For the spring 2022 semester, Pratt Institute introduced a new Black Studies Minor to engage students in Black aesthetic philosophies and design practices, culture, history, and politics. Creating the minor was a student-led effort and its interdisciplinary courses in history, theory, media, society, and design are based in departments across campus to amplify education on the African diaspora.
“African and African diasporan students deserve to see themselves represented in their curriculum,” said Sarah Kanu, BFA Communications Design (Illustration) ’21. “Blackness is the blueprint for so much of American culture, art, and design and Black folks have a history on the land Pratt occupies and on the very campus we navigate on a day-to-day basis. The minor requires all departments at Pratt to decenter whiteness in academia in regard to history, art, design, and representation.”
Kanu was a leader in developing the Black Studies Minor while a student at Pratt, also serving as president of the Black Student Union and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion chair for the Pratt Student Government Association. In May 2020 amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, the need for Black Studies at Pratt was included in a letter sent to the administration signed by over 670 students and alumni.
“A huge part of moving forward with the minor entailed meeting with administration, but also getting students’ comments and feedback as they were the driving force for me doing this work,” Kanu said. As part of the fall 2020 Social Justice Praxis Lab class led by Caitlin Cahill, associate professor of social science and cultural studies, Kanu organized a discussion on establishing the Black Studies Minor which led to a recap and guidelines document.
“Over 40 people showed up to participate in a meaningful dialogue,” Cahill said. “What was apparent was the care with which Sarah constructed opportunities for reflection and conversation, how she did outreach to make sure that not only students, but alumni were present, and how to center the voices of students, and Black students in particular.”
It was important for Pratt students that the minor situate Black Studies as part of a creative practice, providing a critical approach that they could bring into their own work. Especially as American colleges have long focused art history on white European artists, it was essential to tell a fuller story of culture and its history while reckoning with a legacy of white supremacy.
“The next generation of Black designers needs to have access to their history,” said Apollo Lomba, BFA Communications Design (Illustration) ’24. “With the creation of this minor, I feel like this is an opportunity to catch up on my history. For the first time in a while, I feel inspired by discovering these artists who share my point of view and life experience.”
Learning in the minor includes histories on the lasting impact of slavery and colonialism as well as current issues of race in global capitalism, migration, and incarceration across the globe. There are also examinations of political and social movements that have resisted racial oppression. While education is at the minor’s core, it is further reinforcing community and conversation by bringing students together around this scholarship.
Professor of Humanities and Media Studies Jayna Brown is the coordinator for the minor. “I am excited to be part of this initiative,” Brown said. “African American and African diasporan artistic formations and cultural practices are not simply supplemental. They demand that we fundamentally reframe how we understand European aesthetic traditions. I am hoping that all the departments at Pratt Institute will accept the students’ challenge to expand their curriculum. I know that this initiative will grow, to the benefit of all students.”
Some of the regularly available courses in the minor include “Contemporary Arts of Africa and Arts in a Changing World” from the History of Art and Design, “Women in Muslim Worlds and the Caribbean Experience” from Social Science, “Race, Gender, Internet” from Humanities and Media Studies, and “Socially Engaged Media” from Photography. Other classes range from “Black Liberation” taught by Brown to “Afro-Fantastic: Visualizing Contemporary Black Imaginaries” taught by Tashima Thomas, visiting assistant professor of history of art and design. By joining these diverse courses into the minor, students are offered a deeper understanding of the social, political, and cultural forces that have informed and shaped not just Black aesthetics but the world.