Black Studies Program Celebrates 25 Years
Q&A with Professor Robert Bellinger
As the Black Studies program celebrates its 25th anniversary, founder and program director Professor Robert Bellinger looks back on its history and shares why the field is still so critical to shaping students’ understanding of the world.
Q: How did the Black Studies program start?
Professor Robert Bellinger: I was at Suffolk for six years and one of the things I noticed was a lack of focus on Black Studies. I spoke with two of my colleagues at the time, and we began meeting to figure out what we could do. We looked at the curriculum, including courses in history, English, and government, and thought about how we could develop it to create a program. That planning was the foundation for what would become the Black Studies minor in 1993.
Q: What were the program’s founding goals?
Bellinger: The goal was to make it possible for students to study a field that was extremely important. Black Studies is an interdisciplinary program based in the humanities and social sciences but not limited to those fields. It can work with any major and curriculum. The field focuses on the perspectives and ways of knowing of black people -- thinking, acting, creating, building, and problem solving. We wanted to encourage students from any background to gain a fuller understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Many of the goals are reflected in three adinkra symbols that come from West Africa and are used by the Ashantis:
- "Pempasie" means, “Sew it in readiness that it is prepared,” and represents that everyone is important in his or her own right, so everyone should be ready to fill that space to which he or she alone can close.
- "Sankofa" means “Go back and bring what you left,” and represents the importance of using the past as a foundation for the future.
- "Ntesie" means “What I hear I keep,” and signifies wisdom, knowledge, and prudence.
The program is rooted in those principles. When students take the intro classes, one of the ideas that is central to Black Studies is that of the “activist scholar,” which is based on the idea that knowledge is for the sake of your community. It’s not just learning for the sake of learning, it’s learning so you can use that knowledge to shape the communities that you’re a part of locally, nationally, and globally.
Q: What inspired you to enter the field of Black Studies?
Bellinger: I’m not sure if it was any one thing. The first Black Studies class I had was in 1970 during a summer program at the beginning of my high school years. I had never encountered the material that was being presented.
It was exciting, it was refreshing, it was empowering. That was important. Prior to that I had been exposed to black literature and loved that, but this was the first exposure to the discipline that encompassed the literature, and the history, and everything else.
It was a natural development to study these things and to bring Black Studies to Suffolk. It’s inseparable from who I am and what I do as an academic.
Q: How does the program expand students’ view of the world?
Bellinger: There have been “ah-ha” moments because these are perspectives, materials, and authors that most students have not been exposed to. What is most sad is that there’s still a very limited exposure to the materials that make up a great deal of the discipline. I try not to assume anything. When I ask a class if students have heard of historic personages, authors, or events very few hands go up. If any have, it’s one or two and they don’t have a great deal of information. Often it’s no one.
I try to use a range of different materials and authors, and they vary from year to year. Getting students to think beyond the surface is the challenge for every class. It can be difficult getting students to let go of the things that they are familiar with and examine and incorporate the new perspectives they learn in class.
Q: Are there common combinations of majors students take with the Black Studies minor?
Bellinger: No. We have had students from psychology, communication and journalism, international relations, sociology, government, English, biology -- it’s been a range. That reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the program. Black Studies complements any program of study.
Q: There have been many Black Studies program events over the years. What stands out for you?
Bellinger: We have had dozens of wonderful events, speakers, and visiting scholars over the years.
One memorable example was an event that was co-sponsored by the Clark Collection of African American Literature and held at a high school in Cambridge. We brought students to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. I thought it was important for students to be there but I wasn’t sure how they would react.
As it turned out, one of the students was very, very, very excited because she had read Brooks’ poetry as a young person. In addition to hearing her speak, this student was actually able to meet Gwendolyn Brooks in a more intimate classroom discussion after the talk.
When the classroom discussion was wrapping up a bell rang and many of the high school students left. My students stayed behind and Brooks asked if anyone had work they wanted to share. One of my students raised his hand and said, “Well, I write poetry but I’ve never read any of it to anyone before.” She listened and provided feedback and encouragement. It was his first public reading.
Q: Why is the Black Studies minor still so important?
Bellinger: It’s as relevant today as it’s always been. I once had a professor and mentor who said that part of his job was to put Black Studies out of business. He meant that when all of this material is taught in each of the disciplines we won’t need Black Studies. We’re still miles away from that. There’s a long way to go.