Fortieth Anniversary Gala and Retirement Celebration for Dr. Leonard L. Bethel
The Africana Studies 40th Anniversary Gala was held on Saturday, March 22 to commemorate 40 years of Africana Studies at Rutgers University. The 40th Anniversary also served as the perfect occasion to honor Dr. Leonard Bethel, one of the founding faculty members of the department, upon his retirement from Rutgers University.
Dr. Gayle T. Tate and Dr. Edward Ramsamy presided over the celebration. In her introduction, Dr. Tate remarked on how impossible it is to talk about the Department without talking about Dr. Bethel. “How does one talk about biology, southern agriculture, and peanuts without talking about Dr. George Washington Carver?” she asked. “How does one talk about the rise of Ghana without talking about Kwame Nkrumah? How does one talk about the American presidency without talking about President Barack Obama?” In a similar vein, she asked, “How does one talk about the founding and establishment of Africana Studies at Rutgers, without talking about Dr. Bethel’s genius?” Dr. Bethel’s understanding of the Black world of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, his knowledge of Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S., and his understanding of religion and religious philosophy placed the founding of the Department in an international context, and truly made him an “icon for the ages,” according to Dr. Tate. At first, the University had resisted the creation of Africana Studies. However, as Dr. Tate pointed out, Dr. Bethel “spoke truth to power” in order to pressure the University to institutionalize Africana Studies at Rutgers.
After her introductory remarks, Dr. Tate invited everyone gathered to join her in honoring Dr. Bethel in the African tradition, through music and words of praise. Trumpeter Donald Meloy opened the celebration with his solo rendition of the African-American national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson. The Rutgers University Liberated Gospel Choir then performed two selections in honor of the occasion, energizing the audience with their spontaneity and vigor.
“Africana Studies at Rutgers was conceived in protest, just like other Africana Studies Departments across the country,” Dr. Tate told everyone. Student activists were integral to the establishment of Africana Studies at Rutgers. They had risked and sometimes even sacrificed graduation in order to challenge the administration. In many cases, they were the ones who went to negotiate with the administration about when the department would be established. In commemoration of their struggle, Dr. Tate brought forth a panel of three past and recently graduated students, who reflected on the various stages of struggle from their own points of view.
Mr. C. Regan Almonor, esq., was the first panelist. Mr. Almonor graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University, where he majored in Africana Studies and Political Science, and minored in French and mathematics. He then obtained his JD degree from Boston University School of Law. Mr. Almonor attributes his successful legal career to the lessons learned from his student days. The purpose of having large gatherings and demonstrations was “to synchronize activism and make the necessary demands,” according to Mr. Almonor. Students of his generation also fought to keep existing Black programs at Rutgers. For example, when the Africana House on Douglass was going to be eliminated, Mr. Almonor and others dedicated themselves to fight for its preservation. He also participated in a takeover of Miledoler Hall to pressure the administration to hire more Black faculty. In addition to these dramatic activities, Mr. Almonor reflected, everyday struggles to preserve Black institutions, such as the The Black Voice newspaper, were central to his generation’s activism. Over the past eleven years, counselor Almonor has taken on tens of thousands of cases in which he successfully challenged the constitutionality of and overturned several state laws that discriminate against women and children. Mr. Almonor teaches courses pertaining to law and social policy and runs a rites of passage program for urban youth.
