Africana studies community research center has a welcome debut
on April 8, 2016
Guests could hear music and laughter the moment they walked through the entrance of Building L at Merritt College one chilly March evening. They were here for the community open house for the new Africana Studies Community Research Center and Curriculum, which focuses on educating the public on African-American Studies and history. Every inch of the room was occupied by excited attendees, trays of soul food, decorations and detailed pamphlets that explained how the interactive curriculum in the center’s computer labs would allow users to learn more about African-American literature, politics, sociology, culture and history.
Merritt College junior Shantel Stratton said she was happy about the huge turnout, considering it was the center’s first, and hoped the idea would spread to other community college campuses, like Laney or the College of Alameda. “African-American people need to know their roots because some of us feel like we didn’t accomplish anything,” Stratton said. “When I was in high school, I was like, ‘What did my people do?’ Lies were told saying our people were lazy, you know, stuff like that and that’s not true.”
African American Studies Department chair Dr. Siri Brown spearheaded the creation of the Africana Studies Center, aiming to dismantle notions like these. Her founding efforts to establish the center – along with Merritt College professors Manu Ampim, Nehanda Imara and Jason Seals – began about six years ago after watching students engage with Marcus Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, during a black consciousness-raising tour in Jamaica. Brown said the study abroad trip, done annually by Merritt professors and students, as well as talks about Black Panther Party archival papers, led to the idea of a center. After that followed years of fundraising, source material collecting, technology testing and, finally, planning the reception for the March 30 open house.
Brown said that once people enter the room, which is adorned with African art, they can use iPads and Macs to explore one of the four educational modules: “Classical African History,” “Pan-Africanism,” “Oakland: Our Story,” and “The Maafa: Slavery and Colonialism.” Users can access hundreds of images, videos, interactive maps, sliding timelines, speeches and slave narratives voiced by professional actors. Each module has mini-assignments people can work their way through, as well as assignments that take about one hour and work in alignment with course materials.
They also have the option of talking to a family researcher who works in the center to study more about their background using Census Bureau and archive searches. They can also receive complementary DNA testing from Ancestry.com. The goal is that once visitors have completed their studies, acquired the results of their DNA test, and worked with the Black family research specialist, they will have begun establishing their family history and learned how to research.
“It’s brought tears to other students’ eyes when the family researching student presented her findings, because the person who [finished] knew how imperative it was to find out what their family went through and to learn more about their ancestors,” said Brown. “You have more respect for what your great-grandmother did when you know about Jim Crow and lynching and the whole context of what time grandma was growing up.”
The center’s part-time family research specialist, Dera Williams, helps people with their genealogy and expands their knowledge of Black history since, she said, students don’t get to read a lot about it in their textbooks. She said that students often aren’t taught the accurate history of the Black Panthers or that slaves didn’t all come to America from Africa and migrate to the north from the south.
“A lot of us think—until you start researching—we have a one-track story: We were slaves, we were emancipated, we were sharecroppers and we migrated. That’s true for some people to some extent, but that’s not all of it,” Williams said. “There are so many diverse stories. There were freed people way back, freed blacks, and we had people who came from the Caribbean; slaves were brought to South America, Europe, and other places, too. We don’t have the same stories. We’re not a monolithic group with one narrative.”
“I was clueless about my own African history,” said third year student and teaching assistant Shanova Berry. “Oakland public schools did not teach me what I’ve learned now since being a student at Merritt College. Now that the modules are open to the public, you can come in for your own benefit and use them to give you a description or history we’re not taught.”
First year student Tamika Lewis said one of the ways the module succeeds is by exposing users to more than one life story—specifically the same life stories she feels students hear about each Black History Month. “You only really hear about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, maybe the Underground Railroad—probably only most things from the 1950s—and not in their entirety,” Lewis said. “You don’t hear about how slavery helped create this country: The stock exchange, Wall Street—and we still aren’t reaping any of [the benefits]. We’re still the bottom totem” of the totem pole.
Berry said she hoped the software would encourage more members of the community to come in and try it out, and that it would maybe end up in other classrooms. “I hope Oakland public schools buy the software to enlighten students about their history early on, before they get to college and think it’s too late,” she said.
The Merritt College center’s next project this fall will be a group community research project involving elders associated with the history the college.
Right now, Barry said, the center and its current catalogue are for anyone who is curious. “We welcome all ethnicities and all races to come in and check out what we have in store for them,” she said.
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