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
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
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
"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
"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