Patricia Reid-Merritt was a young girl studying ballet in West Philadelphia during the 1960s when she heard the sound of drumming. She was drawn to the beats that radiated from the African dance class in an adjacent studio.
While the Black Power and civil-rights movements were gaining steam around the nation, Reid-Merritt was learning African dance inside the studio. She said it was “like I was transformed to another place and all the movements felt natural.”
“By the time I entered college,” she said, “I wanted to study everything related to the African world and African-American history and culture.”
And she did, studying psychology and social sciences, social work and race and social policies.
Reid-Merritt, distinguished professor of social work and Africana studies, has been at Stockton University for 42 years and was one of the founding faculty members of the Africana studies minor.
“When I arrived at Stockton, they asked all of the faculty for their areas of expertise,” she said. “I offered a course in African dance and culture.”
In 1985, the Africana studies minor was introduced after black faculty at the time said there needed to be a focus on black studies, she said.
Donnetrice Allison was studying English at the University of New Haven in 1989 when Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” premiered, a movie that examines race and social constructs.
“I wanted to be the female Spike Lee and put out films with strong social messages,” she said. “So I took on a minor in communication and began thinking about ways that I would improve the stereotypical portrayals of blacks in the media.”
Although she didn’t go on to pursue film, she started a researching track and then found teaching while in graduate school.
“My goal became researching the impact of negative media messages about African-Americans,” she said.
Allison, who has been at Stockton for 14 years and is also currently the Africana studies minor’s coordinator, said the course of study is important for all students.
“The African-American story is the American story,” she said. “It’s not just for African-American students to learn. It’s for all students.”
The language around the minor has changed over time, from black to Afro-American, African-American and finally the current Africana studies label, Reid-Merritt explained, calling the latest title the most inclusive.
“Our courses reflect the diaspora,” she said, “even the introductory courses.”
Classes available to students each semester are interdisciplinary, with options in literature, science, music, religion, politics and philosophy, just to name a few.
In addition to the minor, an Africana studies major is in the works, Allison explained. The Faculty Senate at the university, which is made up of 40 elected members from different schools in the college, recently voted unanimously to introduce the study as a major.
Their proposal still needs to pass through the university’s board of trustees as well as the state for approval, she explained.
The need for Africana studies in higher education comes from a lack of black history curricula in primary and high schools, both women said, and even at the collegiate level.
“It’s hard to imagine that people can come out of a college or university and they haven’t studied the experience of more than one-tenth of the population,” Reid-Merrit said. “That’s significant.”
I think people underestimate the real contributions that the African-American population has made to the development of America.”