Racial Justice and African Studies | Faculty Director Nancy Kendall

Dear ASP colleagues,

Racism and state-sanctioned violence have shaped the U.S. from this country’s founding, but in this moment, long-standing calls to transform the White supremacist roots of our national identity are gaining new power. It is a moment that is so deeply hopeful, but at the same time, yet again, recreates violence against Black people, as they bear the overwhelming burden and face the greatest dangers—in the organizing work, in continued state violence, and in the harsh consequences of COVID-19 on daily life and community survival.

While the U.S.’s history of genocide and enslavement is unique, the links between colonization, state violence, social inequality, and Black wellbeing around the world are not. As the African Studies Association of Africa stated:

We are united by a brutal common experience of relentless structural violence and racism.

For centuries Black people have been denigrated and dehumanized through the system of slavery, colonialism, de jure/de facto segregation, and the activities of racist governments that have perpetuated cultural imperialism, socio-economic exploitation, and political marginalization. (https://www.as-aa.org/)

African Studies as a concept, field of study, and program at UW-Madison and beyond must wrestle with this fundamental truth in new and much more transformative ways. For members of ASP who identify as African or African descent, African Studies must provide respite and support for healing from anti-Back racism, as well as a community that amplifies and celebrates their work. For those of us who identify as White, African Studies must be a space where we contemplate much more deeply how our relationships, research, teaching, outreach, and other activities can support decolonization and the voices, work, and wellbeing of African colleagues and institutions.

I have struggled to write to all of you during this time of great power, grief, fury, love, and mobilization. I am heartbroken and furious and horrified by the loss of each Black person’s life at the hands of direct state violence, and as a consequence of the centuries of White supremacy that have systematically limited Black people’s access to equal resources and care in the U.S. and around the world. But you have all received dozens of messages from departments and units across campus, not to mention every organization to which you belong and half the stores where you have shopped, talking about this moment and people’s feelings. You received messages about COVID just a few months ago. I did not want to send you yet another email that is all talk and no action. So, I want to lay out some starting points to which we are committing ourselves in the ASP office to move towards transforming our own program. As you will see below, this includes committing to building new partnerships that we hope will allow us to engage in positive transformation in our city of Madison and in the field of African Studies.

These are only starting points, and we hope to work with all of you to shape a shared agenda. We recognize that these efforts cannot be piecemeal or short-term. I have laid out a set of actions we hope to pursue over the coming 9 months; some of these will in turn feed into a plan of action that we will develop for 2021 and beyond. The actions below are loosely organized chronologically.

  1. We will offer small grants ($500-$2000) to ASP colleagues who would like to undertake activities that address/support racial justice and/or decolonizing ASP, locally or on the African continent. A call for applications will go out in June, and funds will be immediately available. We will fundraise in an effort to expand this initiative next year.
  2. Building off of our work together with MSU in the Fall 2019 Decolonizing African Studies conference, we will participate in MSU/Wits’s July 9 panel on African Diaspora Networks (at which our own Harry Kiiru, and 2018 YALI fellow Bridget Otoo, will present). On July 13, we will host a post-conference event focused on learning and action opportunities for participants.
  3. This Summer, I hope to have the chance to hear from each of you about two broad questions. First, what should be ASP’s priorities for the coming five years? Second, to members of ASP from the continent and the diaspora: From your perspective and experience, what concrete steps does ASP need to take (both immediate and long-term) to decolonize knowledge generation and to be a more supportive community for African and African diaspora members of ASP? To be clear, this is not a request that you do this work; it is our responsibility in ASP leadership to listen carefully, and then undertake this work. And to each member of ASP who identifies as White or a non-Black Person of Color: What work will you commit yourself to do to make ASP a better community for African and African Diaspora colleagues, and to align your work, teaching, and actions with decolonial goals and practices? We will send out a survey asking for your responses to these two questions next week; in the survey, you can also indicate if you would like to speak to me directly. If you have the energy and interest, I would deeply value the chance to speak with you.
  4. We will move forward with our efforts to forge a stronger relationship between the ASP and the African diaspora community here in Madison, through a set of listening sessions in the late Summer and Fall. Our goal will be to develop a shared plan of action for working together in 2021.
  5. We will continue this Summer and over the coming academic year to channel resources towards assuring that members of the ASP community who are international students have the resources they need to survive and thrive while in university, and to partner with departments across campus to recruit new faculty to UW-Madison who identify as African or of African descent. These hires increase the representation of African and African Diaspora scholars on the campus, and hopefully, in the ASP community and leadership.
  6. In Fall and Spring 2020/2021, ASP will invite African and African Diaspora leaders here in Madison to join us for a series of events with the ASP community focused on transforming the role of these leaders in ASP, and ASP in Madison.
  7. Based on what we learn over the Summer and Fall from the survey and listening sessions, we will create a plan of action for 2021, that we will begin implementing in Spring 2021. Depending on interest from the community, the plan might include actions such as: 1) organize two groups around the Racial Affinity Group model. These groups offer spaces in which different kinds of learning, action, and support can be pursued. The first could be for members of the ASP community who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and might focus on topics such as healing from anti-Black racism or g/local connections. The second could be for White-identified members of the ASP community, and might focus on topics such as disrupting White fragility and decolonizing research and teaching; 2) convene a working group to present a 5-year action plan for ASP; 3) support the creation of new courses or the revision of existing courses; 4) partner with Madison community members on a new initiative.

These are first steps in what must be a long-term commitment to transforming ASP as a community and an intellectual home for our work. It represents an effort to make sure that we put this commitment into action immediately, but at the same time don’t go far without listening carefully to you. So, I hope you will all join me in these efforts, beginning with the survey and the July 9 and 13 meetings, and that you will feel free to get in touch and let me know what you think about these plans.

With care and solidarity,


Nancy Kendall