Woodson Symposium: African American & African Studies at Work in the World

Today was Day 2 of the Carter G. Woodson Institute‘s 30th Anniversary Symposium, themed “African American & African Studies at Work in the World,” at the University of Virginia. The three-day program is packed with thought-provoking panels, keynote speeches, and musical and dance performances. I’ve tweeted most of the events so far, but wanted to share some favorite talks here.

Carter G. Woodson

Yesterday’s highlight was a panel after my own heart, “People Out of Place: Race, Space, and Social Movements,” moderated by Timothy Lovelace, featuring Risa Goluboff, Craig Barton, and Scot French, all from U.Va. Goluboff’s talk traced the history of vagrancy laws, which “regulated the physical and economic mobility” of marginalized Americans, particularly blacks, until the laws were declared unconstitutional in 1971. The talk by Barton, an architect, demonstrated how built environments can render “invisible,” literally and socially, racial minorities whose labor is necessary to sustain the structures. Barton also told the moving story of the Scrabble School, a former segregated black school that has been converted into a contemporary civic space. French screened and discussed his documentary film That World Is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Town, which tells the story of Vinegar Hill, a historically black area of Charlottesville that was destroyed in the name of “urban renewal.” (The film won the Audience Favorite Award at the 2010 Virginia Film Festival.)

Also yesterday, Yarimar Bonilla of U.Va. gave a terrific talk called “Non-Sovereign Futures? Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment,” which began to map the many Caribbean islands that are neither independent nor colonized, but something in between. Her research asks what “sovereignty” means in an asymmetrically globalized world where political and economic independence do not necessarily occur simultaneously.

This afternoon, a panel entitled “Bio-Politics: Race, Health, and the Body,” featured a terrific talk by J.T. Roane of Columbia University on the social and racial connotations of the so-called “obesity epidemic.” Roane traces the technologies and mechanisms by which fat bodies have become “visible” as such, obscuring the structural problems that lead to poor health for blacks and other marginalized groups. For example, Roane argues, the BMI (body mass index), originally developed as a population-level indicator, was later adopted as an individual measure, which helped shape the discourse of obesity into a “politics of self-control rather than of the economics of food production and resource allocation.”

This evening, Dorothy Roberts of Northwestern University gave a lively keynote address entitled “Race, Gender, and Biopolitics in the Genomic Age.” Roberts described how the idea of race as a biological concept has reemerged through genetic technologies, a seemingly paradoxical (and certainly insidious) trend in this supposedly “post-racial” age. Roberts’ new book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, looks fantastic and I can’t wait to read it.


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