Making Connections: Student Protests and Departmentalization
Student protests were fundamental to the creation of Ethnic Studies programs across the country, and UC Davis (UCD) is no exception. The African American and African Studies Department (AAAS) went from a thought to a plan when the newly formed Black Student Union submitted 13 measures to address racism on campus in April 1969. These measures were born out of protests, memorials, and BSU meetings influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the rise of Black Power across the nation, but particularly in California. The 13 measures address many different facets of the lives of Black students at UCD, including financial struggles, psychological harm, a lack of communal support, and curricular gaps. In the weeks and months after the measures were given to the UCD administration, BSU occupied the Chancellor's office and had several meetings with the administration to try to approach an understanding of what was necessary for students of color, and particularly Black students, moving forward. One repeated message from the BSU in these early days was "we want deeds and performance, not rhetoric."
Measure 3 read "That the Black Studies Program be initiated by the Fall of 1969 with a Black Studies department functioning by 1970."
In March 1969, the Black Student Union submitted a proposal for a Black Studies Program at UCD. This proposal dovetailed with the measures, which were released the following month. The BSU justified their demand for a Black Studies Program saying, "there has been a lack of understanding and appreciation of the many contributions of Black people' and this has added to the limited perspective of those scholars, community leaders, professionals and others who have been in the position of interpreting the body of knowledge offered to students, and other interested parties in our society." The authors assert that at that point, UCD was not offering instruction that would be "relevant, meaningful, and well balanced" for Black students. The proposal makes clear that the presence of a Black Studies Program on campus not only empowers Black students but also deepens and broadens the kind of scholarship and curriculum produced.
This was the start of the Black Studies curriculum and program on campus. As a result of the relentless pressure placed on the administration, the Black Studies Program began as an interdepartmental program, as stipulated in the body of Measure 3. The measure also called for the program to turn into a department, which would have more institutional and curricular power, by Fall 1970. This call for a Black/African American Studies Department was reiterated 40 years later. After a string of hateful (i.e. racist and homophobic) acts of vandalism on campus, the BSU in 2010 argued that "the recent string of acts of hate/ignorance that have occurred within the UC System are a manifestation of structural deficiency in institutional support. We stress long term structural deterioration and lack of recognition by our campus administration and academic senate related to issues of curriculum change and campus climate." Their first and primary demand was that the African American and African Studies Program becomes a department. Again, the BSU notes that prioritizing Black Studies--and within it, Black knowledge, lives, and experiences--would not only help Black students but also address structural issues campus-wide.
The road to departmentalization reached another high point of tension in May 1990 when four students, with strong support from many more, started a hunger strike. The students made specific demands of the administration. Two of the demands that were realized were a multicultural center and regular FTE (full-time equivalent) in the Ethnic Studies departments. This is how AAAS became a program with full-time faculty within it rather than faculty who were pulled from other departments for part-time appointments.
The African American and African Studies Department (AAAS) did not receive full departmentalization until 2016, 47 years after the measures called for it.
This slice of the department's history illustrates how the institutionalization of AAAS and Black Studies more broadly across departments was due in large part to student efforts and protests alongside faculty who were willing to step up and into the gaps they identified.
From the AAAS Archives: Police Harassment
In April 1969, the Black Student Union (BSU) at UC Davis (UCD) issued 13 measures to the UCD administration. This list of demands petitioned the university to attend to a variety of factors affecting the material, academic, psychological, financial, and social well-being of Black students on campus. Measure 1 called for an "immediate end to police harassment in Davis of Black people."
Where did this concern about police harassment come from? Some of this concern came from anecdotes of police harassment by Black students. One significant incident was when then-Governor Reagan visited the Board of Regents meeting on April 23, 1968 and his visit included precautions in the form of 16 state highway patrol cars at the airport. UCD police chief Marvin Herrington showed such a force of police because he feared the students at the meeting with keep the Regents from leaving. He specifically cited the "people at the meeting" and the "character of the crowd" as reasons for the show of police force. The character of the crowd was explicitly shaped by those who wanted to show support for the Martin Luther King Coalition's call for 100 minority scholarships. The California Aggie article about the incident cites that strong police presence remained after Reagan's departure with riot police patrolling Picnic Day over the weekend. They were, the article says, "ready to bust students."
A year later, the BSU prioritized the physical and psychological safety of students by putting the demand for an end to police harassment first in its list of measures.
