Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Tribute to African American Achievement

This evening I was in Minneapolis, attending a tribute to African American Achievement. The event, part of Black History Month, was held at the Greater Friendship Baptist Church.

With jokes and wisecracks and boundless energy, the master of ceremonies, seen on the left, kept the audience in high spirits throughout the evening.

Advertized under the title "Why God Made me Black" this was a rich offering of comedy, poetry, spirituals, gospel music, history and a fashion show.

There were many performers, such as this group of Gospel singers, who put up a spirited performance.

This group took us to the days of slavery. Here they are playing the part of slaves working in the field, singing spirituals.

There was a fashion show, put up by the group seen on the left, departing the stage after making their final bow to the audience. With the help of a commentator, the fashion show highlighted the history of African Americans fashion over the decades. The show included several West African costumes.

This young girl gave a solo performance of dance movements.

One of the most touching moments for me was when one of the facilitators of the event talked about the Second Chance Foundation, which seeks to give people a second chance at education and self improvement. He asked for donations, as collectors of the donations positioned themselves in front of the auditorium. It was touching to see the outpouring of generosity as people streamed forward to give their donations. I joined them.

This was an evening of entertainment and education. At one point, the facilitator asked the audience questions about African American history. For example, he asked when the first African slaves arrived in the USA. Another question was what was the first state to free slaves. There were questions also about famous inventors and artists. To this audience, the questions were rather challenging, a reminder that belonging to a certain group is one thing, but knowing the history and experience of that group requires effort.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pan African Group Meeting, Minneapolis

The Pan African Summit movement is gaining momentum in the Twin Cities. After several years of having only a small steering committee, we have reached a new level with the formation of the Pan African Council. Today we had a meeting at the Center for Families to welcome new Pan African Council members.

Chairing the meeting, Edmund Ocansey started by restating the mission and aims of the Pan African Summit and then we took turns introducing ourselves, stating our vision for the future of this organization. In this gathering of Africans and African Americans, everyone expressed the desire to see the Pan African Summit continue to grow and prosper.

We talked about the 2010 Pan African Summit noting some things we learned from the keynote speakers and from those attending. We also shared personal stories of contacts we made at the Summit, as an illustration of the value of the Pan African Summit.

One idea that kept coming up was the desire to learn about one another. The African Americans expressed the desire to learn more about Africa and Africans, and the Africans expressed the desire to learn more about African Americans. Another idea was that we should really start planning for the next Pan African Summit, to be held on October 8, 2011.

Those of us who have been on the Pan African Summit planning committee from the beginning assured the newly constituted Pan African Council of our support in all possible ways.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Black History Event in St. Paul, Minnesota

I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, this evening, with my oldest daughter, attending the Fifth Annual Black History Event, held at the Merrick Community Center. I learned about this event on Facebook and made arrangements right away to participate as a vendor.

There were introductions and greetings.

Groups of young people gave energetic and creative dance performances, amazingly choreographed.

I marveled at the displays of talent and self-assurance of the youthful performers.

I was amazed by the agility of their bodies as they executed complicated moves in perfect harmony with the music.

They sang various songs, including, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," whose words were written by James Weldon Johnson and music by John R. Johnson. It was interesting for me as an African to learn that this is the Black National Anthem.

There were people of all ages, from children to older adults.

I wanted, in part, to experience an African American celebration, and that is exactly what happened. Being among all these African Americans was quite an experience.

Although their mannerisms felt somewhat African, I could feel the difference between that gathering and an African gathering. For example, I did not hear the familiar African accents. The dances and the music were all African American. It was refreshing to see that kind of attachment to one's own traditions, a reminder of the history of struggle to define oneself and stay true to oneself.

An African celebration in the United States would be a caccophony of accents, and the dances and music would be an incredible mix of everything, from Papa Wemba to Bob Marley, with lots of Michael Jackson and Kool and the Gang thrown in. That also is good, signifying a certain global perspective.

I visited the tables of fellow vendors and gathered useful material about resources and organizations I was not aware of, which deal with such issues as education, culture and the welfare of families.

Towards the end of the proceedings, Tommy Watson, the keynote speaker, gave an inspiring message of hope, based on the incredible challenges he had faced and overcome in his own life.

I had a chance to talk with several people, including a lady who said she was originally from Mississippi. She told my daughter and me about the reality of life in the American South. My daughter, who had visited Mississippi for a few days as part of a College of St. Catherine student trip, could related to the stories better than I.

I also spoke with a gentleman who came to my table asking questions about my writings, especially on the African and African Diaspora experience. He struck me with his engaging thoughts and questions. He was both a good talker and a good listener.

Overall, the Black History Celebration was a great experience.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Teaching South Asian Literature

A few months ago, I designed a course on South Asian Literature. It would focus on India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the location of one of the world's oldest civilizations, whose contributions to the world include Hinduism, the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, and literary works in many languages. I am teaching the course this Spring.

