Africa in the African Diaspora: 2003 - 2005 Mellon Grant Workshop Series
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Africa in the African Diaspora:
New Insights into the Diffusion of African
Identity and Cultural Forms
African Studies Program

2003 - 2005 Mellon Grant Workshop Series Supported by the UW Center for the Humanities

 

Introduction

Over the past ten years, the African diaspora has become a vibrant research and teaching field, with scholars from multiple continents working across disciplinary and area boundaries to explore the artistic, literary, musical, religious, cultural, political, and historical links that have cross-fertilized the Atlantic world during the past five centuries. 

An easily understood and representative category of this new research is in music. We know well that African music became jazz, the blues, and samba in the Americas, but only recently have scholars begun to take seriously the equally important process whereby these forms and their successors returned to Africa to be transformed into high life and Afro-pop, only to come west again in the late twentieth century to inflect contemporary popular music in countries ranging from Brazil, to Cuba, to the United States. Or, to take a quite different example, African religions, including traditional beliefs and Islam, have had important impacts in the cultural development of African American communities in North America, South America, and the Caribbean both historically and as a result of recent migrations from Africa. The fusions of these belief systems and Christianity have produced Santeria and Shango in Cuba and Brazil, as well as Africanized forms of Christianity across the breadth of Africa and in the Americas. Constant flows of religious ideas across the Atlantic among these groups over the course of 500 years have yielded a fascinating panoply of hybrid religious systems that have much to say about the way the human species responds to adversity and crafts understandings of its place and destiny in the cosmos.

Nowhere is the history of this trans-Atlantic interaction and the creation of a cultural African diaspora more evident and accessible than in literature. Questions of identity, which are never far beneath the surface in the music, religion, and visual arts of the African diaspora, are immediately apparent and go to the depth of much of the fiction, poetry, theater, dance, and film produced in the western hemisphere by people of African descent. In literature more than other fields there is a long tradition of diaspora scholarship stretching from the pioneering work of W.E.B. DuBois to that of contemporary literature scholars such as Henry Louis Gates and Nellie McKay. The identity question - Who are we of African descent and is the Africa that is in us essential, oppositional, permanent, glory, shame? - has been central to the literature of the diaspora from the start, and to the comparative study of that literature over the decades.

We suggest that the question of identity, though not so deeply explored in the newer facets of African diaspora scholarship, permeates much of the cultural life of the diaspora and should be at the center of diaspora scholarship generally. Thus the theme of our proposed workshop: Africa in the African diaspora, the diffusion of African identity.