Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Black Atlantic

Last night as part of a reading group I discussed Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic with a group of grad students and faculty, from various disciplines. And it was a really rich conversation--I mean it was academic (read egghead and chock full of jargon) but it was also provocative and interesting and we challenged each other on our interpretations of the book and about black culture and life in the U.S. and outside of it and the notion of blackness and race and identity and diaspora and comparative work. And about the tension in the particular versus the universal--in wanting to dispel any notions of an essential identity and yet still finding value in collectivities around racial categories. About talking about these issues in the abstract world of letters and the ivory tower and yet also understanding the historical and contextual reality of the dearth of actual black bodies in the academy (and for that matter, Latino, American Indian, and Asian American bodies--and I do mean Asian American and not Asian, and especially in the humanities and social sciences).

And I mention all of this because this morning I woke up and read a news piece about a noose that was found outside the office of an African American faculty member at Columbia University's teacher's college. For more on this piece, see the following links:

WNBC news article

Racialicious's blog post on the incident

What do an elite academic black cultural studies professor's book and a noose at Columbia University have in common? Well, I suppose in the most simplistic way, it means that despite neo-conservatives assertions, we have still not come to grips with the legacy of the middle passage and the transatlantic slave trade. That race does still matter--and that especially the darker your skin, oftentimes the worse you are treated. I'm not trying to rank oppression by that statement, but I will be the first to acknowledge that my experiences as an Asian American woman in the South are significantly different from an African American woman's experiences in the South (or in the nation at large for that matter). Just saying we are over race or beyond race or that we can transcend race does not account for a reality that race, FOR ALL OF US, is a reality we still haven't fully woken up to.

I don't have the space to really do justice to Gilroy's book--it's not perfect, but it is an important work and although it's pitched towards a college crowd, it has important things to say--and important things because they are pitched towards his peers--towards people in the academy who have not thought about the central importance of black studies to modernity and Enlightenment thought. But it doesn't matter if you read Gilroy or you listen to more organic intellectuals--people who don't necessarily have ivy league degrees but whose lived experiences make them more than qualified to talk about the experiences of race and history in the world. Gilroy is actually great about saying this--that jazz and hip hop musicians are also intellectuals and activists and have a message that may reach much farther and be more powerful than any academic work.

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