Adminstration: Africana Studies Needs Support

Ricardo Pinnock ’22 


Phoebe Son Oh ’22

Photos by Olivia Forrester ‘22

A few weeks ago, a current Africana Studies major came into a room full of interested freshmen and gave a brief, though incomplete, rundown of the things transpiring within the Africana Studies department as a warning not to declare Africana. “Dr. [Garry] Bertholf is leaving, and there will only be two professors in the department next year,” she said. The department is planning on hiring a visiting professor for the 2019-2020 school year, but from the point of view of declared majors and interested students, the department is essentially falling apart.  

The issues plaguing the department have been compounding since the department’s inception in 2014. The figures who were once core faculty have resigned themselves to affiliated faculty status—meaning they aren’t required to take on new advisees. Dr. Bertholf is leaving Davidson this year, which puts the assignment of his advisees into question. 

The department chair, Dr. Devyn Spence Benson, the department’s third chair in a span of five years, was on sabbatical this school year and is set to go on sabbatical next year. 

The school chose not to hire either of the two most recent post-doctoral fellows. 

These issues are catching up to the department in a short span of time. The insecurity of its faculty stands atop the inconsistency of the department’s leadership. Because Africana Studies is an “interdisciplinary major” by design, it is still possible to complete the major, but it has become more complicated on the side of finding a major advisor who fits you best. 

Recently declared and interested students are feeling the repercussions of the department’s issues the hardest. There is a lack of transparency between the faculty and the students when it comes to the faculty-to-faculty interactions, and reasonably so, but you cannot expect us students to be fine with feeling insecure in our department as a result of not knowing what goes on behind the scenes. 

We see what is going on, and we have the right to hold everyone involved accountable, from the President to any relevant deans to the department’s leadership to the department’s affiliated faculty. Your job is to serve students; therefore, as students, we can tell you that your job is not being done. We should not have to take on the physical and emotional labor of keeping the institution in check and making sure that it follows up on its word, but here we are. 

Regardless of whoever should bear the burden of admitting responsibility, one thing holds true: we, as students, have been failed. The college, the administration, and the department have all failed us.

We are concerned about the future. We are thinking of the students who would have found their home in Africana but might be robbed of this experience. We are thinking of the white, privileged students who would have had their minds blown and their perceptions altered after being in a single Africana class. Then we think about how robbing students of those experiences would have massive repercussions if those same privileged students went on to be world leaders, while not having the ability to think from the perspective of people in the margins. 

A new class of potential leaders are about to join the Davidson community, so time is of the essence. We have already felt the ethical dilemma of talking to prospective Class of 2023 students about their interest in Africana Studies, all the while knowing that the department is in disarray and how much of a risk it would be for them to come here if they want an Africana education. 

We, as first-years, are writing as the students who want the education we were promised a year ago when we committed to Davidson; the recent developments in the department complicates that promise. Davidson College’s motto says, “Let learning be cherished where liberty has arisen!” but we feel like that liberty is under threat right now. 

Speaking for myself (Ricardo) now, I don’t feel the liberty to declare Africana right now, namely because I do not know who my advisor would be. I know other first-years have abandoned declaring Africana, though they displayed a great interest just a month ago. 

For me, the saddest part is seeing my peers abandon the discipline—I cannot do anything about that. As I said, it feels like a risk to declare given the current circumstances, and it is their choice to take or not take that risk. 

Africana has affected us deeply, in a positive way, and it feels as though the department is doing all it can to preserve, or some say “salvage,” itself so that it can continue to have a profound effect on students. 

Speaking for myself (Phoebe) now, I am an ethnically Korean, dual-citizen of Panama and Australia, third culture kid who grew up in Hong Kong and Charlotte. My life has been one of transitioning between many cultures. Prior to coming to Davidson, I had heard about Africana Studies and it piqued my interest, so I decided to take Africana 101 with Dr. Bertholf. 

The more I read and the more I learned, or “unlearned” as Dr. 

Bertholf would say, I felt myself being intellectually stimulated like I never had before. Learning about ideas of diaspora and double consciousness fascinated me and also heavily resonated with me, since I had weaved in and out of different cultures throughout my life. All of these factors inspired me to continue my studies in Africana. 

One of the biggest reasons I applied to Davidson was because I knew that I would have the resources and opportunities to pursue whatever I wanted to, but is that really the case? Next semester I will be losing a professor, a major advisor, and most importantly, a mentor who has helped shape my academic experience here. By studying Africana, I also took off the rose-colored glasses with which I viewed Davidson. 

As a naive high school student, I fell for the college’s “commitment to diversity and inclusion.” Coming from a small, Christian, predominantly-white high school in the South, where the effort for diversity and inclusion did not even exist, Davidson was extremely appealing to me. However, I quickly learned that the college would rather commodify us students of color to promote their “diversity” than truly invest in our needs.

We are unsure of what these next four years look like as the department undergoes many changes, but what we are sure of is that we love studying Africana and are determined to keep pursuing it. 

The most important concern of ours—the thing to address first so that more students would feel comfortable majoring in Africana—is the number of core faculty and the diversity of expertise within that core faculty so students can find the best advisory fit. 

We suggest a cluster hire of Africana professors, not Africana and English or Africana and Latin American Studies, but squarely Africana. It just so happens that most of the individuals who are experts in Africana are people of color, so we also suggest Davidson renew its commitment to retaining faculty of color and to finding the resources to do so. 

Furthermore, all decisions that could impact the students, for example, hires, lead changes, etc., should include the students, so we avoid the possibility of students ever feeling failed again.

Ricardo Pinnock ’22 is undeclared from New York City, New York. Contact him at ripinnock@davidson.edu. Phoebe Son Oh ’22 is an Africana Studies major from Charlotte, North Carolina. Contact her at phsonoh@davidson.edu.

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