The next panelist was Ms. Afi Deitey, who graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers in 2009, majoring in communications and Africana Studies. Ms. Deity has been accepted at Harvard University’s school of education and plans to specialize in international education policy. She was also just recently been accepted at Columbia University. Ms. Deitey remarked that being at Rutgers in the 2000s was a different struggle than the previous one. Hers was the generation dealt with ongoing backlash from society, such as the incendiary remarks of radio talk show host Don Imus about Black women athletes. Ms. Deitey felt grateful that Africana Studies and the campus NAACP existed then, serving as places of refuge for students as they tried to cope with the new wave of racism. She noted that during her tenure at Rutgers, Dr. Bill Howard became the first African-American chair of the board of governors, and was extremely supportive of their struggle. Ms. Deity served as one of the past presidents of the Student Chapter of the NAACP and is presently working with the Teach for America Program in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The final panelist was Mr. Jermaine Monk, also a former student, and now an instructor in the Africana Studies Department. A native of Newark, NJ, Mr. Monk is a third year doctoral student in the Urban Systems Program, which is a joint program between Rutgers-Newark, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. He thanked the Africana Studies Department for its extraordinary mentorship of students, specifically Dr. Bethel without whom, he said, he wouldn’t be where he was professionally. He praised Dr. Bethel’s dedicated service over 40 years to the creation and preservation of Africana Studies, as well Drs. Tate and Ramsamy, who spent tireless hours guiding him and shaping his intellectual and political development. Mr. Monk graduated from Rutgers-New Brunswick majoring in Urban Studies, holds a Master of Social Work degree from Temple University, as well as a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from LaSalle University, both in Philadelphia. His research explores contemporary constructions of Black masculinity and its affect on academic outcomes among Black men. Mr. Monk teaches the course he pioneered, titled Masculinities in Education.
Dr. Bethel made the invocation before dinner and the guests enjoyed some conversation over dinner. Dr. Edward Ramsamy then introduced Dr. Randall Pinkett, or “Randy Pinkett” as he is affectionately known, who was the keynote speaker for the evening. In his remarks, Dr. Ramsamy likened Dr. Pinket’s achievements to those of another esteemed Rutgers alumnus, Paul Robeson. He graduated from Rutgers with highest honors, and received the Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Like Robeson, Dr. Pinkett is an accomplished scholar. He and is author of two books and numerous articles. He also excelled on the sports field, like Robeson. As the captain of the men’s track and field teams at Rutgers, he upheld the tradition of academic excellence and community service exemplified by Paul Robeson. More recently, he is a winner in the TV reality show, The Apprentice, featuring the business mogul Donald Trump. Dr. Pinkett’s book Black Faces in White Spaces deals with the challenges faced by African Americans in the workplace and in entrepreneurship.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Pinkett reflected that “Dr. Bethel has been a mentor, friend and role model to me. I love this man for who he is, what he represents, and for all he has done, not just for me but for countless individuals and families and students… I am very much humbled by the opportunity to honor him.” Dr. Pinkett went on to talk about Dr. Bethel’s legacy, focusing on three aspects which he termed “light, life, and love.” He noted that the Africana Studies department has established a timeless legacy that goes back 40 years at Rutgers, owing to Dr. Bethel, and even farther back to ancient Africa. He regarded the audience as the legacy, or the fruits, of the labor of people like Dr. Bethel. In enumerating the ways in which Dr. Bethel left his legacy, Dr. Pinkett highlighted Dr. Bethel’s service as an example of his love, his impact as a measure of the life he led, and the example he set as his light. Dr. Pinkett talked about how Dr. Bethel’s faith was central to achievements at Rutgers and elsewhere, always redirecting his focus to the things that mattered.
In recounting Dr. Bethel’s love for his community as expressed by service, Dr. Pinkett noted that Dr. Bethel had volunteered for countless Rutgers Committees, oversaw the Paul Robeson Cultural Center for a time, sat on fifty-five doctoral dissertation committees, and served as chair of the Africana Studies department for fifteen years. He also served on the Boards of Trustees of Rutgers Preparatory School, Bloomfield College, and his own beloved Lincoln University. Reflecting on Dr. Bethel’s impact, Dr. Pinkett considered how the world is a different place because of Dr. Bethel’s presence in this world. As a founder of the Africana Studies Department, the designer of nine undergraduate courses and two graduate courses, the author of scholarly works including “Educating African Leaders,” and a founding editorial board member of the Lincoln Journal of Social and Political Thought, Dr. Pinkett concluded, Dr. Bethel has certainly made the world a better place. His impact has touched so many lives in so many ways.
The third and final way that one can leave a legacy, according to Dr. Pinkett, is through our light. Our light, much like the light radiates from the sun, is an aspect of our legacy, because our light radiates from our spirit. One need not have direct contact with someone for the legacy of one’s light to have an effect on him or her. For example, Dr. Pinkett noted, Paul Robeson is not with us today, but his light still inspires us. The light of James Dickson Carr still shines after him. Similarly, Dr. Pinkett told the audience, Dr. Bethel’s light shines on, as a role model, as a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as a professor, as a clergyman, and as an activist. All of these roles are timeless, and will transcend Dr. Bethel’s time on this planet. All of these roles that he has played represent the totality of his light, according to Dr. Pinkett.
