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Africana studies conference examines race as cultural construct

by Sherry Fisher - April 3, 2006

When it began 40 years ago, the field of Black Studies focused largely on the experience of African Americans, but more recently it has expanded to include people of African descent living in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe, says Jeffrey Ogbar.

Ogbar, associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African-American Studies, spoke after a conference, “Race and Africana Studies: Reconfigurations, Rediscoveries, and Reconstructions,” held at the University on March 23 and 24.

“There is sophisticated scholarship that integrates the history and the contemporary experience of the African world in many ways,” Obgar said.

Some 175 scholars and students from around the country gathered at the Rome Ballroom to share their work. Participants examined the field of what is now known as Africana studies, and how it has evolved and adapted to changing political, cultural, and social currents, as well as the ways it has expanded beyond the United States.

Topics included, “Africana Cultures and Policy Studies,” “African Diaspora and the Spanish Caribbean,” “Hip-Hop Identity and Intellectuals,” “Resistance and Expressive Culture,” “Sanctuary in the Womb of Black Arts,” and several films.

Ogbar said the sessions on theoretical considerations showed that the concept of race – “whiteness or blackness as we understand it” – in the United States is very different from that in most parts of the world.

“Notions of blackness here are fundamentally unique on the planet, and most Americans aren’t aware of that,” he said. “Many black people in the United States will only be considered black in the United States and not anyplace else.”

Ogbar said that when the field of Africana studies emerged in this country, “scholars acquainted with how we understand race imposed our notions on other countries, often in sloppy and culturally arrogant ways.

"The conference provided a chance to see how views have shifted and changed, accomplishing more nuance and sophistication over the years.”

Michelle Materre, professor of media studies at the New School in Manhattan, presented two films: B.L.A.C.K., An Aboriginal Song of Hip Hop, a short documentary made in Australia; and Race: The Power of an Illusion.

The former examines issues of Aboriginal society, culture, and politics through hip-hop artist William Jarret, aka Wire MC. The latter explores why race became a social construct.

“Film can be used in academia to discuss race, identity, and cross-cultural experiences,” Materre said.

“It can be used as a teaching and learning tool to open dialogue. There are other points of view besides what people see on TV, where there is only one image and representation of people of color.”

Ogbar said the conference helped “enrich the intellectual community of the University and highlight the important work that goes on here.

It also raised the visibility of the Institute for African American Studies among our national peers by attracting talented faculty to participate in our programs and events.”

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