David C. Driskell Center

Towns and Gowns:
Thinking Communities in African-American Studies

Friday, November 7, 2003
Maryland Room, Marie Mount Hall, University of Maryland

A one-day conference organized by Profs. Mary Helen Washington and
Gene Andrew Jarrett, Department of English, University of Maryland

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Conference Description

What is a "black community"? How do black communities operate as sites of collective memory and collaborative activism? How have black communities evolved in relation to recent social, cultural, and political changes in the United States? What is the impact of black communities on the discipline of African-American Studies? How have American literature, photography, film, and television represented black communities? How does the idea of community translate across the African Diaspora?

Towns and Gowns: Thinking Communities in African American Studies is a one-day conference designed to address these questions. By bringing together six distinguished speakers from across the country, Towns and Gowns interrogates notions of "community" and demonstrates the current importance of thinking about communities in academic and creative work. The conference is interdisciplinary in its attempt to cover a broad range of cultural media, historical contexts, and political events. The goal of Towns and Gowns is to provide a public forum for examining the relationship between communities of the African Diaspora and African American Studies, or, metaphorically, the relationship between "towns" and "gowns."

The first panel, "History, Memory, and African American Studies," features Professors Kenneth W. Warren, Valerie Smith, and Madhu Dubey. Warren concentrates on the disruptions constituting the history of African American studies as a discipline. This topic frames his argument for a historically and politically "local" view of W. E. B. Du Bois's project for Black Studies in the early 1940s. Smith and Dubey use the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath as the historical contexts for analyzing texts about black communities. Smith explores how contemporary literature, film, and television recall the period commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement. She is interested in texts that expand popular ideas of the temporal boundaries, the location, and the leadership of the Movement. Her readings are concerned with what these retrospective texts have to say about the politics not only of the present moment but also of American collective memory. Dubey argues that the revival of racial uplift in the post-Civil Rights era is inevitable, given the wide circulation of discourses of black urban crisis. After setting out the key distinctions between modern and postmodern projects of racial representation, Dubey shows that the uplift agenda continues in the postmodern era to animate a wide range of fiction, literary criticism, and cultural studies about black urban communities.

The second panel, "Violence, Representation, and Community," features Professors Jacqueline Goldsby, Thomas Glave, and Richard Yarborough. Goldsby makes the case for why a formalist approach to reading literary depictions of lynching gets us closer to a history of the violence that accounts for its persistence over time. Glave re-articulates the discourse of violence and terror in terms of the difficulties gays, lesbians, and trans-gendered individuals face both in the United States and abroad, particularly Jamaica. In these terms, Glave talks about what it means to do political and literary work in Jamaica, to claim a trans-cultural/bi-cultural/bi-national identity, to be a bi-cultural person and confront fierce homophobia in Jamaica, and to negotiate the languages separating Jamaican-American communities from African-American communities and these black communities from the academy. Yarborough argues that a number of American filmmakers have sought to meet the challenge of representing slavery and racism. By examining films on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s as well as more recent high-profile Hollywood projects about slavery, Yarborough shows that screenwriters, directors, and producers have frequently chosen the genre of historical drama as they grappled with the cinematic problems of rendering for a wide audience the historical events that manifest real and troubling aspects of American racism.

The conference is free and open to the public.
All sessions held at Maryland Room, Marie Mount Hall.

Conference Program

Opening Remarks

Gene Jarrett, University of Maryland

Panel One: History, Memory, and African-American Studies

Moderator: Zita Nunes, University of Maryland

Kenneth W. Warren, University of Chicago
"W.E.B. Du Bois's Dusk of Dawn: The End of a Beginning in African American Studies"

Valerie Smith, Princeton University
"Memory and the U. S. Civil Rights Movement"

Madhu Dubey, University of Illinois, Chicago
"Postmodern Racial Uplift"

Commentators: Laura Williams, Robin Smiles, and Nazera Wright, University of Maryland

Lunch Break

Panel Two: Violence, Representation, and Community

Moderator: Carla Peterson, University of Maryland

Jacqueline Goldsby, University of Chicago
"Lynching's Lower Frequencies"

Thomas Glave, State University of New York, Binghamton
"Writing Between 'Third World' and 'First'; or, A Whe Dem Deh Mi People Dem?"

Richard Yarborough, University of Los Angeles, California
"The Problem of Violence and Black Masculinity in Recent U. S. Historical Cinema: A Look at Amistad, Rosewood, and The Hurricane"

Commentators: Koritha Mitchell, Daniel Hartley, and Shanna Smith, University of Maryland

Roundtable Discussion

Closing Remarks

Mary Helen Washington, University of Maryland



Towns and Gowns is co-sponsored by the David C. Driskell Center, Coordinating Council for Equity and Diversity, University Honors Program, Office for Undergraduate Studies, Jiménez-Porter Writers' House, Department of English, Department of English Graduate Studies Initiative , Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Program, and The Democracy Collaborative.

For Further Information

Mary Helen Washington and Gene Andrew Jarrett
Department of English
3101 Susquehanna Hall
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-8815