Dr. Pinkett went on to honor the legacy of Black students at Rutgers, which he termed a legacy of greatness, attributable to Dr. Bethel’s tireless dedication. Dr. Bethel enabled students to not just get a degree, but to make a difference, “not just getting a piece of paper, but seeing it as the power to have voice in this society.” Dr. Pinkett observed that those who have studied under Dr. Bethel have moved on to incredible things, not just for themselves, but for others. Taking inspiration from Dr. Bethel, Dr. Pinkett offered everyone gathered some wisdom in making the right choice at the right time. In life, he said, people face three choices when challenged by circumstances, or “the three F’s,” as he calls them. The first F is for flight, which says, “run!” The second F stands for forgo, which means “I am not going to deal with that now.” There is a third F, according to Dr. Pinkett, and that is for fight. He attributed the legacy of Africana Studies under the tutelage of Dr. Bethel to the third choice, to remain and fight. In conclusion, Dr. Pinkett reminded everyone that “if Paul Robeson can fight on this campus to blaze trails for us, and if James Dixon Carr can fight to open doors that were otherwise closed, and if coach Stringer and the women’s basketball team could fight and stand up to Don Imus, I want to say to the students here this evening that you must be able to look back over your life and your career like Dr. Bethel can, and say that you fought for someone or something as he fought for you.”
After Dr. Pinkett’s inspiring keynote address, the audience was treated to an awe-inspiring violin solo by the talented Ms. Latisha Lewis, an Africana Studies alumna and a former student of Dr. Leonard Bethel. After her searing rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Dr. Edward Ramsamy, Associate Chairperson of the Africana Studies Department, spoke on the significance of Africana Studies. Invoking the ideas of the African American historian John Henrik Clarke and the Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Dr. Ramsamy situated the establishment of the Department within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and struggles of the outsider, the “Other,” to belong and to reclaim their histories. Africana Studies came into being, Dr. Ramsamy said, because courageous people challenged the dominant edict that marginalized peoples “had no history.”
Dr. Ramsamy, who grew up and spent his formative years in South Africa under apartheid, was intimately familiar with how racist societies deployed the old Roman maxim divide et impera, “divide and rule” by denying oppressed groups access to their own histories as well as the histories of other oppressed peoples. Yet, he observed, “in spite of divisive campaigns by the regime, there emerged in South Africa a strong, universalist tradition of cooperation among the different groups as we defied the regime’s imposition of narrow, communal identities, both politically and spatially.” He spoke of how his generation of South Africans were inspired by the pan-Africanisms of Maria Stewart, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other African-American intellectuals. Malcolm X had a profound influence on Steven Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, he noted, as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. inspired the activism of South African Nobel laureates Albert Luthuli and Desmond Tutu.
Reflecting on his own intellectual development, he found that over time, his research interests paralleled the concerns of the discipline of Africana Studies, which is inter-disciplinary by definition. As a scholar of comparative development and nation-building, Dr. Ramsamy was particularly drawn to the fact that in Africana Studies, divergent perspectives are brought together in dialogue over a diasporan search for identity and empowerment. He felt that Africana Studies was uniquely poised, given its history of struggle, to articulate a genuine, democratic multiculturalism and, for that reason, he was proud to be based there himself. He praised Dr. Leonard Bethel’s and the other co-founders’ vision in foreseeing the creation of such a vibrant intellectual enterprise at Rutgers and expressed his gratitude to his colleagues for a truly hospitable scholarly environment that never failed to keep its political mission in focus.
