Dr. Kwame Zulu Shabazz, a faculty member in Africana studies at Winston-Salem State University, was the keynote speaker for the Herb Carter- Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke Distinguished Lecture Series held on Nov. 1. The annual event, which is presented by the Department of Africana Studies and the California African American Political and Economic Institute at California State University, Dominguez Hills, was attended by 250 students, faculty, and staff in the Loker Student Union.
Shabazz presented “From Compton College to Harvard University: The Political Imagination of an Africana Scholar-Activist,” with a look at his rise from an inner city background to a career in academia. Salim Faraji, associate professor of Africana studies, said that Shabazz was a natural fit as a speaker for the student population at CSU Dominguez Hills.
“We selected Dr. Shabazz for a number of reasons,” said Faraji. “One, his story is powerful. He’s a young man who began his collegiate career at Compton College, transferred from Compton College to UCLA, and then from UCLA, he went to Harvard to do a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. There is the issue of black and Latino male under-representation here at Cal State Dominguez Hills as well as in California public school education in general. Dr. Shabazz’s story demonstrates these students can achieve excellence and become quite successful.”
Faraji, who serves as a faculty mentor for the Male Success Alliance (MSA) at CSU Dominguez Hills, said that one in ten black males and three in ten Latino males on average graduate per year from the university. He cites peer mentoring and guest speakers like Shabazz as among the efforts needed for the retention of these student populations.
“In light of the demographics of our campus and these startling statistics about black and Latino male graduation, we thought it was important to have Dr. Shabazz, an African American male who began like many of our students, in the California community college system, and then went on to do a doctorate in an Ivy League institution,” said Faraji. “He made the correlations between how understanding your history, your culture, [and] your contemporary struggle in this country and around the world can prepare you to succeed academically in higher education.”
Faraji said that despite the early struggles in academe to establish the field of Africana studies, access to the discipline for him as an undergraduate was easy and that his mission as an educator is to introduce his students to the history of those struggles in order to help them appreciate what they have inherited.
“It was the generation prior to me that actually struggled to implement Africana studies, black studies, in American academia… in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “By the time I came along, black studies had been around for 20 years. My generation had the benefit of these previous struggles.
“The dilemma that we face today is that [students] may have it too easy. When something becomes so easy, it becomes invisible, you take it for granted.”
Faraji said that the Africana studies program at CSU Dominguez Hills produces a surprising number of students who continue to earn doctoral degrees in the discipline, given the size of the department. He also underscored the versatility of a degree in the major.
“The question is not ‘What can you do with a degree in Africana studies?’ but ‘What can’t you do with a degree in Africana studies?’” he said. “It’s rooted in the social sciences and the humanities in particular; it’s pretty versatile.
“We have a booklet that we give out called, ‘What You Can Do With an Africana Studies Major.’ It has a list of 300 people in various disciplines: communications, politics, foreign policy, religion. medicine, science. Michelle Obama was an Africana studies major at Princeton. Because our discipline is interdisciplinary, it prepares students for a host of professions.”
Faraji said that Shabazz’s current research on Sino-African relations attests to the fact that Africana studies possess an international component.
“It shows that Africana studies is global in its orientation and also has a multiethnic, multicultural drive,” he said. “You can’t talk about the African world and not talk about the entire world because African people intersect with people all throughout the world.”
From working toward the retention and graduation of students from underserved communities, Faraji said that Shabazz’s humble beginnings resonated with them.
“Students said [Shabazz] was very relatable and personable,” said Faraji. “He grew up in Inglewood so he started talking about the gangs [there] when he was young. He also talked about growing up poor, food stamps, Section 8. One student asked him, ‘How did you adjust socially coming from Compton College to UCLA, and then from UCLA to Harvard?’ [Shabazz] said that initially he felt a bit insecure. But he realized that his strength was his culture. He said that, ‘I knew I could compete once I could operate from my own cultural grounding, my own cultural framework.’ His point was that your cultural orientation is important and is key to your academic success, even when you begin to engage with people from different walks of life and different institutions.”
Faraji added that his story and that of many of his colleagues at CSU Dominguez Hills who have similar backgrounds, helps them relate to students. He described an icebreaker that William Franklin, associate vice president of Student Success Services and MSA co- director, uses to get students to open up.
“I’ve heard Dr. Franklin talk about some of the things he did growing up in the streets [of Los Angeles]. Myself, I’m from west Philadelphia, I’m from an urban inner city environment. Dr. Franklin does this exercise. He says, ‘If this has happened to you, stand up.’ He asks, ‘Have you been arrested? Have you been to jail? Have you had financial hardships?’ Almost every person stands up for each particular category. We tell them that many of us have had these experiences and know these experiences well. We tell them, ‘If you need help, reach out to one of your peers, or reach out to one of us – we can help you.’
“That’s the best way to deal with students who feel like their background is a disadvantage when it’s actually an advantage. The ability to… be comfortable in whatever cultural or social space I was in – I think that for youth who come from similar backgrounds, that’s an advantage, not just culturally or ethnically, but even [in regard to class]. I think it makes you well-rounded and more balanced.”