Northwestern University Is Changing the Name of Its Department of African American Studies

The department of African American studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has decided to change its name. It will now be known as the department of Black studies.

In changing its name, the department is seeking to better reflect the breadth of its scholarship and teaching, according to the faculty’s formal name change proposal. The term “African American studies” is often interpreted as being specific to the United States, while the department’s actual work is broader, encompassing the interdisciplinary study of the formations of “race” and Blackness — including in the U.S., Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.

In its formal proposal requesting the name change, the faculty noted that the term “Black Studies” was used in the original petition filed by Northwestern students who occupied the bursar’s office in 1968 during a protest that spurred the creation of the department. The name change is in some ways a continued articulation of the 1968 students’ original intent to create a self-actualizing department; one that could set the terms of its own scholarship and continue to find new means by which to uncover truth and further Black liberation.

“We have deliberated about changing our name for over a decade, but it was preparing for our 50th anniversary that made it clear that the time was now,” said Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies who currently serves as the department’s chair. “Our work is expansive, beyond national or regional boundaries, and the word ‘Black’ is what captures that reach.”

Professor Pattillo is the author of Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and Black on the Block: The Politics of Race And Class in the City (University of Chicago Press, 2007). She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York City, where she majored in urban studies. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago.

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