When the Center for Black Diaspora was established in 1993, its focus was the black experience in the United States. (It was then called the Center for African-American Research). Four years later, Sandra Jackson, a professor of women's and gender studies, began her tenure as the center’s director, and with her came a bigger horizon: the global African diaspora. 

“Folk of African descent are everywhere—the diaspora is a transnational phenomenon,” she says. “So, we decided to focus the center on migration and mobility, on African culture and identities as they stand in complex relationship to other populations—the populations of not just the United States but also Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Asia and other regions of the world.” 

Now, the center is the only one of its type in Chicago that focuses specifically on the black diaspora. It serves students, faculty and the community by supporting scholarly, cultural and creative work, sponsoring conferences and lectures, hosting a library and film screenings, and providing programs of interest and relevance which are open to everyone.

For Students, a Resource

The center broadens the intellectual life of motivated students, says Larry Bennett, a member of the center’s advisory board and a professor of political science: “It’s a resource for students, particularly undergraduates, who can use its library as they work on class-related projects. Students who participate in center-sponsored events develop ties with faculty and begin to sense what a life of the mind is all about. For some, the center will be a gateway to an academic career.  Having access to this kind of gateway is, I think, especially important for students of color.”

For Faculty, a Network

The center supports faculty members, across multiple disciplines, in their research and pedagogy.  As Bennett notes, “It’s a figurative meeting place for faculty of color and others, such as me, whose interests and research touch on matters of race.”

Its academic activities feature scholars who are doing “cutting-edge, highly interesting, insurgent work,” says Jackson. “We make sure that our own faculty, as well as professors and graduate students from Northwestern, the University of Chicago and Loyola, are part of the global conversation about the black diaspora.”

Because the study of the diaspora is interdisciplinary, multiple departments often work together to develop and deliver a program. For example, 13 university departments and offices co-sponsored the 2013 international conference, “Remapping the Black Atlantic: Diaspora (Re)Writings of Race and Space.”

Guest speakers also cover a lot of ground. For the 2015 lecture series, “Women of the African and Black Diaspora,” they came from journalism, film, international studies, African and African American studies, public policy, philosophy and religion, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. They included scholars Sarah Fila-Bakabadio (University of Cergy-Pontoise, France), Beth Richie (University of Illinois at Chicago), Debra Majeed (Beloit College) and filmmaker Euzhan Palcy. A full-day colloquium on the legacy of Ida B. Wells featured her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, Naomi Davis (CEO of Blacks in Green), Wendy G. Smooth (Ohio State University), Barbara Ransby (University Illinois at Chicago) and Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Spelman College).
 
“We wanted to ask some provocative questions,” says Jackson. “Do black women, wherever they are in the world, have something in common? What are the differences that come from culture, language and climate versus the similarities that come from gender and race? What does it mean to say, ‘we’ve come to this place’ for women of color?” 

It’s also telling that the center’s advisory board includes faculty from political science, art history, public policy studies, modern languages, women’s and gender studies, international studies, African and black diaspora studies, religious studies and The Theatre School. 

For the Community, a Bigger Perspective

The Chicago community is welcome to participate in center activities. “The Center does an admirable job, in its particular way, of enriching Chicago,” says Bennett.  Some of these efforts extend beyond campus events. 

For example, the center is co-sponsoring the 13th annual African Diaspora Film Festival from June 12 to 18 (with Facets Cinematheque, ArtMattan Productions, The DuSable Heritage Association and others), which will showcase 17 documentary and fiction films set in the United States, Angola, Cuba, Brazil, Canada, Haiti, St Vincent, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Argentina, Uruguay and Honduras.

David Akbar Gilliam, a member of the center’s advisory board and an associate professor of modern languages, captures the overall importance of the center’s work: 
“It keeps DePaul and the community at large in touch with the history, culture and politics of African people worldwide—a story of conflict, which continues today, which has not been fully told in our history books and by our media. By making education a priority and by providing a forum for discussion, the center promotes understanding and healthier relationships.”