David C. Driskell Center

Africas of the Americas Participant Bios




School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, and Director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora, University of Maryland

She is Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Executive Director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland. She is the author of "African Novels and the Question of Orality" (1992) and is currently completing a study, "Modernity and Multiple Imaginaries in Literature and the Arts." In 1993-95, she was founding director of the West African Research Center, Dakar, Senegal.

"The Romance of Africa: Two Narratives by African-American Women"

To what extent can African Americans in the U.S. today get beyond what Wole Soyinka has called the "fictioning of Africa," the often constricting lenses of our own particular historical circumstances in our mythologizing and representation of that array of peoples and cultures known as Africa? Specifically, what happens when African Americans leave the perches of our specific ecology and go encounter Africa or Africans? One of the more intense and revealing spaces of encounter is the terrain of romantic love. This, I believe, is a new type of engagement with the continent in the tradition of African American female letters. I focus here on Sarah's Psalm, a first novel, published by Florence Ladd in 1996, Marita Golden's autobiographical account of her marriage to a Nigerian, Migrations of the Heart, published in 1983, and Maya Angelou's memoir of her relationship with a South African activist, The Heart of a Woman (1981), one volume of a multi-volume chronicle of her life. I read these narratives of romance as commentaries on processes of racialization and gendering as well as on the politics of diaspora relations.


History, University of Maryland

Stephan Palmié teaches Caribbean history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his D.phil in Social Science from the University of Munich in 1989. He has done ethnographic fieldwork in Miami and Havana, and archival work in Cuba, Jamaica, England, Spain, Germany, and the US. His publications include a monograph on the Afro-Cuban religion regla ocha (in German, 1991), an edited volume on Slave Cultures and the Cultures of Slavery (1995), and a co-edited three volume edition of the original manuscript of C.G.A. Oldendorp´s history of the Moravian missions in the Danish Virgin Islands (2000ff.). His most recent book "Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition" has just been published by Duke University Press (2002).

"The Color of the Gods: Notes on a Question Better Left Unasked"

The history and contemporary sociological distribution of the so-called Afro-Cuban religions appears to confront us with a somewhat paradoxical situation: while generally acknowledged as constituting one of the most ostensibly "African" of New World religious formations, the religions known as regla ocha, palo monte and abakuá not only emerged on one of the demographically "whitest" islands of the Caribbean, but have documentably been practiced by individuals claiming "white" social identities since at least the second half of the 19th century. What is more, they are nowadays rapidly experiencing virtually global diffusion. By examining the mechanisms allowing for the reproduction of the memberships of these religions, practitioners´ discourses about everyday and religious conceptions of race and Africanity, and scholarly attempts to explain the seeming ease with which these religions transcend "racial barriers", I suggest that much of our current understanding of Afro-Cuban religion is flawed by naturalistic conceptions of Cuban economies of racial signification that lead us to conflate blackness and Africanity.


Anthropology, Florida International University

Jean Muteba Rahier was born in the Congo and grew up in Belgium. He is an associate professor of anthropology and African-New World studies at Florida International University. His research interests include the African Diaspora in Ecuador as well as Belgian colonialism in Central Africa.

"Political Agendas and ‘Inventions of Africa': Alice Walker, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Manthia Diawara"

This paper is grounded on the premise that an informing way to approach the diversity of black or African diasporic subjectivities is to look at how they each relate to/imagine/construct "Africa." The paper will contrast the "invention of Africa" in three specific cinematic texts produced by three distinct African diasporic intellectuals who reside in the U.S., and who have very different political agendas: "Wonders of the African World" by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a self-proclaimed "intellectual entrepreneur"); "Warrior Marks" by Alice Walker (a "global womanist"); and "In Search of Africa" by Manthia Diawara (an anti-"Afro-pessimist").


Anthropology, Universidade Cândido Mendes, Rio de Janeiro

He obtained his PhD in anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and since 1996 has been Academic Vice-Director of the Center for Afro-Asian Studies of the Candido Mendes University in Rio de Janeiro. He is also lecturing on ethnic studies, globalization and urban anthropology at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. He has published widely on race relations and black cultures in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Suriname and Brazil. His present research is on race relations and Afro-Brazilians in the Military Police of the State of Rio de Janeiro. From May 2003 he will be professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil.

