For Halifu Osumare, dance is life

Photo credits, from left: Elton King, Bill Santos

Alumna shares her experiences at Africana Studies mbongi

To alumna and renowned dance scholar Halifu Osumare (M.A., ’93), dance is life — and life is a dance.  

Osumare was on campus in April for a mbongi sponsored by the San Francisco State University Black Unity Center (BUC) and the Africana Studies Department. Mbongi can be described as a “home without walls, a place to come together to exchange ideas and find ways to move forward and advance communities,” said Associate Professor of Africana Studies Serie McDougal III, who directs the BUC. Osumare, who just published her memoir, “Dancing in Blackness,” shared her experiences with students, faculty and members of the public in a standing-room only classroom.

Osumare explained to the crowd that dance is central to all African cultures because it carries collective and individual identity, connecting each generation to traditions passed down by their ancestors. “The principles I learned in the act of dancing helped me negotiate many different social and cultural situations,” she said.

From her early days at SF State, Osumare went on to become a prolific author, dancer and dance teacher in 23 countries, a scholar of dance and eventually the director and chair of African American and African Studies at the University of California, Davis. “Dancing in Blackness” represents her lifelong quest to discover who she is culturally and what defines blackness.

“I started my training at SF State where Black Studies began,” said Osumare. “My whole career has been about interrogating what blackness is and what that means to the victims of racism in terms of enslavement and rampant segregation and continued Jim Crowism in this society. But I’m also looking at what it means in a celebratory way, of connecting with my ancestors — that cultural through-line that doesn’t allow us to give up as a people.”

Osumare attended SF State from 1965 to 1968 as an undergrad and returned in the 1990s to earn her master’s degree in dance ethnology. During those early years, when the Black Power and Black Arts movements were taking off, she participated by studying and teaching African dance. Osumare pioneered a Primitive Jazz Dance course, the first class of its kind, in SF State’s Experimental College, a student-led college begun in 1965 that uses a progressive, student-centered teaching approach. More than 40 students had registered for the class, but the directors of the Black Student Union (BSU) weren’t happy. Over half of the students were white, and the BSU directors wanted her to replace some of them with black students.

“I’d be damned if I could be dictated to,” recalled Osumare. “There was no way I would put any students out of my class no matter what their racial makeup.” Osumare told the directors she’d be glad to accept their help recruiting more black students — and that she hoped to see BSU members in the class. At the same time, she understood their feelings. “We were trying to have our voice. Sometimes to have your voice that kind of separatist attitude was part of it. I understood but I wasn’t going to let it affect my classes.”

The mbongi was one in a series of cultural events sponsored by the Africana Studies Department and the Black Unity Center. Mbongis are open to the SF State community as well as the community at large.