Guest Speaker Dr. Kunfeng Pan Discusses Inequality and Black Studies in China

professional headshot for Dr. Kunfeng Pan

By: Rachel Ruff

Durham, NC — The Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University recently hosted a notable guest lecturer, Dr. Kunfeng Pan, as part of its “History of Inequality” course. This course, an integral part of the Center’s Inequality Studies minor, delves into social inequalities and has been focusing on African American history and black studies this semester, under the instruction of Dr. Jim Harper, a professor of history (and department chair) at North Carolina Central University and a Cook Center faculty affiliate.

An associate professor at Renmin University of China, Dr. Pan is known for his research on poverty alleviation and education inequality. He was previously a visiting professor at Duke’s Cook Center in 2019-2020.

During his virtual lecture, Dr. Pan discussed his pioneering African American studies course in China. In his research, he couldn’t find any similar courses that had previously been offered in the country. He highlighted a significant lack of knowledge about black life and African American history in China, beyond a cursory awareness of figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. Emphasizing the importance of learning from black perspectives, Dr. Pan acknowledged that he, too, is learning alongside his students.

Dr. Pan also pointed out the challenges in accessing primary English-language sources. These materials, which are central to understanding African American studies, are often left untranslated, posing difficulties for Chinese students. Despite this, his course has been able to engage students through role-playing, debates, and exploring African American music and culture.

Interestingly, Dr. Pan noted, 22 out of the 24 students enrolled in his course are women. He also observed that interest in this area of study in China seems influenced by class and location: Urban, wealthy families have had more exposure to African American culture and its influences.

One highlight of Dr. Pan’s lecture was his exploration of the connection between the Black Panther Party and Maoism, revealing the profound cross-cultural influences in their organizational structures and aims. He integrates this into his teaching to draw parallels between Chinese and African American histories, even bringing Mao’s “Little Red Book” into class discussions.

Dr. Pan’s visit to the Cook Center’s “History of Inequality” course provided a unique perspective on the challenges and successes of teaching African American studies in a non-Western context, particularly with regards to understanding of African American history and culture and its connection to themes of global inequality.

For more on the Cook Center’s courses and the Inequality Studies Minor, view the Cook Center’s "Education" section.