April 19, 2010

Scholars ponder future of Africana studies after 40 years

A new generation of African and African-American scholars, building on the past four decades of scholarship, "challenges patriarchy, homophobia, technophobia and the canon of Western thought by offering a sophisticated gender perspective," assistant professor Travis Lars Gosa said at a roundtable discussion April 17 at the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC).

The discussion, "The New Africana Studies: Moving Forward," was part of an April 15-17 conference hosted by the center in celebration of its 40th anniversary, "Looking Back/Moving Forward: The Future of Africana/Black Studies."

Gosa, who chaired the roundtable, said the purpose of the conference was to revisit and critically assess the development of Africana studies. Some of the many new perspectives in the field are "decolonizing" current research, he said, including those in postmodernist theory, queer studies, feminist theory, post-colonialism and hip-hop paradigms.

"One's relationship to blackness is often determined by the generation you belong to," said Lisa Thompson, associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany. The future of Africana studies is not only in the hands of scholars, she said, but also "in the hands of a new generation of cultural producers."

Greg Thomas, associate professor of English at Syracuse University, criticized the "most notable people seen in hip-hop studies," calling them "antagonistic" and more concerned with their own commercialization than the artistic side of hip-hop. "Knowledge does not belong to the academy," he said, referring to what he sees as the corporatization of universities.

Thomas also spoke about the "sexual and gender politics of empire," criticizing such concepts as manhood and womanhood and labels like heterosexual and homosexual as "colonial and historical categories."

From the premise that "racial slavery imposes a matrix or untranscendable horizon" on black life, Jared Sexton, associate professor of African-American studies and film and media studies at the University of California-Irvine, talked about how slavery has "structured black discourse." He addressed the "challenge of giving expression to the inexpressible," of portraying black suffering without desensitizing the public.

Reflecting on his experience at ASRC, Cornell assistant professor of English Dagmawi Woubshet described the center as "integral to my own teaching and education." Woubshet read a short personal narrative from his memoir about the development of his sexual identity as an adolescent.

ASRC associate professor Riché Richardson said the roundtable investigated where to take the concept of Africana studies in the future, and brought in "critical and theoretical perspectives" not previously considered. The panel marked an opening "for yet more and more innovation in the field of black studies," she said, as participants examined how to institutionalize and advance Africana studies.

Responding to a question on the future of the African-American narrative, Thompson said that the narrative is not "monolithic," but rather "a really broad mosaic." There are many "black narratives that haven't been told yet," she said. Woubshet agreed, noting, "It is the language of African-Americans that has enabled me to be the person I am."

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.