Friday, May 04, 2012

Locating African Diaspora: Mexico & Ecuador, at NU + Nathaniel Tarn Reads

Thursday was the joint. First, in the early afternoon, two leading scholars in the field of Afro-Latin American history, Ben Vinson III, the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of Latin American History and the Director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Sherwin Bryant, who teaches in the departments of African American Studies and History at Northwestern University, spoke on "Locating African Diaspora: Exploring Blackness in Mexico and Ecuador" at the invitation of Northwestern's Colloquium on Ethnicity and Diaspora.  Rather than simply delivering standard scholarly talks, both Vinson and Bryant, whose work focuses on the materiality of the colonial-era Americas, engaged in a conversation, through a recounting of their research trajectories, presentations of their current research, and questions each posed for the other. Throughout they returned to a number of salient issues in contemporary Afro-Latin historical research, many of which underpin the anthology they recently co-edited, with Rachel Sarah O'Toole, Africans to Spanish America: Expanding the Diaspora (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012).

To simplify, and I must because though my interest in their work is great, this is not my field, for Vinson, who has been exploring the material and cultural history and function of castas (castes) in Mexico, three questions he has been asking include how do we define "race" and was it sufficiently explanatory as an interpretive tool; where does Latin American fit into the "Diaspora" and how do we read Afro-Latins in the African Diaspora in light of recent work on transnationalism and globalism; and lastly, what is the relationship of slavery to freedom, and how do modern understandings of both enslaved and free experiences shift our concepts of both.  With regard to race, he pressed the query of whether it was the best rubric through which to understand the some of the historical, social, political, and economic issues in the history of Afro-Mexicans, though he did note that other angles into understanding Afro-Mexican history by their nature might thus be ways of understanding "race" and related issues such as racial formation and identification. He talked about research on very specific and "extreme" castes in Mexico as a means of demonstrating how these categories proved mobile, useful, and habitable, and informed both local and national self-perceptions.

For Bryant, undergraduate and graduate level study drew him to his research, and in particular to the topic of slavery in the Americas. His subsequent research on Quito, Ecuador led him back to "slavery" as a key issue, not only as a way of understanding a deeply entrenched social system, but also of people of African descent as "political subjects" within the framework of slave societies and societies with enslaved people.  Recent archival research and study have led to deeper knowledge of slavery not just as an economic system but as a way of understanding systems of  "governance, sovereignty, display, and circulation of power."  One of the most powerful points he raised, about thinking of race in other ways (and he cited another colleague, Barnor Hesse) beyond its reducibility "to the body" or "phenotype," but in language, cultural practice, and so forth, sparked my thinking.  Another vital point he raised involving constructing a genealogy of the idea of race (and racial formation) before the rise of 19th century racial pseudoscience, which has continued to infect discussions of race up through today.

After their individual presentations, each pressed the other on unresolved issues, demonstrating for those present the very lively debates underway in the field. (I should note that it was particularly enriching for me to hear them talk about these strands in Mexican, Ecuadorian and Latin American history, since I think it's probably the case that in the US there is little public consciousness about blackness in either country, which affects governmental conversations and policies concerning both. I can recall Afro-Mexicans even importuning then-candidate Barack Obama for help, before he was elected, but as to whether he has ever responded to them or has ever broached any bilateral discussions with Mexico's government about their plight, I have heard and read nothing.) After their exchanges, Vinson and Bryant opened the floor to questions, which led to a number of insightful exchanges on their specific research projects and the larger topics they're engaging.

Historian Ben Vinson III talking about his work on Afro-Mexicans
Ben Vinson III speaking on his research

Historian Sherwin Bryant giving a talk about his work on Afro-Latins in Ecuador
Sherwin Bryant speaking on his research (Vinson at left)


Afterwards, I hurried over to the English department so as not to miss Franco-British-American poet, critic, translator, editor, and antropologist Nathaniel Tarn (1928-), who was this academic year's final reader for the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium's reading series. I'd heard Tarn's name even before I came across his poetry, which with his works of criticism totals over thirty volumes, the most recent being Avia: A Poem of International Air Combat, 1939-1945 (Exeter, Shearsman Books, 2008), and Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers (New York, New Directions, 2008), but I'd never heard him read.

After my colleague Harris Feinsod introduced Tarn, the poet read poems from Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers as well as new poems, but not without expressing a deeply pessimistic view on the future of humankind who, he suggested, are moving inexorably toward self-destruction.  He leavened that grim pronouncement with his work, often dark but also demonstrative of language's ability to shape experience. Afterwards I had the opportunity to chat with him and he could not believe that I was honored to meet him, so let me underline that fact again. It was quite an honor, and I look forward to returning to his work soon. (I also had the opportunity to meet poet Joseph Donahue, who teaches at Duke University and who was traveling with Tarn for part of his reading tour.)

Tarn & Feinsod chatting before Tarn's reading
Nathaniel Tarn chatting with Harris Feinsod

Harris Feinsold introducing Nathaniel Tarn before his reading
Feinsod introducing Tarn

Nathaniel Tarn & Harris Feinsod
Tarn during the Q&A (Feinsod at right)

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