Conference Views African Identities in the Age of Obama

Posted: September 28, 2009 at 1:05 am, Last Updated: September 25, 2009 at 4:54 pm

By James Greif

Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States reminds Americans that beliefs about persons of African ancestry, solely based on their appearance, are likely to be incorrect.

Photo by Evan Cantwell

Photo by Evan Cantwell

To explore the complex ways in which African identities are constructed, expressed and represented, Mason’s African and African American studies program will host a multidisciplinary conference titled “African Identities in the Age of Obama” Oct. 8-10 at the Fairfax Campus.

During then-President-Elect Obama’s first press conference after winning the election, he referred to himself as a “mutt” during a light-hearted exchange with a reporter about what sort of dog he would get for his daughters after his family moved into the White House. Obama’s father was Kenyan and his mother was a Caucasian born in America.

“In that moment, he put his ethnicity right out there and embraced that he had a complex background,” says Wendi Manuel-Scott, associate professor of history and director of the African and African American studies program. “Having a president with this background causes us to question our thoughts and beliefs about race and identity.”

Numerous incidents, including disruptions during town hall meetings, the controversy regarding the president’s address to school children and Rep. Joe Wilson’s interruption during the president’s joint session to Congress, have led some in the media to wonder if the president’s race is a factor driving these public reactions.

Through its course offerings and events, the African and African American studies program seeks to address these kinds of incidents, not only by discussing current events, but also by looking at them in a critical fashion through the lens of the long view of American history.

Manuel-Scott welcomes the opportunity to discuss these issues at the upcoming conference.

“When we first planned the conference, I don’t think that we could have imagined that we would have these issues so prominently discussed in the news,” she says. “I don’t think the perception of Obama has changed since the election, but it is clear that the rhetoric has become louder and vitriolic.

“President Obama’s rise to power alerts us to the complexity of African identities in the modern era, particularly now that the 21st century is being heralded as the ‘post-race’ era, a term I disagree with.”

In addition to researchers from Mason, scholars from around the world will present at the conference, including professors from Brandeis University, Cornell University, Howard University, Temple University, University of Houston, University of Maryland, University of Texas and University of Virginia.

Highlights of the conference include a keynote address from Colin Palmer, professor of history at Princeton University, and a plenary panel that includes Joseph Leonard, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Hazel McFerson, Mason associate professor of public and international affairs, will present “Michelle Obama, Reggie Love and the New Paradigms of African American Female Beauty and Male Attractiveness in the Age of Obama”; and John Paden, Robinson Professor of International Affairs, will serve on the panel titled “Fallacies, Myths and Practices: The Making of Modern African Identities.”

The following Mason faculty members will serve as commentators or moderators for the various sessions: Spencer Crew, Robinson Professor of American, African American and Public History; Rutledge Dennis, professor of sociology and anthropology; Yevette Richards Jordan, associate professor of women and gender studies; Helon Habila Ngalabak, assistant professor of English; and Thomas Stanley, assistant professor of art.

Mason’s award-winning Center for History and New Media will present a lunchtime teacher workshop on “New Media, Race and African Identities in the Classroom” on the final day of the conference.

The conference also features an art exhibit by Mason MFA alumnus Solomon Wondimu titled “Skin: America in Black and White,” a reprise of his work shown at Mason last November.

The conference concludes with a screening of “The Neo-African Americans,” a documentary about how rapid, voluntary immigration from Africa and the Caribbean to the United States is transforming the meaning of what it means to be African American. Discussion of the documentary with the director, Kobina Aidoo, will follow the film.

The African and African American Studies program plans to submit proceedings of the conference for publication in a scholarly journal.

“We in African and African American Studies have a great responsibility to teach students about the construction of race during a time when we have the first black president,” Manuel-Scott says.

“It can be difficult to wrap your head around the complex issues of race and identity–a huge task that our faculty in the program is committed to. I’m quite humbled and proud to be director of this small, yet growing program during this moment in history.”

Registration for the conference is free for Mason faculty, staff and students, however, preregistration is required. Additional information is available at the conference web site.

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