This would not be the last incident of police harassment on campus. In addition to continued anecdotal reports from students, in January 2007, King David Manga, a Black graduate student in the Math department, was unnecessarily and unfairly swarmed on campus by a SWAT team, who had received erroneous reports that he had a weapon on campus. A slender, white student who was a member of the ROTC was near the Math department with what looked like a gun. The police targeted Manga instead of the student reported to have the gun, and students were advised to keep the situation confidential. The African American Faculty and Staff Association responded by writing a letter of grave concern. The ACLU supported Manga pro bono in a lawsuit. Throughout the situation, the AAAS department served as advocates and supporters of Manga and the general Black student population.
The concerns of 1969 were echoed again in 2018 when Officer Natalie Corona was killed in downtown Davis in an altercation with a white male shooter. On the night of the shooting, there was a massive police presence from multiple jurisdictions in Davis. In the days that followed, there was an elevated police presence, and there was a surge of Blue Lives Matter rhetoric and imagery, including an image of Officer Corona wrapped in the Blue Lives Matter flag. The ASUCD and the Cultural Affairs Commission spoke out to the community to say the Blue Lives Matter flag is anti-black in that the sentiment was created and is perpetuated in order to silence the rallying cry that Black lives matter, particularly in instances involving police and state power. Shortly after the ASUCD made their statement public, they received strong backlash online and in person at the Student Community Center. The UC Davis Cross Cultural Center specifically was surrounded by Blue Lives Matter supporters, who specifically targeted Black and brown students in the center.
This situation, and others including the now infamous pepper spray incident, highlights how important the measures of 1969 are not only to Black students on campus but to the entire campus. A decrease in police harassment makes Black and brown students safer and more comfortable and decreases dissention while encouraging other modes of conflict resolution.
From the AAAS Archives: Intellectual Changes to the Program
The African American and African Studies Department (AAAS) has made several curricular changes over the past 50 years. These changes are often influenced by the talented faculty that come to UC Davis (UCD) as well as the resources available to said faculty and historical and cultural events. The Afro American (Black) Studies Program appeared in the UCD Course Catalog for the first time for the 1970-1971 academic year. At this time, the program was interdepartmental, which means the courses were drawn from multiple departments, like history and psychology.
In 1973, the Afro American (Black) Studies Program offered courses from within the program itself for the first time. The first courses included "General Black Studies," "Introduction to Black Studies," and "The Ancestral Homeland." (The latter two were upper-division courses.) When the program was under the heading of Afro American (Black) Studies, the primary focus was on Black culture in the Western Hemisphere, primarily the United States. In the program's last year as Afro-American Studies (1990-1991), there were classes on the Black family, Afro-America Pre-Emancipation, Afro-America Post-Emancipation, Black music, Black visual arts, and more. There were only two courses offered that focused on African culture, "African Cultural Heritage in the Americas" and "West African Social Organization." The latter was the only course that was not U.S.-centric.
In May 1990, four students engaged in a six day hunger strike. The strike centered around several Ethnic Studies related demands, like for a multicultural center and FTE (full time equivalency) positions. Because of the hunger strike, AAAS was able to get FTE positions and have the power to choose its faculty. This allowed Dr. John Stewart to, as chair, make a number of curricular decisions that likely would have bene impossible otherwise.
Under Dr. John Stewart, the program's curricular focus began to expand. In 1992, the program changed its name to African-American and African Studies. This reflected not only Stewart's scholarship but also a growing desire for a more global understanding of Blackness in the curriculum. In subsequent years, the program taught more courses on Africa, the Caribbean, and Black communities in places like Europe. This curricular expansion was aided by the addition of several faculty, including Dr. Moradewun Adejunmobi, Dr. Bettina Ng'weno, and Dr. Elisa Joy White.
The intellectual changes to the program over the years was also due to resources. In 1981-1982, for instance, there were no tenured or tenure-track faculty teaching in the Afro-American (Black) Studies Program. This critical shortage of faculty severely impacted the resources and course offerings the program could give the UCD student body. Since then, the program has been hampered by a consistent shortage of faculty. With just four ladder rank faculty in the department today, the number of courses and course topics offered remains more limited than anyone in the department would like.
The BSU measures called for Black faculty "in all departments by the Fall of 1969" (Measure 10). The document cites that the administration promised 3.5 faculty positions would be reserved for Black faculty in the Black Studies Program. The faculty shortage through the 1980s, 90s, and into the 21st century indicate this promise has not been kept.