Professor James Peterson sits in his office Oct. 8. Peterson is the director of the African studies program at Lehigh. (Cate Peterson/B&W Photo)

Professor James Peterson aims for more accepting, diverse campus culture

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Dr. James Peterson is the director of Africana studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh — but his influence and projects far exceed the boundaries of campus. Outside of Lehigh, Peterson is a media contributor for networks such as MSNBC, Fox News and CNN.

He is also the author of two books, one of which will be released in the coming weeks, entitled “In Media Res: Race, Gender and Popular Culture in the 21st Century.” He is currently in Japan promoting his first book, “Hip Hop Underground in African American Culture,” at several universities in the country.

Peterson grew up in Newark, New Jersey, as part of inner-city America. During his early years, he was surrounded by hip hop culture and the fight for social justice.

“I’ve always been in the kind of environments where civil rights issues and social justice issues were bubbling up at the same time, and hip hop was the soundtrack to that,” Peterson said. “Hip hop gives people of color a voice and a channel to express outrage at societal problems.”

Peterson attended Duke University as an undergraduate and moved to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school.

Here at Lehigh, Peterson has high hopes for the changing culture of the university.

“I’d like to see us continue to become more diverse at every level and continue to be an institution where leaders are cultivated and trained, not just in business and engineering, but in the humanities and arts and sciences, as well,” Peterson said. “I’d like us to become an institution that is welcoming to all the people we admit and hire here regardless of gender, sexual identity, race or class. I’m deeply committed to doing the long hard work that is required to cultivate this campus as a 21st-century institution of higher learning.”

Recently, Peterson served on the presidential search committee for the 14th president of Lehigh, who was named as University of Virginia Provost Dr. John Simon. “He has great experience and a great sense of what Lehigh can be going forward,” Peterson said. “I’m really happy with the outcome we were able to get.”

In the summer, he will be leading a six-week, research-based study abroad trip to Ghana. Students will be taken to castles where enslaved Africans were held and brutally chained and will get a first-hand look at the beginnings of African-American culture. Peterson, who was moved by experience during his trip to Ghana, is eager to share this trip with his students.

As a professor, Peterson is very dedicated to educational reform and integrating youth culture into the classroom.

“Professor Peterson is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” said Kara Falcone, ’15, a former student of Peterson’s. “He inspires me to think outside of my comfort zone and challenges all students to be socially conscious of the world around us. He treats students as adults and is respectful of everyone’s opinions, making the classroom a warm and welcoming environment for discussion.”

Falcone recalls that even after Peterson’s class ended, she continued to think about all of the issues that she learned about during the course. She credits the course for helping her form intelligent opinions.

As far as his other projects, Peterson admits that he is the most active in terms of scholarship, publishing and writing that he has ever been in his career. Still, he is committed to bringing change to Lehigh and looks forward to continuing his work with the UMOJA house and the Africana Studies department. In February, Lehigh will be hosting a Malcolm X conference, which is currently attracting international attention.

“Lehigh as a university and as a university community is really at a transformative moment,” Peterson said. “We have a critical mass of students, faculty, staff and alumni who want Lehigh University to be someplace special. We can be and do all those things. It’s a great time to be here — we just have to step up to the plate.”

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