This past week, scholars came to New York City from around the country and eight nations to take part in an historic conference on the state of African-American and African Diaspora Studies. The theme that ran throughout the conference was the need to bring the studies out of the ivory towers and into the streets, the hearts and minds of the masses of people of African descent.
Convened by Dr. Colin Palmer and the staff of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in conjunction with City College, City University of New York, faculty, the conference was called to examine what is happening around the country in the field of African-American and African Diaspora Studies and to explore options and strategies for its survival into the future.
There have been many meetings over the years convened by people of African descent regarding the problems of Africans in the Americas. In 1905, Harvard scholar W.E.B. Du Bois convened a group of African-American scholars to discuss the problems of “people of color”. The participants and the discussions of this all-Black assembly were the wellspring from which the integrated NAACP was founded in 1909.
The participants in the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana in 1972 created a National Black Political Agenda, leaving that city to return to communities where the words could be put into action to elect Black representatives to local and national office.
In 1995, Minister Louis Farrakhan called for the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. to call for unity and social responsibility; more than a million Black men from all over the world answered the call.
For this New York conference, students came from all over the East Coast, members of the scholar community came from around the globe, and metro New York fathers and mothers brought their children – infants to teenagers- to hear discussions related to the teaching, researching, processing, preserving, sharing and perpetuating knowledge about the African Diaspora.
It was the best ticket in town – students entered free. And those who could not get into the workshops and sessions or even the doors of the Schomburg Center’s Langston Hughes Theater, networked and held discussions among themselves.
The 2 1/2-day conference recalled the sensibilities of the 1960’s and ’70’s when Black Studies programs came into being and old ivory tower traditions were turned upside down. There was a difference between this conference and earlier efforts – the recognition of women as powerful thought – and scholarship-community leaders. For this 21st century conference, they set the tone: Dr. Johnnetta Cole opened the sessions on Thursday night at the Schomburg in Harlem, and Dr. Tricia Rose, closed it brilliantly with the few minutes that were left at CUNY’s midtown Graduate Center. “For young people, sitting here, this would be an eternity,” she said, noting that scholars had to learn how and when to “hit it and quit it” if they hope to reach the young people through Black Studies.
Indeed, the lesson taken from these sessions, and mentioned by everyone involved, is to reach the young people, or as Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad – in a reference to his goal to create a learning haven for children at the Schomburg when the reins are officially handed to him in June – said, “To share: we have to take Black Studies to the world community, including young people”.
By the end of the conference, the challenge to have academic understanding become a part of everyday life remained. At the beginning of the 20th century, Du Bois and another scholar, James Weldon Johnson, led the Silent Protest Parade down Fifth Avenue as an outcry against the wave of lynchings and white terrorism that gripped the nation. And they used their intellectual capacity to change and transform the course of American history, and their writings to preserve those moments that we, today, might study them and learn from them.
We will have to see if the scholars who met this past weekend will take what they have learned back to their communities to lead discussions and take the actions that are necessary to correct the course to oblivion that many African-Americans are now on.
Among those scholars we saw some friends who are hard at work on the ground keeping memory alive, Brother Brown of True South Books and BabaaSurya, just to name two. DG/BG