"Uses and Abuses of Africa in Brazil"

The argument of my paper hinges upon four postulates: in spite of calls for an intrinsic singularity and supposed locality of the racial condition in Brazil, in this country the ethnic and racial formations have been historically defined in the interplay between local context and a trans-Atlantic circuit of ideas, categories, hierarchies and black objects; black cultures have developed throughout and within all stages of race relations and modernity in Brazil; Brazilians of African descent have created at different stages and through a variety of means their own 'Africa'; the way different categories of outsiders (travelers, essay writers, ethnographers, tourists) have looked at Afro-Brazilians and their cultural production has shown a great degree of continuity with a constant focus of intellectual curiosity along the polarity pure-impure. However, in Brazil neither popular nor elite representations of black culture and identity have generally accounted for such complexity. On the contrary, even though black identity has not so much been conceptualised in Brazil, ´being black´ - negritude - is a construction saturated with established and often too rigid categories. It has traditionally been constructed by social scientists, historians, mass media, popular culture and even much of black activism as more religious, traditional, natural and collective than other social identities. Afro-Brazilians have been seen as much more ´pure´, poor, past-oriented, homogeneous and gregarious that they themselves feel about it. Manipulation and sophistication have thus been seen as almost antithetic to ´being black´ or as corruptive of a hypothetical essence of blackness. An essence that does not account for the ability to create, invent, perform and develop fashion. An essence that is also constructed as being intrinsically anti-cosmopolitan because of a supposedly intimate association with one specific territory and climate (a criticism that we also find in the work of Achille Mbembe). Basically, in both intellectual and popular representations, blackness has been portrayed as antithetic to 'modernity', intrinsically 'innocent' and oppositional to the mainstream - whatever this might be. Of course the reality of black cultural production and identity formation have run counter this essentialism. Among others, music, carnival, the use of racial terminology, techniques and taste around black hair have witnessed of a much less linear and, for some of us, coherent use of blackness -more individual and manipulated, less religious. 'Africa' has become one of the international sources of ethnic markers, next to the US and increasingly also Jamaica.


History, Howard University

He received his BA from Ohio Wesleyan University and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. His area is African history, specifically West Africa. He has taught at Rutgers University, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Brandeis University. At Brandeis University he was head of African and Afro-American Studies. In addition, he has held the Beinfield Chair in African and Afro-American Studies. He was invited to Howard specifically to become Chair of the History Department in 1999. He is the author of three books. A fourth, Brothers and Strangers: African-Americans, Africans and the Specter of Slavery, 1914-1940 will be published by Duke University Press.

"Not One, but Many Diasporas"

In the twenty-first century, African Americans are increasingly aware that they are only one part of the Black Diaspora. People from the Anglophone Caribbean have long been part. What this essay will explore is how he African descended populations of "Latin" America fit within the international Diaspora --- an issue which influences everything from our perceptions of Puerto Rican and Dominican music to 'who's who' in baseball. Also, since the late 1980s, Brazil has become the cynosure of much black North American interest. This essay will explore how the bifurcated caste society of North America impacts the image of "Blackness" in Brazil and its doctrine of Racial Democracy. Conversely, we need to explore how the idea of national fusion - "Multiracialism" - is increasingly being urged in the United States.
Traditionally Anglophone Blacks, whether in the Caribbean or the United States, have been at the center of a Pan-African Diaspora consciousness. This consciousness is not coterminous with the geographical scattering of African captives throughout the Americas. We must remember, that at least four times as many Africans went to "Latin" America versus North America and the Anglophone Caribbean. African Americans are tied to their ancestral continent by their very choice of a collective name. The Anglophone and the "Latin" segments of the Black World are in greater contact today than at almost any other period since the end of the Middle Passage. Delegations of African Americans have made pilgrimages to such places as Bahia in Brazil taking with them their prescription for racial advancement. Proposals for affirmative action, an end to police brutality and the preservation of African religious practices are today being voiced throughout the Americas, specifically in Brazil and in Puerto Rico. The signal question this essay will address is: What chances of success do the northern ideological exports have in contexts in which "race" has been defined as fluid (whether it was or not) and in which class hierarchies are much more clearly enunciated? The African Diaspora is today a paradox; it expands at the periphery, even as it is challenged at the core.