“Always quick to call out racism and injustice, Professor Cudjoe never cared about what anybody thought; he would speak his piece. He wants to advocate for those who have been marginalized and make sure that their voices are heard,” Africana Studies Department Chair Kellie Carter Jackson shared in honor of Professor Selwyn Cudjoe’s upcoming retirement. In his 38 years at Wellesley College, Cudjoe has done exactly that, fundamentally shaping both the Africana Studies department at Wellesley and broader institutional changes with his forward-thinking and relentless activism.
Having earned his PhD in American Literature from Cornell, Cudjoe taught at many universities including Cornell, Harvard, Brandeis, Fordham and Ohio before coming to Wellesley in 1986. In addition to being very involved in literary spheres, writing and producing multiple books and documentaries, Cudjoe serves as the director of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago and president of the National Association for the Empowerment of African People (Trinidad and Tobago).
To commemorate all he has done for the Wellesley community, the Africana Studies Department, in collaboration with the Office of the Provost and others, is hosting a four-part lecture series, with the latest installment being Nov. 14’s “Fear of Black Consciousness,” a lecture by philosopher and author, Professor Lewis R. Gordon. Andrea Palmar ’24, a former student of Cudjoe’s and now a TA for the department, observed how the most recent lecture’s subject matter closely tied into Cudjoe’s work.
“The lecture was amazing. It really connects to Professor Cudjoe’s curriculum; it was a lot of literature and using critical race thinking to better understand different perspectives and the black experience,” Palmar explained.
The series will culminate in April in a symposium of Cudjoe’s work, celebrating his academic career and impact as a Caribbean African American scholar.
When Cudjoe first arrived at Wellesley, the Africana Studies department was nowhere near where it is today.
“We essentially had to try to build the department. Regarding black presence, I don’t say it was taken for granted, but people didn’t care much about it. We had to make the black presence felt in order to make the department more relevant,” Cudjoe said.
Carter Jackson elaborated on Cudjoe’s contributions, saying “He’s been a huge advocate of our department. He is emphatic about making sure Africana studies is a department that has its own thing, its own courses, its own framework, its own outlook on the world, and not having our courses or our faculty outsourced and piecemeal to other departments.”
With this priority, the proponents of the department faced the challenge of achieving recognition, and to this end took actions such as mandating certain courses for all students and collaborating with other departments through cross listings.
“Through having joint lectures and other cross-department opportunities, we worked towards making the school responsive to our presence and confirm our legitimacy. In this context, I think the English department was very supportive of what we were doing,” Cudjoe added. While the department has made big strides under Cudjoe’s leadership, he notes that “there’s still a whole lot of work to be done.”
With his international background, Cudjoe has brought a “breadth of intellectualism and activism to the College community of Wellesley and beyond, particularly concerning the presence, contributions, and representation of Black life and Black thought,” as Professor Liseli Fitzpatrick puts it. Fitzpatrick first coined the term ‘human library,’ as a nickname for Cudjoe, an apt descriptor that has quickly caught on.
Throughout his time here, Cudjoe has revolutionized the discourse surrounding race and blackness, always emphasizing the importance of black history in education.
“Since blackness, or the presence of black people in society is so central, you really cannot say that you are educated if you do not know anything about the black experience,” Cudjoe explained.
“He teaches amazing courses on literature. The one I took with him was Intro to the Black Experience, which was a lot of black literature and it’s just so amazing the way he’s genuinely familiar with texts,” Palmar agreed.
Retired political science professor Craig Murphy, who has worked with Cudjoe on cross-listed courses on African politics and other projects elaborated on Cudjoe’s unique perspective as a globally recognized scholar.
“Professor Cudjoe is a very broad-based scholar. He works both in the humanities side of things and on the historical social sciences. And he’s connected to all of the communities that work in Africana studies around the world,” Murphy said.
With this perspective, Cudjoe spearheaded initiatives in structuring the department, including hiring decisions.
“I’m a historian by trade. Professor Cudjoe was really instrumental in me getting hired. It was through him and a lot of student activism that came together and basically demanded a historian be put in the Africana Studies department. So they created this position as a result of his and students’ efforts to have someone who could contribute one of the building blocks of the Africana Studies Department, which is history,” Carter Jackson explained.
In addition to his dedicated advocacy for the AS department, Cudjoe is deeply involved with his students. For Palmar, Cudjoe served as a career advisor as much as a teacher.
“He helped me get a job for the African Studies department and I became the TA for that class. You can tell that he’s a very passionate person and it was just a great working experience … He has given me a lot of great opportunities throughout my undergraduate experience,” Palmar, who now serves as student assistant for the Africana Studies department, said. “He takes such interest in students on a personal level, which really helped me find a place in this community.”
Cudjoe’s Trinidadian heritage provided a facet of representation for Caribbean students, including Sylvette Dupe-Vete-Congolo ’24.
“He was my first Caribbean professor, so to have that connection with him was very interesting. I never really saw anybody of my origins in such a role,” Dupe-Vete-Congolo said.
Beyond Africana Studies, Cudjoe urges students in every context to think critically and sympathetically with a holistic understanding of issues at hand.
“To understand what’s going on in the news, you need context and history. And then you can make judgments. This is a great challenge for many students,” he said. “To become objective to the degree you could become objective, and develop the courage to express independent judgements about issues, is something to cultivate.”
While his time at Wellesley is coming to an end, Cudjoe still has many projects on the horizon. In addition to being in the final stages of writing a new book called Two Caribbean Preachers about the lives of two formerly enslaved men, Cudjoe is also in talks for the production of a documentary based on his historical biography, The Slavemaster of Trinidad: William Hardin Burnley and the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World.
Fitzpatrick has also introduced a new project in collaboration with Cudjoe aiming to record Cudjoe’s life experiences for posterity, which Fitzpatrick explains will include topics such as “his upbringing in Trinidad and Tobago, influences, activism, travels, professorship and retirement.”
Over his nearly four decades at Wellesley, Cudjoe’s initiatives to transform the Africana Studies department have had lasting impacts, and the longevity of his professorship greatly contributes to his unique perspectives.
“Professor Cudjoe is the holder of our department’s memory and history. I am forever indebted to his efforts to make Wellesley a more welcoming place for black faculty. The work that they did in the 1980s has directly benefited me and other junior faculty of color,” Professor Chipo Dendere commented.
Dupe-Vete-Congolo agreed, citing inspiration from Cudjoe’s persistent efforts. “No matter the barriers that were placed in front of him, he always found a way to either jump over them, bulldoze through them, crawl underneath them, and make whatever he wanted to happen, happen. And it was always for his students,” she said.
Carter Jackson expressed similar sentiments, saying, “He has all of the institutional memory. To be able to go back that far, and know how much Wellesley has changed and evolved, is a real gift and [his retirement is] a real loss. I hope that he will always stay connected to the department and see himself as a part of a continued community that will continue to thrive because of what he’s poured into it.”