By Kesi Gordon
On April 12th and 13th, York College’s Department of History, Philosophy & Anthropology hosted the 44th annual conference of the New York African Studies Association. “NYASA,” as its members call it, provided an opportunity for intellectuals from all of the globe and from multiple disciplines to gather and present their research about the lives, histories, writings, and health (among other things) of people of African descent. What follows are my thoughts on some of the sessions I attended, as well as my assessment of how the conference impacted me personally and professionally.
Black Studies and Systematic Globalism
The discussion on Black Studies and Systematic Globalization included George White Jr., and Amadu Kaba. These speakers spoke on different issues as they relate to Black Studies. George White, Chair of the department of the History, Philosophy and Anthropology at York College, led the discussion with his study of Black Wall Street and Black Consumption. Black Wall Street was a community of black individuals who collaborated to create a unified city where blacks were the owners, producers, and consumers of businesses. One point that Dr. White addressed was that buying black would not be enough to eradicate the disparities of wealth and income that exist in the black community. Dr. White also made a point that there is a significant difference between the wealth and income gap in the Black Community. Dr. White claims that reparations would be the only way to begin to close the gap. He calls it a “necessity” of moral and ethical justice. The responsibility of the black community is to resist the factors of individualism and take up the spirit of the “UBUNTU” that promotes community.
Amada Kaba of Seton Hall University shared his work entitled “Sierra Leone as a Cultural Capital of Pan Africanism”. Kaba talked about significant Black nations such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana (the first sub Saharan country to gain independence), Tanzania, Haiti (the first black republic in the Caribbean), and Sierra Leone and their relationship to what he called “cultural capital” in reference to race, knowledge, religion, and language. Although the people who settled in Sierra Leone were from different countries, they were able to connect and share ideas. Along with culture and ideas, the people of Sierra Leone created a language, a form of Creole, understandable by all. By doing this, Sierra Leone became home to black people from many different areas. Other interesting insights from the presentation was that Sierra Leone was the site of the first Christian Church in West Africa and the people who migrated from Sierra Leone are responsible for a wave of Christianity. Kaba got tearful at the opportunity to share the often neglected and overshadowed significance of Sierra Leone to the Black Diaspora. According to Kaba, Sierra Leone is a cultural capital of Pan Africanism because of the inhabitants who left an impact on the continent and beyond.
Sound, Silence, and Flags in Black Studies
Omar Diop of Kennesaw State University, “An exploration of Structures of Silence in Selected African Novels”. Diop pays attention not only to what is said but even those nonverbal communications that require deciphering. He argued that people of the African Diaspora must decode the voices that over time have been silenced. It is important to do so because early African societies were prelinguistic and thus many of the history is left to oral traditions. For that reason, for many years’ African history was “silenced”. Africana Studies began to be taught 50 years ago. Conferences like NYASA celebrate this de-silencing as we learn and share our knowledge. Diop’s argument was very compelling to me because while he was discussing this, it reminded me of the culture of power. Lisa Delpit spoke on the concept of using silence as a technique of the culture of power to maintain control. Silence is an effective way to maintain power because it is overt and has the ability to keep power concentrated to those who know about it while eliminating those who are unaware of it. This is reinforced by certain actions and mannerisms. It is especially evident in classrooms and places of business. The way a person carries them self will determine their ranking. For some, this will determine their eligibility to get into certain institutions. Silence is an effective mechanism for maintaining power and it becomes our responsibility to be able to decode what is left unsaid.
One of the final presentations was Expanding Migrations moderated by Kevin Hickey of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Hickey’s presentation addressed prejudice from the perspective of blindness. Hickey analyzed Teju Cole’s novel “Blind Spot”, which he compiled with a new perspective after he woke up blind in one eye. Prejudices often come from an individual’s ignorance and are perpetuated when people refuse to educate themselves. Cole took a picture of a young boy in the Congo River, and at first he wrote that the boy’s eyes “disappear” however, when he adjusted the picture, the face and eyes of the boy became visible. This experience from Cole speaks to the idea that individual prejudices are the fault of the individual and not those he/she projects them onto. Due of the darkness surrounding the boy, Cole was unable to see the boys’ face and features and without the light from the filter Cole assumed that the boy was missing features. However, the light allowed him to see the boy’s face and features. Cole’s experience also speaks to the fact that in order for individuals to get passed prejudices, it will require an adjusting in the way that individual sees the world and the light is reflective of education. The quote that sums up the ideas in Cole’s novel is “Darkness is not empty; it is information at rest”.
The implications for me, a York College Student
Over the years, I have heard the argument that very little can be done to change the atmosphere of York because of its location. However, this past weekend, I watched my school transform into an environment filled with intellectual engagement and activity.
This is not to say that the regular courses and events are not intellectually challenging, however, if class was the food, conferences like NYASA are the necessary supplements that complement the meal. From the panel of distinguished guest who came from SUNY Cortland, Columbia University, University of Buffalo, Union College, other universities and countries such as France, Jamaica West Indies and several African Countries. All of whose presence in the conference contributed to the atmosphere. Hearing many engage in conversation in their native tongue made me feel like I was transported out of my regular college. I could not help but inquire about their nations of origin. To one, Dr. Abdul Nanji of Columbia University, I asked “Where are you from?”. His response, “the same place as you”. Initially, I laughed at his response because this was our first ever interaction, however, I was compelled to discover the meaning of this statement. Throughout the conference, I got my answer. With no knowledge of who I was, Abdul was establishing the idea that no matter our separate origins, we were common. Abdul and others gave me the sense of belonging; that my identity, my ideas, and I were welcomed here. I felt this in every panel session that I attended and it was reassuring to know that people from all over came here to York College so that students like myself could be enriched. With every word that they spoke I felt new passions being invoked. I believe that this passion is a transferable power. My evidence came when I looked in the eyes of some of our very own professors and faculty, like Dr. George White. I looked into their eyes searching for some of the tiredness that my body felt by the end of the day. Unable to do so made me wonder what literal vitamins they took. But, I believe the environment helped to reenergize them. More importantly, the NYASA Conference helped me to realize that this too is a part of the college experience, and it was offered to me, a York College Student. I met people who are evoking the meaning of the Sankofa bird, the symbol for this year’s conference. The meaning of the Sankofa bird is to go back and get that which was forgotten. The conference was filled with individuals who find significance in History and are dedicated to using knowledge of the past to invest in the future. In addition, majoring in History, I do not often feel inspired that my career path will be fulfilling. However, Dayshawn Gaines, an alumni of York College, and I agreed that being surrounded by other people who are living examples of who and what we aspire to be provided some well-needed opposition to leave aside those doubts and negative opinions.