PhD for courses from other universities and under no circumstances would the Department give credit for more than two courses.

Second Year

Students must ordinarily take at least six courses in their second year.

Students will ordinarily be required to take all of the following courses or their equivalents by the end of their second year:

  • One graduate seminar in African or African American History
  • One graduate seminar in African and African American Humanities
  • One graduate social science methods course (other than History)
  • At least one research seminar — Students who have not taken a research seminar by the end of the first term of their 2nd year must enroll in a graduate course in which they produce a paper of publishable quality. This must be done no later than the second term of their 2nd year. This can be done in a research seminar or in an independent tutorial through AAAS 391 (Directed Writing). Students will not be allowed to take their oral general examination unless they satisfactorily complete a research paper.
  • By the end of the second year, the total number of courses taken in African and African American Studies and the primary field should be fourteen, including at least eight in the primary field. In particular, students should take all courses required for an AM in their primary field.


Third Year

Students must have completed all coursework and language requirements prior to their oral exams for their admission to candidacy.

By the end of the fall term of this year students must have completed the oral exam described below.

Master of Arts (AM)

The department does not admit candidates for a terminal AM degree, but students who have met all the course requirements for the degree may petition to be awarded an AM in African and African American Studies. (Students may also find that they can meet the requirements for the AM in their primary field. Students should consult with the DGS in their primary field if they wish to pursue this option.)


  • An important element of graduate education in the program is the experience of working as a teaching fellow in courses in African or African American Studies. The department also encourages students to seek teaching opportunities in their primary fields.
  • The graduate committee must verify that a student has had sufficient preparation in teaching before voting the degree. Students ordinarily teach at least two courses in African and African American studies and one in their primary field during their third and fourth years.
  • If designated as part of the student’s financial package, students are expected to teach in their third and fourth years at the rate of 2/5 per term. The department will assist the student in securing teaching positions. Priority for teaching fellow positions is given to students in their third and fourth years of graduate study.

Other Requirements


The student’s advisor will identify the language requirements appropriate for the student’s research in the primary field. In general, these requirements reflect the language requirements of the graduate program in their primary field. However, the DGS and the student’s primary advisor may propose modifications of these requirements if, in their judgment, a different language is more suitable. The student’s orals committee is responsible for determining whether the student has met an appropriate language requirement before proposing a candidate to the graduate committee for admission to the doctorate. Students in African Studies are required, in addition to a major European language, to take at least one African language to the level at which they reach proficiency.

Grade Requirements

Students must maintain a grade average of B+ or better in each year of graduate work. At no time may a student register for a term if he or she has more than one Incomplete. Where the primary field requires either that all courses be passed at or above a certain grade or that the student’s average grade be higher than B+, the student will be required to meet that requirement for courses in the primary field.

No more than one Incomplete may be carried forward at any time by a graduate student in African and African American Studies. It must be made up no later than six weeks after the start of the next term. In applying for an Incomplete, students must have signed permission from the instructor and the director of graduate studies, or the course in question may not count toward the program requirements. If students do not complete work by the deadline, the course will not count toward the program requirements, unless there are documented extenuating circumstances.

Admission to Candidacy

Oral Examination

Once students have completed their coursework, they begin to prepare for their oral exam in their primary field. For this purpose they require a committee, consisting of their major advisor and at least two others, at least one of whom should be a member of the discipline of the primary field. This committee, the student’s orals committee, meets with the student once his or her coursework is complete, and defines a bibliography and a set of topics on which the student will be examined orally in the first term of the third year. Once the student has passed the oral exam, he or she prepares a written prospectus.

The Dissertation Prospectus

Ordinarily the orals committee then becomes the dissertation committee, but students may reform their committee at this stage. Students have flexibility in picking their major advisor at the stage that the dissertation committee is formed, since this is the right moment to identify the member of the faculty whose work is closest to theirs. The dissertation committee is responsible for approving the prospectus, and this should ordinarily be completed and accepted at the latest by the middle of their fourth year. The composition of the student’s orals and dissertation committees is subject to the approval of the graduate committee in African and African American Studies, though students are given great flexibility in choosing their advisors.


The prospectus is due at the latest by the end of the first term of the fourth year of residence. The student must discuss the prospectus with each member of the dissertation committee and then have a final oral exam on that prospectus: If the committee accepts the prospectus at the exam, the student is admitted to candidacy and begins research for the dissertation.

NOTE: Many departments and independent groups organize dissertation colloquia for students in their fourth, fifth, and sixth years, at which they may present and discuss their research.

Dissertation Review

During the period that a student is working on the dissertation, the student will have a primary advisor and a dissertation committee. Each term the student will consult with and report to the dissertation committee, which will in turn report to the committee on graduate studies as to the progress toward completion of the dissertation. While the student’s principal advisor will ordinarily become the primary advisor and the prospectus committee will ordinarily become the dissertation committee, a student, in consultation with the DGS, may choose other faculty members. The dissertation committee must consist of a primary advisor and at least two others, at least one of whom must be a member of the discipline of the primary field. The primary advisor is the chair of the dissertation committee and must be a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In addition, at least one other member of the dissertation committee must be a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Upon approval of the dissertation by the dissertation committee, the department, student, and the dissertation committee will agree upon a date for the dissertation defense. Completion of the dissertation is ordinarily expected by the end of the sixth year.

The dissertation defense is an oral examination open to any member of the university at which the dissertation committee leads in questioning the candidate on his or her work. Upon completion of the oral examination, the members of the graduate committee will consult with the dissertation committee and vote as to whether the candidate should be recommended for the PhD degree in African and African American Studies and whether the candidate passed with distinction.

Satisfactory Progress

The faculty monitors each student’s progress year by year. During the period between admission to candidacy and submission of the dissertation, the dissertation committee is asked whether the candidate is making satisfactory progress and has to certify in writing when the candidate has completed two draft chapters.

Summary of Requirements

  • Fourteen courses, at least eight in the primary field
  • African and African American Studies 301, 302, one graduate seminar in African or African American History, one graduate seminar in African or African American Humanities, and one graduate social science methods course (other than History) (or equivalent courses with approval of the DGS).
  • All courses required for an AM in the primary field
  • Completion of one research paper of publishable quality (may be completed through AAAS 391).
  • Language requirements as specified
  • B+ average at the end of each year (and any other requirements of the primary field).
  • No more than one Incomplete outstanding at any given time
  • Oral exam for admission to candidacy
  • Teaching experience
  • Prospectus exam
  • Dissertation completion
  • Dissertation defense

Further information regarding study in the program may be obtained by contacting:

Kathleen Cloutier
Department of African and African American Studies
Graduate and Undergraduate Program Officer
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
Telephone: (617) 384-7767
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Applications for admission and financial aid may be obtained online through the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. See the GSAS Admissions website.

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