Africana Studies conference: the changing meaning of black identity in the United States

Posted April 10th, 2008 at 2:15 pm.

Diawara photoThe presidential campaign of Barack Obama, an African American who is not descended from American slaves, has brought unprecedented public attention to the complexities of black identity in the United States. What does it mean to be black in the United States today?

Next Friday, April 18, and Saturday, April 19, the Africana Studies Program will explore that question with a conference titled “The Changing Meaning of Black Identity in the United States.” The program begins with a keynote address by noted critic, memoirist and documentarian Manthia Diawara, an African expatriate who chairs the Africana Studies Program at New York University, on Friday evening at 7:30 p.m.

A panel discussion the following morning at 10:30 a.m. will feature Miriam Jimenez Roman of NYU’s Institute of African-American Affairs, a scholar of Black Latino identity; Temple University African American Studies Professor Molefi Asante, a native of the United States who studies the African American experience froom an Afrocentric perspective; and University of Massachusetts scholar Michael Farewell, who will explore the ethnic West Indian perspective. Both events will take place in Thomas 110 and are free and open to the public.

“We now live in an American society where we can no longer make assumptions about the cultural background of persons of African ancestry based on their physical features,” says conference organizer Kalala Ngalamulume, an associate professor of history and Africana studies. “Nor can we assume that blacks in the United States today share a history of white racial prejudice and discrimination and of struggle for their civil rights—key experiences shaping black identity in the past.”

“These experiences do not reflect those of recent black immigrants. Often coming to the United States from nations plagued by poverty, civil strife, and political instability, they tend to see the United States not as a place of racial oppression but as ‘the promised land,’ a place affording them unprecedented economic opportunities, freedoms, and personal security. Though they possess an African ancestry and black physical features, their experiences—and their cultural outlooks—are likely to diverge sharply from those of native-born blacks,” Ngalamulume notes.

“The objective of the conference is not to advocate or propagate a particular conception of black identity, but rather to provide an occasion for exploration and discussion,” Ngalamulume says.

Keynote speaker Manthia Diawara is a professor of comparative literature and the director of the Africana Studies Program and the Institute of African-American Affairs at NYU. Born in Mali, Diawara was educated in France and the United States. He is the author of the memoirs We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World (2003) and In Search of Africa (1998) and the monograph African Cinema: Politics and Culture (1992), and the editor of Black American Cinema: Aesthetics and Spectatorship (1993). He has published widely on the topic of film and literature of the Black Diaspora. Diawara also collaborated with Ngûgî wa Thiong’o in making the documentary Sembene Ousmane: The Making of the African Cinema, and directed the German-produced documentary Rouch in Reverse.

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