Over the years, I have taught literary works from this part of the world, such as Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore; Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand; Kanthapura, by Raja Rao; The Vendor of Sweets, The Painter of Signs, and The Guide, by R. K. Narayan; Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya; Fire on the Mountain, Baumgartner's Bombay, and Fasting, Feasting, by Anita Desai; Cracking India and The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa.

I did not, however, teach all these works at one time or in one course. I included two or three such texts in my courses on Post-colonial Literature or Introduction to Literature. I always include a work by R.K. Narayan in my Hero and Trickster course.

The South Asian literature course is an opportunity to focus on one part of the world, exploring the dialectical and dynamic relationship between literature, history, culture, religion, and politics. I look forward to guiding my students through an exploration of not only the unique artistic contribution of each writer, but also how these writers appropriate indigenous traditions such as folklore, as well as "Western" and other foreign traditions.

Here are the works I am teaching: Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand; Twilight in Delhi, by Ahmed Ali; Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh; Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa; Anil's Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje; Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera, and The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy.

I have neither read nor taught most of these works, but I like exploring new areas of literature. One might ask: where is Kalidasa? Where are Tagore, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Amitav Ghosh, Meena Alexander and so many other writers? How can you teach South Asian Literature without including Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children? Where are the playwrights and the poets? All these would be valid questions, but there is only so much one can do in one semester.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Writing Course

For years, I never thought I would enjoy teaching the writing course. From one semester to the next, as I laboured through this course, my spirit seemed to steadily die, like a candle flame in its final minutes. I saw the teaching of writing as a chore.

A few years ago, however, a new awareness dawned on me. I began writing columns for newspapers, and that forced me to see writing in a way I had not done before. I used to write mostly academic papers, but writing short articles for newspapers forced me to pay attention to language in a truly special way, to see and appreciate the uniqueness of every word.

A little over ten years ago, I developed a deep interest in Hemingway as a writer and a theorist of writing. Everything Hemingway wrote about writing has inspired me greatly. In my writing classes, I invoke Hemingway the same way a preacher invokes the sacred texts. Hemingway has taught me to love my writing course.

I want my students to experience the joy I experience in revising something I wrote, progressively making it good, or very good. Above all, I want them to experience the joy of touching other human beings through writing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Afrifest Foundation Looks Ahead

I have just returned from Minneapolis, to attend the Afrifest Foundation Open House. The Afrifest Foundation board had wanted to hold this event to inform people about the new direction that the Foundation is taking, designed to make it better than it is.

Nathan White, Executive Director, welcomed the gathering and introduced the Afrifest Foundation briefly as an organization working to bring together diverse people in Minnesota and beyond in order to learn about and celebrate the history and culture of Africans and people of African descent. Then, at his request, we took turns introducing ourselves.

Nathan continued to present an overview of the Afrifest Foundation: its origin, the dream and the journey traveled so far. He mentioned accomplishments, including successful staging of the annual Afrifest Festival, partnerships with companies, organizations and individuals. He mentioned challenges encountered along the way, such as the tendency among some Africans to focus only on their own ethnic group or country. The Afrifest Foundation has a bigger dream: promoting Pan Africanism. Nathan's introductory remarks set the tone for the meeting.

Nathan then invited me, as chairman of the Afrifest Foundation board, to offer my remarks. I talked about my experience of working with Nathan from the very beginning, and why I value stepping out of the college setting where I work, and being involved in the broader community, to both teach and learn. I highlighted the value of Afrifest for our community as a forum for learning about ourselves, our history, culture, and place in the world. I see the Afrifest Foundation as an amazing place for our young people to volunteer and do internships, activities that are highly valued in the U.S. educational system and society at large. As an educator, I contribute to the mission and vision of Afrifest Foundation through educational programming such as the Pan African historical exhibit I present during the annual festival.

I mentioned that during the Festival, I also display my books and other writings, and talk with people about African and African Diaspora culture, folklore and other subjects. I showed copies of those books around.

After my talk we had an amazing Jamaican lunch catered by S&M Catering, whose owner, Shabba, is seen on the far left, in jeans.

Then Nathan led us through the rest of the agenda: objectives, mission, keys to success, board responsibilities and new member sign up process. As the Afrifest Foundation seeks to extend its activities, it needs more board members. He invited people to sign up.

We had good conversation, sharing ideas and suggestions. Shabba joyfully reminisced about participating in Afrifest last year as a food vendor and shared ideas about promoting the Afrifest Foundation among people of various Caribbean islands. We exchanged contact information.

This was a rich and inspiring meeting, which covered much ground and left everyone with a clear sense of the importance of the mission of the Afrifest Foundation. At the end of the meeting, all the board positions were filled up. The Afrifest Foundation is poised to forge ahead in pursuit of its new vision of having not only the annual festival but several other events during the year.

For more information about the Afrifest Foundation, read this interview. There is more, such as this report of a business meeting and this record of a fashion show.