Next, Dr. Kim Butler, Associate Professor of Africana Studies, talked about the importance of the Department of Africana Studies as a space for research on the African diaspora. Two of her courses, "Afro-Atlantic Diaspora" and "Afro-Brazilian History" engage students with diaspora studies directly. As a historian specializing in African diaspora studies with a focus on Brazil and Latin America/Caribbean, Dr. Butler channeled her expertise as a scholar in oral history into the production of a video documentary on the Africana Studies department, from the 1970s to the present. The video featured an interview with Dr. Leonard Bethel on the issues and challenges he faced as a founding member, professor, and former chairperson of the Department. The video then presented interviews with students reflecting on Africana Studies. Dr. Butler’s video documentary represents the beginning of an inquiry into the history of Africana Studies at Rutgers University and, as such, it provided viewers with different perspectives on the struggle to establish the department, as well as on the meaning of Africana Studies to students who take courses at the Department.
Professor Walton Johnson, one of the first faculty members to join the newly established Africana Studies department, reflected on his years working with Dr. Bethel as a colleague. He stated that Dr. Bethel stands at the top of a list of committed scholars dedicated to the mission of Africana Studies, which includes Dr. Larry Houston, a pioneer in the study of the psychology of the Black experience. Professor Johnson invoked the memories of past Africana faculty members who had moved elsewhere or passed on, such as Ibrahim Shariff, Gerald Davis, Ivan Van Sertima, noting that “Len stands tall in this very prestigious company.”
Dr. Johnson observed that while Dr. Ivan Van Sertima was the one who symbolized the intellectual pursuits and the research interests of the Department, or “the cerebral side” of Africana Studies, Dr. Bethel symbolized and epitomized the heart and soul of the Department, more than any other person. He described Dr. Bethel’s ability to connect with students, his availability, and praised his warmth and caring reception. It was no wonder to Professor Johnson that Dr. Bethel was awarded the prestigious Warren Sussman teaching award or that students asked him to officiate their weddings. “You stepped up to the plate Len,” Dr. Johnson said, “particularly in taking charge of the Department and representing us in the University community and beyond. That was an act of selflessness. You should know that we all appreciate your efforts. You were chair for fifteen years. That means that you have lead and guided us for over a third of our existence. What a great act of selflessness! As you move into a new phase of your life, you can look back with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. We all feel very indebted to you.”
The floor was then opened up to the audience. Many of Dr. Bethel’s colleagues came forth to share their reflections on Africana Studies and to pay tribute to Dr. Bethel. There was much nostalgia and friendly pokes at Dr. Bethel’s gaffes, as well as expressions of gratitude for a man who had mentored and guided them through all kinds of situations. His friends affectionately roasted him for the various ways in which he had touched their lives, from academic counseling to marital counseling.
Dr. Bethel embraced each person who spoke and then took up the mike himself to thank everyone gathered there that evening for their heartfelt sentiments and praise. In sharing his own reflections on his 40 years at Rutgers, he recounted his experiences with racism at various levels, and the particular difficulties he had encountered as he worked to realize his vision of an Africana Studies department at Rutgers, and later, as he nurtured the new department through its growing pains. As he concluded, Dr. Gayle Tate and Dr. Edward Ramsamy joined him on stage to present him with a plaque commemorating his dedicated service to the Africana Studies, on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Department. As Dr. Bethel received his award, Dr. Tate observed that “when the history of Africana Studies is written, Dr. Leonard Bethel will be at the center of that narrative.”
After the moving award presentation, Dr. Edward Ramsamy called everyone’s attention to the presence of another individual in their midst, who had provided dedicated and selfless service to the department in order to bring about the 40th Anniversary celebration. Dr. Ramsamy called forth Dr. Gayle T. Tate, the current chairperson of Africana Studies, to be recognized for her immense contribution to the Department. He presented Dr. Tate, a scholar of Black nationalism and Black women’s political activism, with a plaque commemorating her visionary leadership of the department, and praised her ability to navigate as an administrator during the difficult budget crisis at Rutgers.
Dr. Tate was responsible for the Department’s heightened visibility during its 40th anniversary, as she brought prominent African-Americans, like Mr. Ben Jealous, the President and CEO of the NAACP, and Professor Cornel West, the philosopher and activist, to Rutgers to lead the country in reflecting on the significance of Africana Studies as a discipline. Dr. Tate accepted the award and, in turn, thanked everyone present, on behalf of the Africana Studies Department and Dr. Bethel, for attending the Gala and making the evening a truly memorable one.