For the Spring 2022 semester, Pratt Institute has introduced a new minor in Black Studies to engage students in aesthetic philosophies and design practices, Black culture, history, and politics. The creation of the minor was a student-led effort and its interdisciplinary courses in history, theory, media, society and design are based in campus departments to amplify education on the African Diaspora.
“African and African Diaspora students deserve to see themselves represented in their curriculum,” said Sarah Kanu, BFA Communications Design (Illustration) ’21. “Blackness is the blueprint for much of American culture, art and design and black people have a history on the lands Pratt occupied and on the very campus we navigate on a daily basis. The minor forces all departments at Pratt to de-center whiteness in academia as it relates to history, art, design, and representation.
Kanu was a leader in the development of the Black Studies minor while a student at Pratt, serving as President of the Black Student Union and Chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion of the Pratt Student Government Association. In May 2020, amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, the need for black studies at Pratt was included in a letter sent to the administration signed by more than 670 students and alumni.
“A big part of advancing the minor involved meeting with the administration, but also getting feedback and feedback from the students, as they were the driving force for me to do this work,” Kanu said. As part of the Fall 2020 Social Justice Praxis Lab class led by Caitlin Cahill, associate professor of social science and cultural studies, Kanu hosted a discussion on creating the black studies minor that led to a recap and a guidelines document.
“More than 40 people showed up to engage in meaningful dialogue,” Cahill said. “What was evident was the care with which Sarah built opportunities for reflection and conversation, how she did outreach to ensure that not only students but alumni were present, and how center the voices of students, and black students in particular.
It was important to Pratt’s students that the minor situate Black Studies within the framework of a creative practice, providing a critical approach that they could bring to their own work. Especially since American colleges have long focused art history on white European artists, it was essential to tell a fuller story of the culture and its history while taking into account the legacy of the white supremacy.
“The next generation of black designers needs access to their history,” said Apollo Lomba, BFA Communications Design (Illustration) ’24. “With the creation of this minor, I feel like it’s an opportunity to catch up with my story. For the first time in a long time, I feel inspired by discovering these artists who share my point of view and my experience. of life.
Learning in the minor includes stories about the lasting impact of slavery and colonialism as well as current issues of race in global capitalism, migration, and incarceration around the world. There are also examinations of political and social movements that have resisted racial oppression. Although education is at the heart of the minor, it further strengthens community and conversation by bringing students together around this scholarship.
Professor of humanities and media studies, Jayna Brown is the coordinator of the minor. “I’m thrilled to be part of this initiative,” Brown said. “African-American and African diaspora artistic training and cultural practices are not simply complementary. They demand that we fundamentally reframe our understanding of European aesthetic traditions. I hope that all Pratt Institute departments will accept the student challenge to expand their curriculum. I know that this initiative will grow, for the benefit of all students.
Some of the courses regularly available in the minor include “Contemporary Arts from Africa and Arts in a Changing World” from History of Art and Design, “Women in Muslim Worlds and the Caribbean Experience” from Social Sciences , “Race, Gender, Internet” from Humanities and Media Studies, and “Socially Engaged Media” from Photography. Other courses range from “Black Liberation” taught by Brown to “Afro-Fantastic: Visualizing Contemporary Black Imaginaries” taught by Tashima Thomas, Visiting Assistant Professor of History of Art and Design. By joining these diverse courses in the minor, students are offered a deeper understanding of the social, political, and cultural forces that have informed and shaped not just the black aesthetic, but the world as well.