Black Studies minor builds momentum 

UC Santa Cruz expands Black Studies program – two new professors hired, while students immerse themselves in a field of study that is changing the course of their lives and future careers

fahima ife, associate professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES), teaching "CRES 113 Music + Performance," a newly created course in Black Studies. Last July, ife and Sophia Azeb, assistant professor of CRES, started at UCSC. Both are designated faculty members for the Black Studies program. Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta.

As part of the BSU leadership core, Ethan Davis (Stevenson, ‘23 Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, ‘23), took part in the search process that led to the first Black Studies hire in CRES, Xavier Livermon. This photo was taken in spring 2022 at the John R. Lewis College dedication. 

Xavier Livermon, associate professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, was hired two years ago to build and start the minor. He has become the program’s guiding visionary as well as its first designated faculty member.


Recent transfer student Sheyna Burns  (Oakes, Sociology and Agroecology, ‘25) is passionate about Black Studies and its impact. She is currently a sitting board member for the Peer Review Board and Student Conduct Board at UCSC. Contributed photo. 

The Black Studies minor at the University of California, Santa Cruz has grown in size and influence at a time when the United States continues to grapple with its long history of racism.

Xavier Livermon, associate professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, was hired two years ago to build and start the minor. He has become the program’s guiding visionary as well as its first designated faculty member.

Last July, two new hires started at UC Santa Cruz — fahima ife, associate professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES), and Sophia Azeb, assistant professor of CRES, who are both designated faculty members for the Black Studies program.

Livermon said the program’s recent growth reflects a strong demand for “spaces of potential reckoning in the nation” in reaction to acts of injustice including police killings of unarmed Black people. 

One particular flashpoint was the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Floyd’s death caused international outrage. 

“One of those spaces of reckoning was of course in the academy,” Livermon said. “Students are craving these courses at a time when there is a lot of interest in bringing Black Studies to more institutions, and in light of that, we’ve made great progress here.” 

The Black Studies minor is offered through UC Santa Cruz’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department, which is located within the Humanities Division.

The Black Studies minor has an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from areas of study including sociology, the arts, anthropology, geography, the social sciences and education. 

Professor Livermon hopes that the minor will attract more Black students, more students of color, and more students who are interested in questions of social justice and how to remedy anti-Black racism.

Asked if he thought the minor could be augmented into a major, he said: “You need to crawl before you walk, right? And so we’re starting with a minor. If the minor gets to the point where it seems like it’s really over-enrolled, and there is a lot of interest, at both the student and administrative level, we can go back to the drawing table and think about the next steps.”

“We’re catching up from a place where there were no hires to a time when we now have multiple people, some of them designated specifically for the Black Studies program, and some of them from other areas of UC Santa Cruz,” Livermon continued. 

At this point there are 17 students enrolled in the Black Studies minor, which launched in the fall of 2020 in response to overwhelming demand from undergraduates across academic divisions.

A collaborative process 

The Critical Race And Ethnic Studies department worked closely with the Black Student Union (BSU) to build the minor.  BSU offered input on the proposal for the minor.

Together, members of the department and the student organization worked to expand the ranks of Black Studies faculty. 

Nick Mitchell, an associate professor of CRES and Feminist Studies, and Christine Hong, an associate professor of Literature and the current chair of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, worked with BSU to develop the proposal for the minor. Hong also conducted a BSU independent study adjacent to the first Black Studies faculty search. 

Hong worked with Livermon, CRES Designated Emphasis and Education candidate Andrea del Carmen Vazquez, and former CRES-BSU intern Ileana Waddy, to develop the course “Black Radical University?” (BRU), a collaboration between CRES and BSU that will be offered for the second time this spring quarter. 

“In its collaboration with CRES, BSU has helped to expand the department curriculum in powerful, visionary ways that center the transformative organizing of Black students locally on this campus, more broadly nationwide, and on an international scale,” Hong said. “BRU is a testament to an inspiring legacy of Black radical student organizing that stretches back to the earliest days of this campus.” 

