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Discovering Global Africa through the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers

Conference asks insightful questions through many mediums

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It’s no overstatement to say that the Global Africa and the Humanities symposium is an event unlike any other at Rutgers. The inaugural program in 2019 included discussions on everything from the Black Panther film to the rise of underground hip-hop in Nairobi, yet also managed to also cover farming and food production and include training for K-12 teachers. This year’s edition, Translating Africa/Africa in Translation which takes place virtually March 31-April 3, will be just as eclectic, with scholarly panels, spoken word performances, photography, and more. The symposium was created by Ousseina D. Alidou and her husband, Alamin Mazrui, both professors in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures. Alidou talks below about the inspiration behind Global Africa and the Humanities.


Ousseina 2019 AchebeForumQ: How did you develop the idea of Global Africa as an annual event?

A: The goal was to focus on people of African descent, whether they are on the continent or in the diaspora, and to understand what they bring in terms of humanistic conversation across many topics and issues. What can we learn from engaging with people of African descent?

Although there are many of us at Rutgers working in Africa studies, we wanted a forum to share widely— beyond our classrooms and beyond our published work. We wanted to widen the classroom to include, say, the Zimmerli Art Museum. There is a greater overriding mission at work here, and that is for the humanities to engage the wider public about the global African experience.


Q: One of the hallmarks of Global Africa has been a strong representation of the arts. This year, for example, there is poetry, dance, and photography. How did you get the idea to mix the scholarly and the arts?

A: Artists are critical participants in the humanistic form of dialogue that we are creating. Art is an empowering form of communication. Our mission is to feature art that cultivates empathy, art that helps us look critically at what this humanity is all about and how we can live in a symbiotic relationship with the world. Artists are organic intellectuals, and they bring possibilities that sometimes elude the policymakers. 


Q: One of this year’s panel discussions is called “Contagion in/as Translation” and includes discussion of both Ebola and the coronavirus. What do you hope this discussion will tell us about the last year?

A: The world is dealing with the Covid19 pandemic, but we can’t forget that not very long ago there was Ebola and HIV. When a crisis affects a particular part of humanity, how does the world respond? That’s one question that the panel will likely explore.

But even beyond that, we need to understand that with the communications and transportation technology that we now have at our disposal, the world is forever interconnected. When we are confronted with a crisis, we need to seize it as an opportunity to understand how we engage with each other as humans.

And I am not thinking solely about biological contagion. There are also the epidemics of war and gender-based violence. There is mass migration. These issues have been addressed by global powers in ways that are patchwork and myopic. So, let’s bring everyone to the table. Let’s consider what the marginalized have to say. They also have a voice and something to offer.


thumbnail imageQ: The last year saw a racial reckoning in the United States, with the anger, grief, and frustration over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Have these events in any way inspired this year’s edition of Global Africa?

A: I think they have in the sense that the tragedy of George Floyd is a tragedy for the world. We have to look at the history of the world and see how we came to this present moment and decide what kind of future we want to imagine for ourselves. Now in recent weeks we are dealing with anti-Asian hate. And that makes me think of the discrimination that the people of Liberia and Sierria Leone went through during the Ebola crisis.

From the African perspective, we have experienced historical phenomena like slavery, colonialism, mass migration. What we really need is some imagination about solidarity. Solidarity is recognizing every human being and every creature and their right to breath air and enjoy each other.

This conversation we are having about global Africa and the humanities takes place on the ethical front, a place where we consider solidarity, empathy, and compassion and open the doors of conversation.


Q: Anything in year’s lineup you are particularly excited about?

A: The symposium is a festival for all, especially as we begin to imagine a post-Covid 19 pandemic opening with a renewed commitment to social justice, racial solidarity within the US and around the world, and life affirmation for all. We have contributions from throughout SAS but also the Mason Gross School of the Arts and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and all Humanities departments, the Center for African Studies, Rutgers Global and Language Institute. It shows that we can take Global Africa and locate it in different schools. We all come together and bring something to the table.

The Global Africa in the Humanities symposium is made possible through the work of Anjali Nerlekar, Chair, AMESALL;  and the planning committee:  Meredith Shepard, postdoctoral associate, AMESALL; Michele Firshberg, Program Coordinator, AMESALL; Gabriel Bamgbose, Ph.D. student, comparative literature; Martine Adams, program coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and professors Mary Shaw, French; Bode Ibironke,  English; Stéphane Robolin, Center for African Studies / English; Genese Sodikoff, Director, Center for African Studies.

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