Lunchtime Colloquia 2018-2019 | Atlantic World Research Network

Lunchtime Colloquia 2018-2019

Lunchtime colloquia will meet in 2018-19 on varied weekdays (see below) and in different formats from 11:45 am-1:30 pm. We usually meet in MHRA 1607, the Research and Partnerships conference room on the first floor of the Moore Humanities and Research Administration Building’s research wing. Colloquia will be led by colleagues from varied disciplines, but with a shared purpose: to explore life around the Atlantic Rim in ways that will spark new approaches, provide useful responses to work-in-progress, and reflect on the shared project of transatlantic studies.

The 2018-2019 Colloquium schedule is as follows:

Date Topic Presenter(s)
Wednesday, October
3, 2018
“Retelling the Story: Remembering the Middle
Passage in Literature and Song”
Dr. Tara Green
Professor of African-American and African Diaspora Studies, and the Linda Arnold Carlisle
Excellence Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies
Wednesday, February 27, 2019 “Bebop in Bavaria: The Reception and Practice
of African American Studies in Europe”
Dr. Jürgen Grandt
Professor of African-American Studies and American Studies at the University of Georgia

“Retelling the Story: Remembering the Middle Passage in Literature and Song”

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Dr. Tara Green began her presentation by reading aloud from the preface of her recently published book Reimagining the Middle Passage: Black Resistance in Literature, Television, and Song. In the preface, she recounts growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the surrounding water was a constant presence in her life. Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and the New Orleans area after she moved away, and the images from the news of the flooding of the city greatly affected her. From this, she moves onto Orlando Patterson’s theory of social death, where he posits that slaves in America lost their humanity because they were cut off from their origins. In Reimagining the Middle Passage, Green provides her counterargument to his theory: just because people of African descent have been treated as socially dead individuals, does not mean they are dead.

There are ways in which African culture remains alive in people of African descent in the United States today, through storytelling across several media and person-to-person. These means help African-Americans to form connections to their African roots, as ways of metaphorically moving across the middle passage; Green referred to this movement as a “rebirth” for individuals as they reimagine the experience of the middle passage themselves. She used the movie Amistad as an example, which was based on the true story of revolt aboard a ship carrying Africans across the middle passage. Dr. Green then provided historical details on the middle passage, which refers to the route ships took to transport Africans from Africa to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. She then referenced research by Stephanie Smallwood to give context for the experience aboard the ships; there, diseases spread easily among the people and the vessels were referred to as “floating tombs” by West Africans.

Different West African groups regarded the water in a spiritual way; some, including the Akan and the Igbo, equated the water with a deity. When discussing these matters in a classroom setting, Dr. Green said she wants her students to shift their perspective of water from a Western Christian perspective and to the perspective of West African beliefs. She then told the story of Igbo Landing, which took place off the coast of South Carolina or Georgia. Africans exited the boat in chains and, faced with the choice of ill treatment on land or returning to Africa via the water, chose to either walk or fly back to Africa over the water. Some view this as a mass suicide, but Dr. Green sees it as a more spiritual experience. As the Igbo believed the water to be a deity, she believes they made that decision with the express purpose of returning to Africa, even if not in a physical sense. There are recordings of people discussing this moment, and this storytelling method connects them back across the water to their origins.

The group discussion began on the note of performance, particularly dance, as a method of connection. Dr. Green brought up the movie, The Middle Passage, where Africans aboard a slave trade ship were forced to dance in order to stave off depression. The movie depicts this forced dance and Europeans badly playing African instruments, then reveals how the characters are able to surpass their external situation through this dance and–for a moment–become transported back along the middle passage to Africa.

Dr. Green said she forms a natural connection to the Caribbean as part of the slave trade from her perspective of living in the south, and originally included two to three chapters on the Caribbean in her book. However, the editors could not see the connection, and she had to delete those chapters. Her book particularly deals with southern coastal areas: New Orleans, Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta; and ends with 2015 Emanuel A.M.E. shooting in Charleston. For this last topic, her book references Daniel Black’s The Coming to bring up the role of forgiveness as a form of black resistance. Dr. Green later said black resistance can take many forms; if she finds herself in a hostile room, her resistance can manifest in a choice to remain silent. She also pointed out that she wrote her book during the Black Lives Matter movement, which she said existed as a concept long before recent years. People brought over on the middle passage still knew their lives mattered; the movement just was not named until recently.

Dr. Mark Rifkin brought up the concept of land in America and how people of African descent face difficulties in obtaining land ownership. This led into a discussion on Queen Sugar, a television series, which Dr. Green said demonstrates how one woman believes she has a spiritual connection to the land while her siblings believe it to be an “ancestral right.” Dr. Green later described spirituality as a transcendence that surpasses survival and the present moment.

The group also discussed Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston, which is about the man who is considered to be the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Though the interviews took place in the first half of the twentieth century, the book was published only recently.

Dr. Hodgkins suggested that her research could also at times apply to the plight of other groups that found themselves living among adversaries. Dr. Green responded that if people chose to take her research universally, they can do so, but that she only researches about the lives of people of African descent from the perspective of a black woman from the American South. In her preface, she states the reason she was able to write this book is because it is part of her DNA. Reimagining the Middle Passage can be found on Amazon and the Ohio State University Press website.

