Gain a better understanding of the academic discipline of African Studies, an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the study of African peoples, history, and philosophy; arts, literature, culture, geography, ecology, paleontology; and political, economic, and social organization. This simplistic definition, however, does not reflect the significant academic debate surrounding this term and its relationship to other interrelated areas of study, including African-American Studies, Afro-American Studies, Africana Studies, Black Studies, and Africology. Depending on the academic institution, African Studies may be separate from or included as part of programs that study the African-American experience or the African diaspora.
Part of the problem of defining the scope of African Studies relates to the development of the discipline in Western culture. In the United States, historically Black colleges and universities were the first to offer courses in African Studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century, however, African Studies became part of the development of an academic field known as Area Studies in many institutions of higher learning in Europe and the United States. These institutions sought to deepen students’ understanding of non-Western regions in relation to their geopolitical importance to the West and its primary antagonist, the Soviet Union. White scholars dominated the ranks of Africanists, or those who study African languages, cultures, and history, which was exemplified by the racial make-up of the members of the African Studies Association founded in 1957.
With the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans began to agitate for academic departments that better reflected Black people and their experiences, leading to the development of programs that focused specifically on African Americans and championed Black professors and researchers. San Francisco State University established the first Black Studies department in 1968. As similar programs developed, some included African Studies as a minor program intended to provide context to the African-American experience, while others considered the study of Africa as being equally important alongside African-American Studies. The multitude of terms for the programs dedicated to the Black experience reflects the nuances of individual programs’ scopes as well as political concerns. For example, some scholars eschew the use of African Studies because of its association with an era dominated by white academics, preferring terms that reflect an Afrocentric approach.