Dr. Nzongola-Ntalaja, 1967/90
Authored by Anisha Dhungana ’21 in “Beyond the International Festival, the Lives of Black International Students at Davidson College“
last updated 02.10.2021
During this call, Dr. Nzongola-Ntalaja – currently a professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – shared with me his experiences at Davidson, his journey in African American Studies, and what they mean to him. Georges has returned to Davidson multiple times since his graduation in 1967, including as a visiting professor in 1990, which was when this photo was taken. He laughed at the sight of this photo, amazed at how young he looks. Surrounded by books and a map of Africa in the background, Dr. Nzongola-Ntalaja, wearing professional work clothes, is seen lecturing in front of at least two students. His hand positions and gestures suggest that he is animatedly in between explaining important political concepts as one Black student is diligently taking notes while another white student is listening attentively. Shot in his office, there are papers and notes across his desk, a small photo of a relative, and two computers by the wall. The large map of Africa indicates his interests in Africa and suggests that he is a professor in Africana Studies. However, Africana Studies was only established as a department in 2014 at Davidson. Dr. Nzongola-Ntalaja had come as a professor for the Political Science department because of his specialization in African Politics, although he had been working in the African Studies department at Howard University at that time, which was formed in 1953, showing that Davidson was very late in creating an African Studies department, ignoring the protests for Black Studies that were ongoing during the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements.
During his time at Davidson, Georges was part of the soccer team with Benoît and also intended to major on the pre-medicine track. But, his activism within the Civil Rights Movement changed his plans and he ultimately majored in Philosophy. He described Davidson as initially hostile and insulting due to the treatment he received from his white peers. However, he recognized that he was treated better than the African American students on campus, who would join Davidson his sophomore year, suggesting that the rhetoric of Christian ethics and white saviorism, in addition to their foreignness, made Georges and Benoît’s arrival less threatening in the eyes of the white Davidson community, creating a disconnect between the Black African and Black African-American students. Furthermore, he described Davidson as socially and intellectually engaging and prepared him well for his master’s program. He wanted to join a fraternity; however, he was not accepted by the current members or the governing organization. It was only in 1967, a year after Georges graduated, that the first Black man was accepted into an Interfraternity Council fraternity, which had to move off-campus due to backlash from the fraternity’s governing board (Davidson College 2015). He talked about how he did find a group of students that were supportive of liberation movements across the world and with whom he would have frequent intellectual discussions at the dining halls.
One of the lasting impacts that Georges made while at Davidson was his fight to change the Church attendance policy. At that time, Davidson had a church attendance requirement and each student had to go to one of three churches: the college Presbyterian church, the Methodist church, or the Episcopal church, all of which were white, middle-class churches. Students would only receive credit for going to these churches. However, Georges protested, calling the policy discriminatory against race and class, and made it clear that he would not go to any of those churches. Instead, he decided to attend the Black Presbyterian church. The policy was ultimately revoked as a result of his opposition (“It Hasn’t Been Exactly Easy” 2016).
Following Davidson, he completed his master’s in diplomacy and International Commerce, then his PhD in Political Science after conducting research for his dissertation in Congo. There was never a class on what is now his specialty, African Politics, during his time at Davidson. He recalled only one class that was centered on Africa, his senior Philosophy seminar entitled African Political Thought. This class had three students and four professors from various disciplines (Economics, English, Philosophy). Georges was consulted throughout the class and essentially made the syllabus by preparing readings that the professors would read alongside the students. This class is not listed in the Davidson catalog for that year (1966-67). Today, this class would have been listed as an Africana Studies course at Davidson. As someone who did not complete his doctorate in Africana Studies, since it did not exist then, but is now a distinguished professor in the field, his academic journey captures the various discourses and conversations surrounding Africana/Black studies and questions on what, truly, is the discipline. Even at Davidson, none of the professors hold PhDs in Africana Studies, speaking to the inter- and cross-disciplinary nature and the recency of the field.
For Dr. Nzongola-Ntalaja, Africana Studies represents the history, culture, and struggles of people of African descent, and in particular Black Africa – not North Africa – in the U.S. and globally. The global, diasporic aspect of Black Studies has also come into question with some departments simply not including this perspective in the field or with limited focus on it. Africana at Davidson does have a faculty that is diverse, ranging from Cuban history, Jim Crow, Caribbean social movements, Black Paris, etc., and with the requirement to take classes in at least two different regions, shows the department’s stance on the importance of the diasporic lens, even for such a small department in a small liberal arts institution. Furthermore, within the backdrop of the Black Power movement and Pan-Africanism, global Blackness was used as a way to create solidarity for liberation and decolonization movements around the world, showing the importance of the diasporic lens in Africana studies. Another founding principle of Africana studies that grew out of these movements is its communitarian history, exemplified by George’s participation in the civil rights protests occurring in Charlotte that informed his academic decisions to now teach African politics in the African, African American and Diasporic Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill.