VCU’s Department of African American Studies enjoys a rich and distinguished history as the second department of its kind created in Virginia. The pioneers who created the department as it exists today were not without challenges and setbacks, but these visionaries persevered in their commitment to teach and understand the experience of African Americans. The field of African American Studies is not without controversy, but scholars embrace these challenges as opportunities to explore and resolve critical social issues. African American Studies in the past and today imparts knowledge that contributes to positive social change.
The Beginnings of a Discipline
African American Studies began as a European concept. Colonialism brought Europeans to Africa, and these early explorers considered people of African descent as subhuman, vulgar, and barbaric. Western academics have generalized about societies and cultures using ethnocentric standards and a racist outlook. Scientists such as Arthur de Gobineau and William Sumner justified racism with social Darwinist ideologies.
Black scholars of the 19th century Pan-African movement wrote about their African American heritage. These new voices in the academy extoll the pioneering struggle of African Americans in the United States. Pioneers such as W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey protested the racism in American society and established much of the philosophical discourse that is still in use today. African American Studies as a discipline originated as a community-based endeavor sparked by the work of Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History.” A visionary, he created the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.