Spontaneity marks discussion at Middle Passage Conversations
By Frank Brown
Assistant Director, Publications
Throughout the three-day conference Middle Passage Conversations on Black Religion in the African Diaspora, panelists were asked to come to the various discussions without any notes in hand. The result was often a spontaneous, lively interplay between the panelists themselves and the audience.
“The ‘conversations’ model of the conference brought out insights that might have been buried in more formal presentations,” said Yale Professor of African-American Studies Elizabeth Alexander, an audience member at one of the panels. “Yale's campus was charged, dynamic, and transformed.”
Perhaps nowhere was this more on display than the morning of April 4 at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center, where five academics grappled with the question “When will we be able to stop pleading our case that we are human?”
“My answer is ‘never!’” proclaimed one panelist, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Colby College. “We’re talking about contested humanity... We are at the end of a half a millennium of racialization as shaped by the slave trade.”
Moderated by Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, the discussion over the usefulness of the term “humanity” and the verb “plead” was enlivened by divergent views. Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., for one, took issue with Gilkes’s contention that African Americans will always need to fight for their humanity in the broader culture.
“I’m not pleading my humanity to anybody anymore. Does that make sense? That ticket has been paid!”
“I’m not pleading my humanity to anybody anymore. Does that make sense? That ticket has been paid!” said Glaude, a professor of religion at Princeton University and the co-editor of African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology.
Audience members, too, reflected diverse opinions as they stepped up in the Whitney Center’s wood-paneled auditorium to ask questions and, just as often, weigh in themselves on the question of African-Americans’ humanity.
Referring to himself as the “raisin in the oatmeal” at his workplace in a hospital in New York State, one questioner asked for guidance on how to find time and energy for “doing” when he works so hard “defending” his own humanity. Panelist Jonathan Holloway, Yale professor of African American studies, history and American studies, answered, “I’m a firm believer in leading by example... We can’t lose sight of the fact that our most important job is teaching the children, the next generation.”