Pioneer of Africana Studies, Dr. James Turner, has died

"James Turner gave his life and academic career to uplift our people," said Dr. Greg Carr, an associate professor at Howard.

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Activist and trailblazing scholar Dr. James Turner, founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, died last week.

“James Turner gave his life and academic career to uplift our people,” said Dr. Greg Carr, associate professor of Afro-American studies at Howard University, in the academic publication, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. “His character, sacrifice and steady hand in apprenticing us for liberation intellectual work remains the model of Black/Africana Studies.”

Turner pioneered African studies at Cornell University and was a founding member of the lobbying organization, TransAfrica. During the 1970s, he organized the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which pushed the anti-apartheid movement in the United States.

Dr. James Turner, shown speaking at a 2011 conference, pioneered Africana Studies at Cornell University and was a founding member of the lobbying organization TransAfrica. (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube.com)

According to Turner’s bio on Cornell’s website, he coined the term “Africana studies” for the department “to conceptualize the comprehensive studies of the African diaspora and describe the multidisciplinary analysis of the lives and thoughts of people of African ancestry throughout the world.”

Cornell, which in 2019 honored Turner during a two-day symposium, would select him in 1969 to head its Africana Studies and Research Center after Black students protested the lack of Black courses and curricula. 

Turner recalled the moment in a 2011 interview with Ithaca.com. “We were the first generation of Africana studies,” Turner said. “People would say, ‘there is no black culture, there is no black literature,’ so how will you teach a course on it?”

Continued Turner, “We got here at a very opportune moment in the history of Cornell, at a crossroads in the history of the country. At that moment, many took off school, left, and put their own ambitions on hold because of their commitment to the larger issue of human rights for black people, to continue the unfinished process of the civil war.”

During Turner’s fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, he studied the political philosophy of Malcolm X and used his research as the basis for the PBS series, “Eyes on the Prize,” his bio states. 

“One of the leading lights of Black Studies has gone to rest with the ancestors,” Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, tweeted on Sunday, Diverse reported. “Rest in power Dr. Turner.”

Kendi called Turner “an institution builder like no other.”

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