By Alexandra Copeland
Growing up, Mariama Sillah, a senior African American Studies major, had always been interested in history and knew that it was a subject that she wished to further pursue in her college career. However, history classes were never taught from a perspective that related to her identity.
“Being a black woman is a salient part of my identity,” Sillah said. “My K-12 education was very Eurocentric.”
For Sillah and many other students, the African American Studies (AAS) department at the College has provided a quality education through the lens of the identity being taught and studied, with faculty that push for the success of their students.
“Professors take time to care for their students,” Sillah said. “I know they are there for me and have my best interest at heart.”
In 2020, this impactful department marked its 50th anniversary. With restrictions and health hazards resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the celebration of this anniversary was postponed.
“We were so distracted by [Covid-19],” said Dr. Piper Williams, chair of the AAS department, “but we knew that we wanted to do something for the anniversary.”
Three years later, the department’s anniversary will finally be recognized through a gala held on March 4 at the Trenton Country Club. According to Williams, the goal of the event is to recognize four prominent figures who assisted in founding this department, inviting their descendents as “VIP” attendees. The event will honor former department chair Gloria Harper Dickinson, playwright and former chair Don Evans, professor Stephan Chukumba Sr. and professor Eloise Williams.
“It is about honoring our history,” said Williams. “We are those people’s legacy.”
Though the AAS major is available at the College today, there were challenges in establishing the department. The department began in 1969, yet it was not offered as a major until 2016. AAS was not even listed on the Social Sciences Building sign until two years ago, according to Williams.
“I think as a department we’re marginalized and haven’t been recognized,” said Williams.
Despite these struggles, the department has been successful in supporting its students, with many expressing the broadened perspectives and opportunities that being an AAS major has provided for them.
“Both of my parents are from West Africa,” said Sillah. “With taking African American Studies, I was able to learn so much more about the continent.”
Through the department, freshman AAS and English double major Luna Moore was able to establish her academic path.
“If it wasn’t for my advisor I wouldn’t have even majored in it,” said Moore. “My interests overlapped with African American studies — it was kind of a match made in heaven.”
African American Studies has also helped push social activism in the campus community. According to James Felton III, vice president of the Division of Inclusive Excellence at the College, the Division was established with the help of the AAS department.
“African American studies has always been at the forefront of cultural and social issues on campus,” Felton said. “The department put a lot of input and ideas into how the Division should be formed, what kinds of resources and people needed to be in place, and how it can be a support network for the entire campus community.”
In order to further support the community and AAS students, the department and the Division are fundraising through the gala to financially assist study abroad experiences for majors and minors.
“I really got inspired because a lot of students come need-based,” said Williams, who is in charge of the event fundraising. “We’re trying to make study abroad equitable, to provide equitable access to cover those other costs.”
The fund will support students accepted into “TCNJ Cape Town,” the College’s South Africa Study Center. This semester, Williams will be traveling to Cape Town to review the Center before the program becomes available to students in the 2024-2025 academic year. Some students have already begun to show interest in the program.
“Dr. Williams talked to me about South Africa, and how there would be classes for us to take there,” said Moore, who will be attending the Gala. “That’s something I would love to do.”
Though the Gala has recently sold out, there is still an opportunity to support AAS students’ study abroad opportunities by donating online.