“Bebop in Bavaria: The Reception and Practice of African American Studies in Europe”

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Dr. Jürgen Grandt, a professor of African American Studies and American Studies at the University of Georgia, was the featured speaker at a lunchtime colloquium hosted by UNCG’s Atlantic World Research Network and English Department, with support from Class of 1949 Professor Christian Moraru, on Wednesday, February 27th. Dr. Grandt began his presentation, “Bebop in Bavaria: The Reception and Practice of African American Studies in Europe,” by discussing an important trend he noticed when reading an essay collection derived from a conference he’d attended in 2014 at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, “America and the Musical Unconscious.” Many of the papers in the book referenced Henry Louis Gates’ critical theory of signification, which first appeared in Gates’ book The Signifying Monkey in 1988. Significantly, in other similar earlier conference publications, many of the papers written by European scholars also referenced Gates, an American, though the papers written by American scholars did not.

Dr. Grandt noted that in the European classroom, African American literature is typically only taught in conjunction with other American literature, and that theory is a heavy part of the curriculum. Theorien amerikanischer Literatur by Winfried Fluck is the reference book through which Dr. Grandt and many of his contemporaries first learned to apply literary theory to American literature. In this text, Fluck remarks on the fluidity inherent in American literature. Dr. Grandt argued that this fluidity specifically necessitates theory. Ironically, Grandt argues, in The Signifying Monkey, Gates states that he’s a poststructuralist, but because Gates advocates for a theory which uses signifiers to understand African American literature, Gates is—at least in The Signifying Monkey—a structuralist.

This Gatesian signification theory provides Dr. Grandt a pathway to authentic criticism of African American literature, even as a white European. In fact, Grandt claims that this theory provides a pathway for many other Europeans to study African American literature and culture, which is very popular in Europe. Almost half of those broadcasting on the German public radio station ARD have a jazz big band; and Count Basie’s death was announced with gravity on the Swiss news. There’s even a Hip Hop competition, Grandt observes, in the German city of Bochum, which has a homogeneously white population. Dr. Grandt ended his talk by quoting from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement about a Berlin jazz festival: “Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody loves and needs to be loved. [And e]verybody needs to clap hands and be happy.” Grandt cites King to support his own assertion that European critics in African American studies can help everyone understand what connects people across cultures.

At the beginning of the discussion period of the colloquium, Dr. Noelle Morrissette referenced the book Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s by George Hutchinson and its assertion that European philosophy doesn’t recognize American popular culture as having a unique origin. She then invited Dr. Grandt further to discuss theory and popular culture. Dr. Grandt said he went to a conference which was heavily focused on theory and which opened with an explanation that popular music was worthy of serious aesthetic criticism. Dr. Veronica Grossi and Dr. Morrissette went on to ask about other European countries’ current theoretical movements and African American Studies movements, particularly those of France and Italy. Dr. Grandt said he was unfamiliar with these in France, but in Germany and Switzerland there is, to his knowledge, no institutionalized African American Studies program other than the previously mentioned CAAR conference–largely because of the comparatively small English departments in these countries.

Dr. Jennifer Feather asked if because culture is becoming more planetary that there is an anti-racist culture being formed across the Atlantic World. Dr. Grandt views this as a misconception because Europeans were homogeneously white for so long and their only people of color would be exceptionally gifted immigrants from other countries, such as Langston Hughes. Now, he says, Europeans are forced to face their own thoughts on race as influxes of people of color are coming to Europe, such as Syrian refugees.

Dr. Grandt said Jazz is a type of music with a moral imperative: through improvisation, all musicians are telling their own individual stories; at the same time, each musician needs to allow for all the other musicians on the stage to have their fair share of time to share their own stories. Dr. Hodgkins added that Jazz additionally requires the musicians to listen to each other’s stories on the stage so the music, while improvised, fits together. Dr. Grandt then read an interview from his book Gettin’ Around: Jazz, Script, Transnationalism that he conducted with a white European student who went to Berkeley to study Jazz and found himself for the first time a minority, and how the experience influences his music.

Dr. Grossi and Dr. Grandt then both remarked on how heavily Europeans focus on theory, and how the types of theory on which they focus vary from country to country among the distinct cultures. Dr. Scott Romine asked how, when non-Germans use critical theory to assess German literature, German African Americanists can then turn around and claim that one must be German truly to understand German cultural work. In response, Dr. Grandt responded with another question: Who gets to tell whose story?

Dr. Christian Moraru then explained that when certain things travel across the Atlantic Ocean, they undergo some misconceptions, or at least differences in perception. Theory, for example, plays a different role in Europe than it does in America. So too, does Jazz. When Jazz became known in Europe, it was regarded as “high-brow”; Dr. Hodgkins noted that this European admiration generally did not extend to white American Jazz artists as it did to African Americans. Dr. Grandt then concluded that African American Studies in Europe remains too much an exceptional case.