Conversation with Frank Wilderson
Frank Wilderson III opened the symposium in an open conversation with moderator Maxine Craig on the role of art, public scholarship, social media, and activism. Among the many interesting points in the conversation, Wilderson asked in particular how activists might build relationships to form allied movements based in solidarity, using the example of his own life and work in the African National Congress. Wilderson was one of two Americans elected to the ANC, the party that pushed for the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Morning Panel: Black Feminist Thought, Performance, and Activism
Discussions of black activism, the performance of blackness and of motherhood, and different articulations of black feminist thought opened the first panel, with panelists Dayo Gore, Brandi Catanese, Sarah Haughn, and Danielle Heard Mollel.
Gore’s discussion used the “We Charge Genocide” petition to the UN in 1951 to bridge the history of feminists of color from Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign of the 1890s and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Catanese and Haughn each addressed aspects of black motherhood as a radical act. Catanese discussed the plays of Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel, and Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine) and how they reimagined motherhood “in the aftermath of slavery.” Haughn, a graduate student in English at UC Davis, discussed her own experiences as a mother and analyzed the autobiography of Assata Shakur to explore themes of imprisonment, generational knowledge, and the “umbilical bond” that has nourished black mothers and children since the Middle Passage.
Heard Mollel’s discussed the relationship of black feminist scholars and Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, and rethinking the notion of justice in black political struggle. Moving beyond justice as equality, an association Heard Mollel argues with deep roots in Western philosophy and Abrahamic religion, radical feminists like Alice Walker or bell hooks incorporated Buddhist dharma, meditation, and asceticism into a justice focused on radical peace, compassion, and self-love.
Afternoon Panel: Revolution and Transnational Blackness
The afternoon panel, with Jemima Pierre, Erica Edwards, Génesis Lara, and Jeanelle Hope, addressed stories of revolution, revolutionaries, American imperialism, and the possibilities of intersectional solidarities in philosophy and political activism.
Pierre opened the panel with forceful questions: how had U.S. black scholars challenged American imperialism under the Obama presidency? Did a black Commander-in-Chief allow for a more robust black transnationalism? Pierre argued that U.S. black scholars displayed “an alarming degree of blindness” in places like Haiti, which has been under international military occupation for almost 13 years. She called for a greater emphasis on a “Black International” to challenge the treatment of countries like Haiti, recognizing the common struggle of people of color within and outside the U.S.
Erica Edwards addressed come of those commons struggles in her analysis of works like Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters. Edwards emphasized the “economics of care” in a world in which threats have diversified during the so-called “War on Terror.”
Davis graduate student Génesis Lara (History) gave a compelling revisionist history of the 1965 revolution in the Dominican Republic not as another episode in Cold War geopolitics, but in a continuity of Atlantic revolutions with the DR’s neighbor Haiti. The key connection, Lara showed, was the important role Dominican peasants played in fueling revolutionary change.
Jeanelle Hope, a graduate student in Cultural Studies at Davis, closed the afternoon panel with her talk on “a genealogy of Afro-Asian solidarity” through the work of Grace Lee Boggs and CLR James. Boggs and James were highly critical of activists on the Left who ignored race. They sought to push socialist activism beyond the theoretical and philosophical, to make practical change in the lives of working people and the poor. Boggs’s emphasis on education reflected that collaborative relationship with CLR James.
Keynote by Deborah Thomas
The symposium concluded with Deborah Thomas’s keynote address. Thomas’s address interrogated Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse—the narrative of Hurston’s travels and studies of Jamaica and Haiti in 1936—asking what Hurston and her narrative can add to our understanding of transnational black politics in the twentieth century in the shadow of American empire. Hurston’s ethnography of Haiti and Jamaica was far-reaching; Tell My Horse explores the politics of whiteness in Jamaica, gender norms and the preparation of young women for marriage, Haitian zombies and rituals of death, and the effects of the twenty-year American occupation of Haiti. Thomas’s answer to “what can Zora Neale Hurston add” is the importance of compassion for her subjects, and skepticism of nationalist stories. Thomas, echoing Jemima Pierre’s talk, urged the audience to consider the complex, transnational, relationships among the black diaspora. She added that Hurston might also provide an answer to Wilderson’s opening question: radical activists can practice radical love, which opens new paths for affecting political change, as well as incorporating love into scholarship.
The New Directions in Black Radical Thought Symposium was held on Friday, February 17th, and was sponsored by the UC Davis Humanities Institute, African American and African Studies, the UC Davis Dean’s Office for Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies, and the UC Davis Division for Student Affairs, and was organized by Laurie Lambert, Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies.
–Kaleb Knoblauch, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History