IU's Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies awarding its first doctorate

By George Vlahakis

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In May, Indiana University's Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies will award its first Ph.D. degree since the doctoral program was established in 2009.

IU is one of only four public universities and seven universities nationally to offer a doctoral degree related to African American studies.

The program in IU Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences is unique in that it focuses specifically on the African Diaspora, especially through involuntary means, as experienced by people in the United States and worldwide.

"The Ariran's Last Life," the dissertation that Maria Eliza Hamilton Abegunde successfully defended this month, explores how unresolved ancestral emotions related to the Middle Passage -- the stage when enslaved Africans were shipped to the then New World -- are manifest in the lives of descendants and the ways these emotions and subsequent wounding can be healed.

Her research committee unanimously voted Abegunde's dissertation defense a "pass with distinction." 

"I am honored to be the first person to receive the Ph.D. in African American and African Diaspora studies at IU. I recognize that this achievement carries the responsibility to 'do good' and to 'be the change' for my ancestors, the communities that have lovingly supported me, and for myself," Abegunde said. "It also reiterates the ways in which black studies continues to be a relevant discipline and practice that can offer creative research-based solutions for understanding and healing historical traumas."

This summer, Abegunde will be a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar.

"This is truly a milestone for her and the department," said her advisor, John McCluskey Jr., professor emeritus of African-American and African Diaspora studies and adjunct professor of English, who also chaired the faculty committee that successfully wrote the proposal for the new degree. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education approved the degree in 2008.

"Abegunde’s accomplishment is not only a great personal achievement but an opportunity for students to see what is possible regarding the study of black people in the world through the Africana/black studies discipline,” department chair Valerie Grim said.

By the end of this semester, at least one student in African American and African Diaspora studies also will have successfully completed each of the five graduate programs in the department: the Master of Arts degree, joint degrees in library and information science, public policy (in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs) and creative writing.

Abegunde is the author of three poetry chapbooks, and her poems have been anthologized in publications such as "Gathering Ground," "Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the 21st Century" and "Knowing Stones: Poems of Exotic Places." She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Instituto Sacatar and Ragdale.  

Excerpts of her dissertation have been performed publicly and published in "Best African American Fiction 2010," the Kenyon Review and other publications.

She also served as poet and ritualist-in-residence for the UNESCO Transatlantic Slave Trade Route-USA Project, serving as lead team teacher on the first leg of the historic Middle Passage Voyage Project, which retraced the slave trade routes between Puerto Rico and Africa as part of an educational sailing endeavor to teach about this part of the enslavement process. She also created the Arroyo Healing Network.

Related story: IU to award first doctorate in African American and African diaspora studies