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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 10, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 39
Next Up for Africana Studies

CAS Director Ben Vinson, an expert on colonial Mexico, is a professor in the History Department. He officially assumed his position at Johns Hopkins last week.
Photo by Will Kirk/HIPS

New director sees more JHU collaborations and city-school connections

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Ben Vinson sees a wealth of possibilities ahead for the Center for Africana Studies, and he can't wait to dive in.

Vinson on July 1 became the first permanent director of the now three-year-old center that blends course work, research and program initiatives organized around African-American studies, African studies and African Diaspora studies. The center, which offers an undergraduate minor and major, brings together several fields of interdisciplinary scholarship that span the humanities, social sciences and public health.

Vinson, a professor in the History Department, joined Johns Hopkins this summer from Penn State University, where he was an associate professor.

When discussing the center's near future, Vinson often uses the term "partnerships." During the next two years, Vinson wants the center to establish direct links not only with additional Arts and Sciences departments but with the university's Sheridan Libraries, School of Advanced International Studies and School of Public Health. Specifically, efforts are under way to design and launch joint research projects and to invite faculty from these other divisions to teach at the center.

"We're beginning conversations with people now and exploring possibilities of how the center can benefit from the wealth of expertise and resources throughout Johns Hopkins," he said. "For instance, Johns Hopkins has a strong tradition on African history, and the interest is growing. I see this center as a center of gravity to bring together these interests, and to tap other university strengths in order to develop a powerful unit on campus exploring the entirety of the African Diaspora."

In the coming year,the center plans to host several workshops and conferences, bringing in a number of speakers to the Homewood campus, Vinson said. He also envisions the center, which is housed in the Greenhouse, playing an increasing role in the Baltimore area by hosting events and program initiatives. In particular, he wants to explore connections between the Baltimore public school system and the Center for Africana Studies, perhaps in curriculum development or educational programs.

CAS will also launch this year the Diaspora Pathways Project, a long-term initiative designed to better understand the changing landscape of the living African Diaspora, especially as it pertains to the community in the greater Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area. One of the fundamental objectives of the project, Vinson said, is to assess the role of transnationalism and international migration upon contemporary black life.

An expert on colonial Mexico, Vinson has focused his research efforts on Latin America, African Diaspora and the experiences between African-Americans and Latinos. His books include Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico (Stanford University Press, 2001), Flight: The Story of Virgil Richardson, A Tuskegee Airman in Mexico (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Afromexico (Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2004). His current book-length project involves an assessment of the Mexican colonial caste system.

Vinson received his bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College (1992) and doctorate from Columbia University (1998). Prior to joining Penn State, he taught history at Barnard College. He has held fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, National Humanities Center, Social Science Research Council, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ford, Rockefeller and Mellon foundations.

In terms of challenges the center faces, Vinson said that attracting faculty will be chief among them. Twenty-three Johns Hopkins faculty, representing four departments, are currently associated with the center's work. In addition to Vinson, two other new faculty members recently joined the center, both of them affiliated with the Department of Political Science. Michael Hanchard comes to Hopkins from Northwestern University, where he was director of the school's Institute for Diasporic Studies and a professor of political science and African-American studies. Lester Spence, an assistant professor, had joint appointments in the Department of Political Science and the African and African-American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis prior to becoming a full-time faculty member at Johns Hopkins in summer 2005.

Vinson said that in the coming months and years the center will work with other departments to try to recruit nationally those with interests and expertise in Africana studies.

"We will have to think strategically and broadly how the center can grow and what our research interests will be," Vinson said. "Our other big challenge is resources, in terms of trying to secure financial support. Yet, the administration here is very supportive of the center and positive toward the work we are doing, so I'm optimistic we will be able to secure what we need to grow."

Currently, Johns Hopkins has fewer than 10 students majoring or minoring in Africana studies, for which classes began in 2004. Vinson sees these enrollment numbers steadily increasing due in part to the rising impact of globalism, student interest in the relationship between blacks and globalism, and word of mouth.

"Many of the students who are with the program now are those who are deeply engaged with issues of African-American life and with blackness on a global level, but our courses also seem to attract those with a more casual interest in Africana studies, those who want to use Africana studies to inform other areas of their own development," he said. "I see that trend continuing."

Last fall, the center helped establish the CAS Student Advisory Council, composed of students who are interested in the field of Africana studies to provide input with respect to the center's planning, programming and events. The Student Advisory Council has already been instrumental in soliciting participation from the Black Student Union, African Students Association, Caribbean Cultural Society, African Public Health Network and other student organizations that have a broad interest in Africana studies.

"We are trying to build a consensus on campus to help shape the growth and trajectory of this center," Vinson said. "And through the research projects and initiatives we will engage in, we intend to, in short time, increase the national and international visibility of the center."

For more information on the Center for Africana Studies, go to


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