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Africana studies at SDSU celebrates 50 years of ‘art, activism, scholarship’

Adisa Alkebulan at his office at San Diego State University, with a photo of Malcolm X in the background
Adisa Alkebulan is the current chair of the Africana Studies department at San Diego State University. The department is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, with “Africana Studies @ 50: A Restrospective of Art, Activism, and Scholarship” that includes a symposium on Oct. 14 and a gala on Oct. 15, with keynote speaker California Secretary of State Shirley Weber.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Adisa Alkebulan is the current chair of the Africana Studies department at San Diego State University, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year

Adisa Alkebulan was interested in Africana studies before he even knew the subject existed. He became fascinated with learning about Black history as an eighth-grader after watching an episode of “Eyes on the Prize,” the award-winning television series documenting the history of the American civil rights movement. That led to him reading his first book from cover to cover, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and from there, he majored in Pan-African studies in college. Today, he’s an associate professor in Africana studies at San Diego State University and also chair of the department, as the department celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“We are celebrating our history. We’re celebrating our founders. In African traditions, our elders and ancestors are hugely important, so our focus is on them,” he said, noting that longtime civil rights activist and educator Harold K. Brown was the first Black administrator at SDSU and served as director of the department he helped to establish in 1972. “(Our focus is also on) the scholarship produced in Africana studies, the artistic expression that gives life to the discipline, and the activism from which the department emerged and is, in fact, still a cornerstone of the discipline.”

Alkebulan chose to join SDSU in 2001, after meeting with current California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who was then a member of the department and had been since its inception. Initially, he’d had no desire to move from Philadelphia to San Diego, but he says he was so “overwhelmed and inspired” by Weber’s commitment, leadership and passion, he decided to take a chance.

Now, he’s helping to shepherd students into and through the program, work with his fellow faculty members, and celebrate their theme of “Africana Studies @ 50: A Retrospective of Scholarship, Art, and Activism,” which culminates in their anniversary gala tonight at Montezuma Hall and features a keynote address from Weber, a production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” an exhibition of artwork, and lectures by invited guests.

Alkebulan, 50, lives in El Cajon with his 8-year-old son and took some time to talk about his work with the department and the significance of a field of study centering the culture and history of Africa and the African diaspora.

Q: Can you talk a bit about how the Africana studies department got started?

A: The university was responding to the demands of Black students who wanted a curriculum that reflected their experiences and a faculty who looked like them. More broadly, our department emerged out of a nationwide protest movement connected to the Black Power movement. Black students and community leaders from across the country were demanding Black studies departments and, during that time, more than 300 departments were formed. Many failed because there were constant efforts to undermine the departments, and the faculty had to continually fight to legitimize and defend the new discipline. Even today, we find ourselves in positions of having to defend and define what the discipline is, and its relevance.

At SDSU, the courses focused on history, culture, music, African American rhetoric and psychology. This reflected the expertise of the foundational faculty who helped shape the department. We also must understand that this was a new project that pulled together scholars from a variety of fields who were attempting to do something new. They had no idea if they would be successful, but the student demand and enthusiasm was overwhelming. The students helped sustain and energize the department in the early days.

Q: On the department website, it says that one of your concerns is “strengthening the bond between Black students and the Black community” and “developing frameworks for social change and the struggle for Black dignity.” How has the department worked toward strengthening this relationship between Black students and the Black community, and in developing these frameworks for social change? What has that looked like in practice?

A: Soon after I arrived at San Diego State, a few of my colleagues and I worked with the Association of African American Educators to help develop a credential program for local kindergarten through 12th grade teachers. Our children face a myriad of issues in San Diego County, many of which are rooted in racism and racial disparities, chief among them being unconscious bias. In San Diego County, Black children are punished more severely for the same behaviors as White students, for example. There is also a general lack of cultural understanding from many teachers toward their Black students. The certificate we created was designed to train and equip teachers with the tools to understand the students’ culture, learning styles, etc. I designed and taught a course called “The History of African American Education,” and our department also partnered with the School of Public Affairs to offer the course “Blacks in the U.S. Justice System.” It is a part of the criminal justice degree program through our global campus. Additionally, all criminal justice majors are now required to take this, or a similar course, due in large part because of the efforts of the Africana studies department.

We also have a mentoring/tutoring program where our majors facilitate programs in local high schools, although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that. We’ve also taught some of our courses in the community at the Valencia Park/Malcolm X Library. SDSU students and community members enrolled in the courses and I am most proud of that. It represented this beautifully powerful collaboration between Africana studies, SDSU and the community.

What I love about El Cajon ...

I love the diversity of El Cajon. I don’t have the data on this, but it seems to be one of the most diverse communities in San Diego County. Although I am not a fan of the heat, life is filled with trade-offs.

Q: What has your own involvement in education in Africana studies done for you, personally? For your sense of self, and understanding of your Blackness and what that means?

A: The only reason I’m in academia is because of Africana studies. I can’t imagine teaching anything else. In many ways, the career that I’ve chosen is a reflection of the commitment and consciousness that I began to develop at puberty. This is my life. The content is my consciousness. The culture is at the core of my being. Whenever I enter a classroom, or give a keynote or public address, it is a declaration of my Blackness, and what it means to me.

Q: Where do you hope to see this field of study, and the department, in the next 50 years?

A: The field of Africana studies is constantly growing. It started with the basics of African and African American history and culture, then quickly branched into subfields, like literature, psychology, sociology, political science, etc. Currently, the discipline has evolved and embraced other fields, such as Afrofuturism, Black male studies, Afro-Latinidad, and other diasporan communities. This is an exciting time for the discipline, in general, and Africana studies at SDSU, in particular.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: The best advice I’ve received was from one of my mentors in grad school, Dr. Molefi Asante. He advised us to never defend the indefensible. There can be a tendency to defend every aspect of our experiences, actions, behaviors and beliefs because of the external forces in this society that seek to pathologize and destroy us. I get that, but sometimes it can put us in a position that can ultimately undermine the entire project if we do not engage in self-reflection, self-correction, and be honest and ethical in the work that we do.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: A couple of things that people would be surprised to hear about me is that I am an artist at my core. I was a recording artist in high school during my rap days, and throughout high school and college, I was an actor. When I was graduating from college, I had to make a quick but difficult decision about going to graduate school for a master’s degree in acting, or a doctorate in Africana studies. I chose the latter, but not a day goes by that I do not miss the theater or ask myself, “What if?”

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Going to the beach with my son. I was never a beach person until, somehow, I sired a beach fanatic. I don’t have the energy that he does, but after he wears me out, I enjoy relaxing and watching him have the time of his life as if he’s never been to the beach before.


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