Tuesday, 30 June 2015


“When you have a platform to speak out against oppression, and to speak for your people, you have to embrace it,” says Kashif Powell, a poet and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University in the United States.

Kashif Powell (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Powell was one of some 200 scholars attending the 2015 biannual conference of the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR), which took place at Liverpool Hope University in northern England, June 24 to 28.

Titled “Mobilising Memory: Creating African Atlantic Identities”, this latest CAAR conference more than ever highlighted the need for dialogue about the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, especially in light of recent atrocities against people of African descent in the United States.

It took place also against the backdrop of Liverpool’s history as a major slaving port in the 18th century and placed particular emphasis this year on the role that writers, artists and scholars play in preserving and “activating” memory in the struggle for social justice and human rights.

“When one is part of a group, part of a besieged identity, one has the responsibility of active involvement,” said Irline François, a Haitian-born professor at Goucher College - based in Baltimore, Maryland, where protests occurred earlier this year after an African-American man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody.

Gray was one of several unarmed young black men killed by police in recent months. Then, just days before the start of the conference, a white gunman killed nine people inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. These murders gave an added sense of urgency to many of the scholarly presentations.

The CAAR poster for Liverpool, by artist Lubaina Himid
“It is crucially important to preserve memory as a scholar and to do work that’s built and forged in community activism,” François told SWAN when asked about the contributions of academics - long criticised for being too cut off from the real world in their “ivory towers”.

Author of a forthcoming book on the African Diasporas in the Americas, François presented a paper that looked at the work of Haitian writers Edwidge Danticat and Yanick Lahens in relation to “history, memory and forgetting”.

She and other CAAR participants including Powell argued that it is only by examining human rights abuses as well as personal and collective trauma that healing can be achieved, and scholars have a part to play in this.

“I do have a responsibility but it’s also a privilege to represent my black experience,” Powell said in an interview. “I think it’s important for people to be made to remember. We can’t just pretend that certain things never happened.”

Prof. Cynthia Hamilton, co-organizer of the CAAR conference. 
Formed in 1992, CAAR began as an “association of individual European scholars working in the field of African American studies”. It has grown to become an “intercontinental organization” with members from around the world, according to a statement from the organizers.

“We are convinced that African American Studies has broad implications for the world today,” the association says. “Placing the field in an international context provides valuable reciprocal insights.

“African-Americans are the best studied ethnic minority in the world, and the theoretical and empirical understanding gained from this research is relevant to ethnic and racial issues elsewhere,” it added. Members say that the organization is trying to re-define itself to achieve greater diversity.

For this year’s conference, CAAR teamed up with the new Institute for Black Atlantic Research, or IBAR, based at the University of Central Lancashire, north of Liverpool. Alan Rice, professor in English and co-director of IBAR, and Cynthia Hamilton, head of the Department of English at Liverpool Hope University, were the co-organizers of the event.

IBAR’s involvement led to the participation of more writers and performance artists at the conference, as the institute’s emphasis is on art and culture, Rice said.

Tayo Aluko (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Rose Thomas, a 73-year-old author and Liverpool resident, read from her manuscript about life in the city for Black people in the 1950s, and poet and musician Curtis Watt got the assembled scholars laughing with his ironic sung-poems about the forms that discrimination can take.

Keeping with the theme of memory and activism, Tayo Aluko performed excerpts from his one-man show Call Mr. Robeson, about the life of American singer and activist Paul Robeson.

In his moving baritone, the Nigerian-born and Liverpool-based Aluko takes on the persona of Robeson, telling of his rise to fame in the nineteen-twenties and Thirties and the persecution that came with his speaking out against class discrimination and racism.

The U.S. government even confiscated Robeson’s passport, preventing him from travelling and performing, but officials couldn’t suppress the songs. Aluko’s renditions of “The Battle of Jericho”, “Ol’ Man River” and other pieces keep alive the memory of Robeson’s long fight against oppression.

His performance also underscored the links between art, politics and activism, which many scholars discussed during the conference. The academic presentations ranged from an examination of “Rebellious Thinkers, Poets, Writers, and Political Architects” to a discussion of “Slavery, Representation and Black Cultural Politics in 12 Years a Slave”.

Part of the exhibition at the International Slavery Museum.
The conference additionally drew attention to the role that museums are playing in the fight for social justice and equality. One of the keynote speakers, David Fleming, said that some museums are rejecting the notion of “neutrality” and opting to take a stand on human rights.

“Social justice just doesn’t happen by itself; it’s about activism and people willing to take risks,” said Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, which includes the city’s International Slavery Museum.

The latter looks at aspects of both historical and contemporary slavery, while being an “international hub for resources on human rights issues”.

As the conference was taking place, the museum launched an exhibition titled “Broken Lives”, about slavery in modern India and the experiences of the country’s Dalit community. Nearly half of the world’s victims of modern slavery are in India, and most of these are Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, the exposition pointed out.

Many CAAR participants went to view this exhibition as well as the museum's permanent display on the transatlantic slave trade.

Some also took part in a “slavery tour” whose aim is to remind the public of Liverpool’s past as a dominant actor in the slave trade. The city is also the home of the oldest Black African community in Britain.

“It’s important to have a space like this to show the importance of remembering,” Powell told SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie, as they ran into each other at the museum on the last day of the conference.

(In October SWAN will have a special article about IBAR’s work.)