Afro-American Studies entered the curriculum when Jay Saunders Redding ’28 was a visiting professor at Brown during the first semester of 1949-50. His course on the negro in American literature was said to be the first such course taught in a Northern college. Redding described his course: “Of course, you cannot get very far in a course in Negro literature or any other type of literature without considering the history and sociology involved. I try to teach that part of American history that touches on the Negro and where the Negro touches it. So much of the material is absolutely new. The blues, as literature, and folk expressions, is new. Up until now most of the class had considered the blues, for example, as just honky-tonk music.”
In September 1968 the administration responded to student demand and added a course in American negro literature to the already planned history course, “History of the Negro in America,” a colloquium limited to twenty students and conducted by Professor John L. Thomas. In January 1969 a seminar on “Black assertion” was taught by Professor Edward N. Beiser and Dean William A. Brown, with bi-weekly visiting lecturers. By the end of 1968-69 an independent concentration in Afro-American Studies designed by a committee of both faculty and students headed by Charles H. Philbrick was approved. The committee also designed a “black assertion” seminar program. Professor Charles H. Nichols arrived in July 1969 to became chairman of the new interdepartmental concentration. In his first year as chairman Professor Nichols established the “Community Relations Seminar,” a course he offered which brought black community leaders each week to the campus for lectures and discussion. In 1969-70 one of the “Special Topics in Literature” courses offered in the Department of English was “Negro Literature in America from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present,” taught by Professor Nichols. An announcement of Afro-American Studies courses appeared as an insert in the annual catalogue for 1970-71, which announced the Afro-American Studies Program with W. A. Jeanpierre as chairman, and listed new courses which focused attention on aspects of the black experience which were not covered by the courses related to Afro-American studies in the Anthropology, English, French, History, Music, and Political Science Departments. In 1971 the Afro-American Studies Program, the undergraduate Afro-American Society and the Graduate Minority Association received Churchill House for use as as academic and cultural center.
In 1981 the program was ranked in the top fifteen in the country by the Chicago Center for Afro-American Studies and ranked fourth in articles published in scholarly black studies journals and fifth in service on editorial boards of such journals. Its faculty have published have published articles in every major black studies journal in the country. The program has also won major research awards from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The program has developed to cover not only the Afro-American experience in the United States, but also the cultures of Brazil, the Caribbean, and some regions of Africa. Courses are taught by faculty members who speak African languages and have visited or lived in Africa and India. Some students spend their junior year at Tougaloo College.
Rites and Reason, the research theatre and performing arts component of Afro-American Studies, formed in 1970, provided interaction with the local Afro-American community. George H. Bass, professor of Afro-American studies, on his arrival at Brown reorganized an earlier group led by by Sheryl Grooms ’71 and James Borders ’71 which had grown out of the frustrations of black students who had no outlet for their culture. Bass had been an assistant to poet Langston Hughes from 1959 to 1964. At the formal initiation of Rites and Reason Bass presented James Borders with a ceremonial gown, which had been given to him by Langston Hughes, who had received it from a Nigerian chief. In April 1971 the new group performed Bass’s Black Masque. Other performances which followed included Bass’s anti-war Oh Lord, This World! and a play about Marcus Garvey by Barry Beckham ’66. After a few seasons Bass entered into cooperation with Rhett Jones, chairman of the Afro-American Studies Program, and they developed a “research-to-performance method” with Bass as artistic director and Jones as research director. They proceeded to engage scholars to produce papers on issues affecting blacks which could be turned into performances by Rites and Reasons. The first of these was based on a 1973 independent study, “Oral History as An Index to Change,” in which Jones’s students interviewed elderly blacks on the subject of race relations in Providence from 1920 to 1940. The resulting performance was The Providence Garden Blues, written by Bass and staged in 1975. The first presentation expressly for children was Trick Track Tales, written by Ramona Wilkins Bass ’72. The chorus, dance group, band, and theatre group offer presentations on the campus and at local schools and community facilities. Early performances were held at the drop-in center in Fox Point. In 1988 Rites and Reason was cited by the New England Theatre Conference for “original work on the New World and Afro-American Experience,” and by the National Council for Culture and Arts for sustained “excellence in Afro-American Theatre.” “Mulebone,” a Rites and Reason play, was produced on Broadway in 1989. In 1992 Rites and Reason was the first black theatre invited to represent the United States at the International Theatre Festival, at which “Letters from a New England Negro,” written by Sherley Anne Williams ’73 A.M. and directed by Benny Sato Ambush ’73, was performed. Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, one of the student founders of Rites and Reason, is now its artistic director. Rites and Reason has recently launched an endowment campaign, which if successful would make it the first endowed black theatre in the United States.