I looked forward to attending the NYU-sponsored Queens, Queen Mothers, Priestesses and Power symposium at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. I paid the fees and registered. By the attendance, it was apparent that others were interested, too.
As Dr. Howard Dotson proudly welcomed the audience, I looked around at the packed auditorium and saw gracious Camille Yarborough, stately Queen Mother Moore and Dr. Blakely. The great Osunfunke Mama Keke looked majestic. Susan Taylor, ever regal, was also present. Then Dr. Flora Kaplan, the NYU conference convener introduced the presenters. Before the symposium could get started, Dr. Kaplan blundered, introducing Mama Keke as Queen Mother Moore. That was a major mistake, particularly before such an audience.
As royalty in our community, the African American women of influence in that audience were not properly acknowledged. These noble women remained scattered throughout the audience. Some audience members began to bristle in their seats. Other began raising the questions about authenticity. Suddenly, something was very wrong with this picture.
After things settled, the Aexperts@ were brought on. They simply gave an overview of their papers which were variously, titled, AAsante Queen Mothers: A Study in Female Authority,@ AGender and the Politics of Support and Protection in Pre-Colonial West Africa,@ and >Priestesses and Power Among the Riverine Igbo,@ and more. To hear about the topics as case studies in African gender raised my level of anticipation. I was beginning to relax … until a Mr. Nigel Barley was introduced. After hearing his title, Assistant Keeper, Museum of Mankind, The British Museum, London, I began to think that this had to be some kind of joke. I listened to his authoritarian tone. That along with his title and institutional affiliation were discomforting. Also, the panelists professors whose surnames — Barnes, Clark, Henderson — gave no indication of their ethnicity or race, were inclusive in their viewpoints along with White males, African males and African females. Glaringly absent from this were female African American scholars. There was no Dr. LaFrancis Rodgers Rose (President of International Black Women’s Congress), Dr. Johnetta Cole (former President Spellman College), or Dr. Niara Sudakasa (President of Lincoln University) nor any Black member of the Association of Anthropologists.
The Schomburg Center and NYU’s Institute for African-American Affairs as Acooperating institutions have remained unchallenged. Lending their names as cosponsors may have added some credibility. I have yet to know what Acommon interests were served by such an alliance. Why this event? Why this audience? And why these locations?
What was evident is that at that time African-American women had no leadership in the above institutions. The absence of an informed African American female perspective was telling. Did any one ask about this oversight at the planning stage? Was there a Acall for papers? Who chose these particular presenters? This conference stood out as a culturally inappropriate event. The information was sorely misrepresented. As a familiar image (once again) reminded me of this conference, so many questions remain unanswered.
Over the next two days, I attended several workshops. At the Academy of Science, there in the audience was Her Royal Grace Iya Orite of the Oyotunji African Village in Seldon, South Carolina. The panelists described the relationship of the Queen Mother as chief counsel. I looked around the room and saw other royalty. During the Q&A session, I asked the question about the glaring absence of the African American viewpoint in this scholarly work. And further inquired about the failure to recognize Queen Mother Moore and Mama Keke. Everyone looked to Dr. Kaplan for a reply.
Given such poor representation, is there any likelihood that the book (AQueens, Queen Mothers, Priestesses and Power) will help Ato deepen understanding of African American cultural heritage as its introduction proposes?