The CRES-BSU intern’s position has been funded by the office of Dean of Students Garrett Naiman. 

Sheyna Burns: “Black Studies illuminates the lies we’ve been taught”

"Knowing history is instrumental in planning my future," said Sheyna Burns (Oakes, Sociology and Agroecology, ‘25), who plans to attend law school after graduation. "Black Studies courses are vital. We must control our narrative because, when we don't, look how we are portrayed."

"Black Studies illuminates the lies we have been taught in our education," Burns continued. "Even today, it's amusing to witness the attempts to indoctrinate others by emphasizing the advancements of one group of people while ignoring the rich past and present of others, as if African people were not the first at everything and did not teach and give birth to the rest of the world."

Black Studies helps to fill in the missing pieces in her previous education.

"Growing up, school wasn't very interesting because it felt as though I was being force-fed European culture and history," Burns said. "I have always been curious about my culture, but it was never taught in depth. Of course, we learned about MLK, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. But they never spoke of Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton, the Mali empire, or Mansa Musa (the 14th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mali)."

Ethan Davis: centering Blackness while working in the sciences

As part of the BSU leadership core, Ethan Davis (Stevenson ‘23 Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, ‘23), took part in the search process that led to the first Black Studies hire in CRES, Xavier Livermon.

Black Studies classes make him feel more empowered and less of an outsider, while motivating him to study the many Black contributions to STEM fields. 

Davis serves as Stevenson College resident advisor, Black Student Union treasurer, chair of the Student Union Governing Body, and Black Student Union representative for the John R. Lewis College Advisory Council. 

As he made his way through UC Santa Cruz, Davis longed for a concentration that centered the Black experience and provided him with a critical framework for his scientific studies. 

Davis’s ancestry is Jamaican, Grenadian, and Cuban. “I am a first-generation American, with my mom hailing from London and my Dad hailing from Jamaica,” Davis said. “But when I was growing up in Riverside, any knowledge of Black history was through nuggets of knowledge from family, Black teachers, allies, and my own self-discovery and teaching.”

“The Black Studies program allows for Black students who did not major in areas such as Critical Race and Ethnic Studies and sociology to have direct organized access to college courses that focus on their identity and enrich our existence,” Davis said. 

His interest in Black Studies has impacted his leadership and advocacy on campus. Davis is a peer mentor in UC Santa Cruz’s Learning Support Services center. As part of his work there, he created and shared a document detailing Black, indigenous, POC and LGBTQ+ contributions to chemistry. 

fahima ife: creative practice, ecopoetics, and Black Studies

Xavier Livermon praised new faculty hire fahima ife for helping students think about how creative work can engage social and political issues in Black Studies. “Professor ife has such a deep understanding not just of literature and literary formations but visual culture and the making of art,” he said.

In her classes for Creative/Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, fahima ife teaches undergraduate and graduate students creative practice and process and self-discipline.

She also engenders these values in her work and advocacy. ife is a poet, editor, DJ, and cultural anthropologist with a deep understanding of Black feminist performance and ecopoetics. She is also the author of the acclaimed book of essays and poetry Maroon Choreography (Duke University Press, 2021), which poet Fred Moten hailed as “funky, rigorous and lyrical — an incredible tempest of a book.” 

In ife’s classes, in addition to class readings and other work, she asks students to write, or record themselves speaking, in stream-of-consciousness for 10 to 15 continuous minutes each day of the quarter. 

“At different points in the quarter, I ask them to return to these streams, to listen, to lean into them, and to take note of patterns that seem to recur as a sort of jumping-off point into making something creative,” ife said. “From there, we are slowly building playlists, and ‘dreamweaving’ in all sorts of ways.”

ife’s classes create the conditions for joy, community, and friendship. “Classrooms and campuses remain such politically contested spaces, incredibly hostile spaces, and yet they also have the capacity to inspire hope,” ife said.

