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Conference Marks 40 Years of African and African American Studies at Dartmouth

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In 1969, Dartmouth launched its African and African American Studies (AAAS) Program, one of the very first institutions in the nation to do so.

In April 2010, the College will recognize that 40th anniversary by presenting “Black Theatricality: Race and Representation in Black Literature and Culture: The 2010 Bildner Symposium,” a two-day conference administered by the Leslie Center for the Humanities.

Black Theatricality co-organizers

Assistant Professors of English Soyica Colbert (left), Michael Chaney, and Shalene “Sam” Vásquez (photo below) are convening a conference on “Black Theatricality.” (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

Dartmouth, present at the origins of the field, is stepping up to help shape how it will define itself in years to come. “As scholars and students of African and African American studies, we’ve come to a point where it’s appropriate to take stock and to examine the state of the discipline,” says conference co-organizer Soyica Colbert, assistant professor of English.

Sam VasquezProfessor Shalene “Sam” Vásquez, conference co-organizer (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

The event also reflects the College’s long-standing embrace of interdisciplinary work: “There’s an entrepreneurial spirit at Dartmouth and genuine support for thinking across departmental lines,” Colbert says. Along with Colbert, Assistant Professors of English Michael Chaney and Shalene “Sam” Vásquez are the conference’s conveners and organizers. All three acknowledge the support provided to them as junior faculty members by the provost, the dean of the faculty, and the Leslie Center. Dartmouth’s Bildner Endowment is supporting the conference as well (scroll down to see sidebar below).

The conference’s theme, black theatricality, offers a lens to view how scholars have studied questions of race. “Recent claims that we live in a post-racial world raise the stakes of organizing a conference around race and representation,” the conveners point out. But, they argue, considering and challenging the ways in which “black people in the United States and abroad” have been cast into or have enacted roles “from the auction block and minstrelsy to the athlete, politician, mother, diva, and hip hop artist” can frame a discussion of how scholars in African and African American studies have worked to break down racial hierarchies.

Right now, Chaney says, the presidency of Barack Obama “gives critics of black performance and black theatricality a great deal to talk about.” President Obama is in the public eye as an “unprecedented … African American embodiment of civic and political authority.”

The team has one overarching goal for the gathering: “We hope that the conference will initiate an intergenerational conversation” about the field and its future, says Colbert. It will be an opportunity for new and established scholars, as well as students, to gather and consider how best to study race and culture in the 21st century.

The organizers report that the meeting will bring “a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of African American studies” to Dartmouth, including Hortense Spillers of Vanderbilt University and keynote speaker Carole Boyce Davies of Cornell University.

“Many of the speakers are the authors of essays and books that have become foundational readings for our students,” Chaney points out. Ijeabalum “Lou-Lou” P. Igbokwe ’10, a senior fellow from Maplewood, N.J., looks forward to meeting the scholars whose work she has studied at an event led by “three professors who have deeply impacted my academic pursuits. The conference will be a fitting way to help culminate my Dartmouth experience,” she says.

Undergraduate students will have the opportunity to participate in the conference and interact with the speakers. Students from Colbert’s fall term “Black Theater, U.S.A.” course will curate an exhibition on black theater at Dartmouth, drawing on materials from the College archives.

The conference will double as a reunion for Dartmouth’s AAAS alumni, who are invited to return to Hanover for the event. Click here for more information about the conference, which is open to the public, or call (603) 646-0896.

Impact of the Bildner Initiative

Black Theatricality logo

“Black Theatricality,” the 2010 Bildner Symposium, has funding from Dartmouth’s Allen ’47, Tuck ’48, and Joan Bildner Endowment for Human and Intergroup Relations, which supports innovative programs that address issues related to diversity, prejudice reduction, and community building. Starting this fall, the “Bildner Program,” a new multiyear initiative, is maximizing the impact of the endowment by bringing its work into the classroom. Three designated “Bildner Courses” will receive support from the endowment each year. Along with an annual symposium, the program supports other co-curricular opportunities offered by the Dean of the College division and the Tucker Foundation.

“The Leslie Center is delighted to be cooperating with the Bildner Endowment on this project,” says Center Director Adrian Randolph. “It has long supported new ways of facing the tough issues of bigotry, discrimination, and injustice. By enlivening the discussion on campus about African American culture and literature, ‘Black Theatricality’ will energize faculty and students, producing the connections between research, teaching, and social issues that are at the very core of what Dartmouth is about.”



Last Updated: 11/19/09