Q&A: Africana Studies Chair Christel N. Temple

Issue Date: 
January 25, 2017

An associate professor of Africana Studies at Pitt since 2010, Christel N. Temple’s academic research focuses on Black cultural mythology, African world literature, and the intersections of history and literature. In September 2016, Temple was appointed chair of Pitt’s Department of Africana Studies. One of her goals for the department, she says, is “to better acquaint the campus with the dynamic discipline-based work our faculty are doing.”
Christel Temple

Early in her career, Temple thought she’d be an American history teacher, but undergraduate experiences at the College of William and Mary, plus professional training at the Jazz Actors Theatre of Virginia altered her course. At the latter, she says, “we studied Black Arts to contemporary poetry and drama for performance, with an emphasis on literature’s social relevance and the need for it to be accessible to the community.”

Temple also is affiliated with the University’s African Studies Program, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program, and Global Studies Center, to name a few. She was recently named one of the New Pittsburgh Courier’s 2017 Women of Excellence, and she is the author of Literary Spaces: Introduction to Comparative Black Literature and Literary Pan-Africanism: History, Contexts, and Criticism.

How does Pitt’s Department of Africana Studies compare with other universities?

I regularly survey the Africana Studies departments at the top 100 universities in the country, and Pitt stands out. We are one of the nation’s oldest Africana Studies departments, founded in 1969. We have a complete roster of eight full-time faculty, who — unlike other peer universities — are not shared appointments that merely contribute a couple of courses to the curriculum. We have specifically Africana Studies–trained leadership, a faculty in which the majority of scholars have a degree directly in Africana Studies, and a curricular balance that maintains the integrity of the traditions of the discipline while managing innovation and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

In addition, we train hundreds of students per year in being master communicators with a high cultural competency. These students go out into the work force and into diverse communities with usable critical analysis and skills to enhance the region’s accountability to diverse racial-cultural priorities.

What is your vision for Pitt’s Africana Studies Program? Where do you see the program in the coming years?

As I said, I have inherited a vibrant, full roster of faculty who are visible and active nationally and internationally for their Africana Studies and cross-disciplinary work on Africa and the Diaspora. What more could a chair ask?

My administrative priorities include being an ambassador for our program in order that we cement our individual scholarly reputations into a more visible departmental reputation. We have begun to rebrand the department’s curricular priorities in two areas: “Worldview, Social Health, and Diaspora” and in “Literature, Aesthetics, and Performance Studies.”

Our next stage of growth is toward developing a graduate curriculum. We are increasing our collaborations across University divisions and departments, such as our support and participation with the European Cultural Studies graduate program — a relationship based on the diverse Afro-European Studies expertise of half of our faculty.

You just mentioned ‘Worldview and Social Health’? Could you define that term for us?

Worldview is a central concept in African-centered practices of Africana Studies. It is the point-of-view and interpretation of phenomena based on collective experience, heritage, history, and culture. It is valuable because it reinforces the agency of people of African descent to define their reality based on their specific experiences. Studies on worldview using a survey tool called the Worldview Analysis Scale demonstrate how Blacks and Whites, in particular, collectively perceive the world with different values, priorities, and interpretations. 

Social health is a description that one of our part-time faculty, Abi Fapohunda, shared with me. Social health reflects our approach to both physical and intellectual well-being, wherein our cultural and racial assessment of what requires healing, improvement, and correctives can range from educational disparities, to crises in immigration, to literally matters of medicinal health. Pitt is a rich site for the Department’s ongoing and future collaborations in the broad area of social health.

Can you recall a particular moment in your life when you realized that you wanted to focus on Africana Studies as a career?

There are two moments that stand out. First, it was the viewing of Alex Haley’s miniseries Roots. I was in the fourth or fifth grade the first time I saw Roots. Through the film — particularly the scene of Kunta Kinte being whipped and forced to accept the name “Toby” — I developed a firm sense of why race was a factor in the U.S.

The second moment that stands out is a special program I attended the summer before my junior year in undergrad. It was an affirmative action-style program at Virginia Tech aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented faculty in the field of history. I had a six-week immersion experience in graduate work in history with a dozen Black students and one Puerto Rican student, and we bonded and mutually confirmed the need for and our commitment to changing academia by pursuing, not history degrees, but graduate degrees in African American Studies.

Could you talk about the importance of Africana literature and its relevance for today?

From an Africana Studies perspective, the word “literature” means the function of narrative with respect to memory, storytelling craft, rhetoric and persuasion, the documentation of culture and custom, advancing a racial-culture worldview, and speculative modeling. This is in addition to explication and textual analysis and teaching structure and form in order to inspire students who need to know literary craft toward their own aspirations as creative writers. Africana literature today is a vast repository of global ideas, experiences, migrations, and sensibilities, and these texts demand analysis for both form and content.

Literature is not a replacement for social science and historical realities, but it inspires students to enjoy a good story then figure out how to solve the types of challenges the texts present in its conflicts, settings, plots, and characterizations.

Are there any research endeavors that you’re particularly excited about for 2017?

Must I narrow it to one endeavor? I am putting finishing touches on a book, to be released in the fall of this year, titled An Atmosphere of Freedom: Transcendence and the Africana Literary Enterprise. I am excited about this volume’s articulation of the distinctiveness of the Africana literary enterprise.

My next two projects are compelling in different ways. I am excited about my project on Africana cultural memory that challenges us to consider new processes that contribute to a critical interpretation of African American mythology, in this case looking at the nonfictional attributes of a narrative mythology. The revisionist approach to claiming and defining an African American mythology and expanding academic cultural memory frameworks within the Africana Studies disciplinary paradigm has the potential to formally institutionalize a sub-area of the discipline. 

I am also working on a book on health discourses in Africana literature. It is aligned with the Department of Africana Studies’ growing expertise in social health. This project gives me an opportunity to write about the intersections of writing and health discourses. By that, I am speaking of concerns in the U.S. and in the Caribbean such as HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, geriatric care, immigration and medicine, and global epidemic. The writers are addressing this, and I am creating a course on the topic.

I believe it will be an exciting year for me personally as well as the Department of Africana Studies, and the University of Pittsburgh.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.