Through the efforts, persistence, courage, and commitment of student activists who sought to bring social change to Georgia State University, the Department of African-American Studies was created. It was in November of 1992, when a racial slur “n****rs enter here” scrawled on a trash can was discovered near offices of a white fraternity that was pledging a black member. The incident sparked black students’ demand for change. According to reports, this was not the first of racial or homophobic harassment that had been ignored by administrators. However, about sixty black students who staged the sit-in saw an urgency and a need for change. During two days of sit-in demonstrations to protest the climate of racial tensions on the campus and to lobby for an African American Studies Department, then newly-appointed President Carl Patton moved swiftly to resolve the issues.
As a direct result of these demands in 1994, The Department of African American Studies at Georgia State University became a reality. Dr. Charles E. Jones accepted the appointment of the founding chair and created a department dedicated to fulfilling the university’s advisory committee’s mandates to become a regionally and ultimately nationally recognized Department of African American Studies. Under Dr. Jones’ leadership, the department became a model of interdepartmental collaboration and community relationships. The Department of African American Studies started a Bachelor's of Arts (BA) degree program in 1998 and a Master's of Arts program in 2008. Hundreds of AAS majors have achieved BA degrees. Over a third of the alumni of the undergraduate program have achieved graduate degrees in Africana Studies, Education, Public Health, Law, Social Work and other Social Sciences and Humanities. Several of the alumni are professionals in academia, public health, education, community and social justice advocacy, and social work. AAS alumni have established two educational institutions in the city of Atlanta and another directs one in DeKalb County. In 2011, Georgia State alumna Kimberly Hixson created the first AAS scholarship, the Lucille Adams Scholarship in African American Studies. This fund provides an undergraduate scholarship award for a rising senior who is majoring in African American Studies.
Under Dr. Jones' tenure, more than 30% of African American Studies graduates have pursued graduate education from such institutions as UCLA, Morehouse School of Public Health, Georgia State, DePaul University, Ohio State University, Temple University, Central Michigan University and Georgetown School of Law. The first Study Abroad Program (N’konsonkonson) was created under his administration. His initial commitment to recruiting top-level faculty has been the catalysis in promoting academic excellence and social responsibility.
The department’s progress was furthered by Dr. Akinyele Umoja, the second appointed chair of African American Studies. Dr. Umoja was responsible for the enhancement of the African American Studies Research Culture and academic reach beyond the Georgia State campus. Through those efforts, the faculty has received national and international recognition for their scholarly achievements. For example, Dr. Umoja's book We Will Shoot Back (New York University Press, 2013) won awards in 2014. Dr. Jonathan Gayles produced two documentaries that have been screened at academic venues and festivals both nationally and internationally. Gayles’ “White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books” was distributed by California Newsreel. “White Scripts and Black Supermen” won the 2013 Peter Rollins Best Documentary Film Award from the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association. Gayles also received noteworthy recognition for his second documentary film entitled “The E-Word: A Documentary on the Ebonics Debate.” Dr. Maurice Hobson published his award-winning book Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Atlanta (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) highlights several significant themes for studying interracial socioeconomic class tensions in Atlanta following its emergence as a majority Black city. Dr. Lia Bascomb and Dr. Lakeyta Bonnette-Bailey, hired under Dr. Umoja’s chairmanship, also have published books: Dr. Bailey’s Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics, and Dr. Bascomb’s book, In Plenty and in Time of Need: Popular Culture and the Remapping of Barbadian Identity (Critical Caribbean Studies).
Dr. Umoja's tenure as chair also entails the overall strengthening of the Graduate Program. Enrollment in the M.A. program has substantially increased from the inception of the graduate program in 2008. Several of the Department's M.A. graduates have been accepted and enrolled in Ph.D. programs. Proposals for a non-thesis option to orient M.A. students who wish to pursue professions in cultural competency, public service, social justice, public and mental health were initiated. A graduate certificate in AAS for graduate students in Social and Behavioral Sciences, Humanities, and other related fields was also developed and approved during this time. Since 2013, the department's director of Undergraduate Students has led three contingents of Georgia State students to South Africa to study race, class and gender in post-apartheid South Africa, thus strengthening our international scholastic outreach.
Dr. Jonathan Gayles is the third and current chair of the Department of African American Studies. With regards to his predecessors, Dr. Gayles sees his opportunity to serve as chair of the department as a humbling but exciting experience. The propulsion of the Department of African American Studies into the forefront of groundbreaking academic scholarship is a priority for Dr. Gayles. Another priority is building the Department's alumni and community relationships. He is leading the charge to claim even more influence and visibility in both on-campus academic spaces and academia at large.