You should take an ethnic studies course

<p>About 75 students organized by the Afro-American Society were met with tear gas after occupying the Allen Building for 10 hours on Feb. 13, 1969.</p>

About 75 students organized by the Afro-American Society were met with tear gas after occupying the Allen Building for 10 hours on Feb. 13, 1969.

On February 13th, 1969, tear gas hung thick in the air outside of the Allen Building. More than one hundred local police officers and National Guard troops had been called in to bring order to the protest; dozens of white students stood nearby to support their classmates. Approximately 75 of Duke’s first Black students were inside the building in a struggle they hoped would change the University forever.

As early as Spring 1968, in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, these students had attempted to work with Duke’s administration to address conditions for Black students on campus, issuing 13 demands. These demands included increased Black enrollment, the funding of the Black Student Union, and better conditions for workers on campus. Key among these demands was the creation of an Afro-American Studies Department—a recognition that lives and histories of African-Americans mattered, and were worthy of attention and scholarship. During the standoff many of the students threatened to leave Duke to attend the local Malcolm X Liberation University, a Durham-based program run by activist Howard Fuller that would center the curriculum on the African diaspora. Ultimately, to demonstrate their resolve and catalyze such desperately needed change, the students held the first major takeover of a Southern university.

Though the protest would end in arrests, disciplinary action, and police turning chemical weapons on peaceful students, it would later be hailed by former Duke President Nannerl Keohane as seminal to the University’s moral development. In a letter commemorating 30 years of African-American students at Duke she wrote, “These events were a stimulus for many of the university’s most difficult, yet necessary, changes.” Dr. Brenda Armstrong, a physician who committed her life to improving the University, was one of the students involved in the Takeover. She recalled the Takeover as “a stand that would change the course of Duke’s destiny and indelibly mark our place for all time in this institution’s history.” The impact of these students’ actions was rapid—the Takeover spurred the creation of a Black Studies department later that year. Their legacy, however, would endure as part of the growing national student movement demanding ethnic studies departments that provided a “critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity” from the perspectives of communities of color in the United States and abroad. These activists confronted higher education with key questions: whose knowledge is valuable? What questions are worth studying? Whose communities should we learn about in the classroom? And who controls the education students receive?

In the 1960s, as college students engaged in both the Civil Rights Movement and an emergent Black Power movement that sought to expand and challenge American democracy—through desegregation, voting rights and economic opportunity—they attempted to rewrite the answers to these fundamental assumptions of the academy. From May 1967 to March 1969, Black students at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley engaged in repeated protests and strikes for a Black Studies department—often in the face of violent resistance, not only from University administration but from the state’s deployment of local law enforcement and the National Guard. At SFSU, a coalition of Latinx, Filipino, and Black students formed the Third World Liberation Front to act in concert on their demands for ethnics studies programs, and a similar group formed at UC Berkeley soon after. They understood that solidarity across race was essential to their political project. Demanding universities take seriously the experiences of communities of color was an unprecedented shift—one that required tremendous energy from student activists and generated intense backlash from those in power. 

Students at Duke, SFSU, and Berkeley advocated for these departments both to make universities more representative and as an ideological challenge to white supremacy. 

Their efforts were also based on the belief that these disciplines are not niche courses for leisure or personal indulgence of racial and ethnic minorities; these fields, decidedly non-Eurocentric, widen our collective knowledge. They offer universal insights and truths. Mirroring the ideological challenge presented by the push for ethnic studies, women and LGBTQIA+ activists simultaneously advocated for the study of feminism, gender, and sexuality. From the creation of Black Studies at Duke in 1969, to the establishment of Latino/a Studies in the Global South in the 1990s, to the announcement of an Asian-American Studies Program just last year and many more, these struggles were clearly linked and, as alluded to by President Keohane, they transformed Duke.

Moreover, the students of the ‘60s saw their experiences as linked to the social and political upheaval happening in the world outside the ivory towers. People of color, environmentalists, young people, anti-war protesters, and others marched in the street and organized in their local communities, envisioning an America absent imperialism, white supremacy, and environmental degradation that disproportionately affected people of color. If their moment demanded the creation of ethnic studies, our moment demands a defense of them. We live on a campus where on a normal walk to dinner one might stumble upon white supremacist propaganda stickers; we live in a country where places of worship become sites of racist and anti-Semitic violence. Less palpable but equally pernicious is the reality that the very civil rights these students fought for are under threat today. We should not take these rights nor these classes for granted. 

It is still Add-Drop period, and a brief scroll through DukeHub shows that there are still course openings in African and African American Studies, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Jewish Studies, Latin American Studies, Latino Studies and the Global South, Slavic and Eurasian Studies, and International Comparative Studies. Among the many course offerings, perhaps consider AAAS 102: Intro to African-American Studies, AMES 225: Islam in the Age of Trump, or ICS 106: Intro to Latino/a Studies. I (Trey) waited too long to take courses exploring my identity as an African-American and those of other communities. As for me (Gino), my passion for American history and social movements is incomplete without deepened study of marginalized communities. Moreover, these courses are our inheritance from the brave students who pushed Duke and other universities to create these departments. 

This column is the first in a public conversation between two friends trying to make sense of Duke and beyond. Throughout the semester, we will attempt to give historical context to our contemporary moment in hopes that this will help us think about things more clearly. Believing, as we do, that the world we have today is the product of history and people who came before, gives urgency to our task of deciding what kind of world we will make. To that end, start with us today: take an ethnic studies course at Duke.

Trey Walk is a Trinity senior and Gino Nuzzolillo is a Trinity junior. Their column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.


Share and discuss “You should take an ethnic studies course” on social media.