In part because of her early formative experiences, ife developed teaching methods grounded in self-love, self-care, and friendship “mostly because I was still learning all of that too. I experience great pleasure learning with my students.” 

“In the classroom, I invite students to share their work-in-progress with each other, to listen to each other, to create room for each other, to celebrate each other’s accomplishments, and to practice making things together in real time,” ife said. 

ife has big dreams for Black Studies at UC Santa Cruz. “As a public facing poet and intellectual, I really want to study with our most celebrated living musicians practicing the Black arts,” she said.

She wants to invite performers, artists, and poets to engage in far-ranging discussions with Black Studies and CRES students and take part in a series of creative/critical gatherings and performances, helping to turn UC Santa Cruz into a hub of transnational Black intellectual and creative life. 

Sophia Azeb: Black diasporas, Black internationalism, and Third World solidarity

Sophia Azeb’s research focuses on how blackness is lived, defined and contested in trans-Atlantic, trans-Mediterranean, trans-Saharan, and Nile valley cultures and politics. She plans to teach a class on comparative diasporas next year, drawing from scholarly, literary, sound and visual materials. 

Livermon called attention to Azeb’s strong focus on Black internationalism, delving into the dialogues between Black activists and those who live in other parts of the world including North Africa. 

“Her teaching and scholarship reminds our students that many of the social issues in Black Studies have global and international dimensions,” Livermon said. 

Azeb traces the roots of Black Studies to “the robust traditions of student-led struggle and innovation.” She also emphasized the importance of a global outlook in UC Santa Cruz’s Black Studies program: “Black Studies is a field that, in the words of (Black historian, journalist and activist) C.L.R. James means to “reorganize the intellectual life and historical outlook of the United States and of world civilization as a whole.” 

In her teaching, Azeb emphasizes on innovation, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.

Though Azeb works with students to develop their writing practice, she also has them submit films, short stories, 3D zines, intricately crafted cosmograms, abolitionist manifestos, and even tarot decks devoted to critical university studies as final projects that accompany their written compositions.

“I am always deeply honored to be trusted with these experiments in form, and I am eager to continue learning from my students at UC Santa Cruz,” Azeb said. 

Expanding at a crossroads

Black Studies at UC Santa Cruz has been expanding at a time when two related but very different upwellings have been taking place in the U.S. — on the one hand, a powerful surge of Black activism in the wake of police killings that have drawn international outcry, and, on the other hand, a backlash from far-right conservatives. 

As Black Studies makes inroads in U.S. colleges, hundreds of K–12 schools have been the subject of pressure campaigns targeting any field of study that can be construed as promoting “critical race theory”—which focuses on the ways in which racism is reproduced through social institutions like law and education.

Meanwhile, the state of Florida recently announced it would not let its high schools offer a new Advanced Placement course on African American Studies, going so far as to call the course “historically inaccurate.” 

In February, the nonprofit that determines curriculum for the AP courses unveiled a version of the African American Studies course that cut out works from the late bell hooks, the celebrated feminist, theorist, and cultural critic who graduated from UC Santa Cruz. 

In this fraught environment, UC Santa Cruz’s Black Studies minor immerses students in the intellectual histories, political movements, cultural expressions, and critical theories of the Black diaspora, with a strong multidisciplinary focus and attention to social justice. 

In light of recent events including Florida’s rejection of African American Studies AP classes, Livermon sees a combination of racism as well as a pushback against intellectual inquiry in general.

 “One of my questions is, what are the kinds of stories that we want to tell about ourselves as a nation, in relation to how we see ourselves within our borders and how we behave internationally?” Livermon said. “Do we want to bring in Black Studies to institutions, and diversify the curricula, or do we want to teach a fairy tale? Do we want to teach something reductive and simplistic or are we able to sit with a more expansive history, the one that reveals the truth as well as the consequences of that history?”