Life Finds A Way: Bodies, Futures, Embodied Futures

Professor Ruha Benjamin presented at Future Perfect, a conference sponsored by the New York City based research group, Data & Society.

Full conference summary.

Future Perfect resumed with a presentation by Ruha Benjamin, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Benjamin used speculative ethnographic field notes to deliver her talk, entitled “Designer and discarded genomes: Experimenting with sociological imagination through speculative methods.” In order to “explore the antecedents and implications of the current era of genetic engineering,” Benjamin read a series of field notes from the Human Genome Project-Write initiative, a 2016 convening at Harvard for discussing the implications and logistics of producing synthetic human genomes. Benjamin subsequently read fictional field notes from 1816 and 2216 — 200 years into the past and future, respectively.

Benjamin drew attention to the changing standards of what constitutes “human life,” using her notes from 1816 to explore ideas of “humanity” as applied to enslaved peoples during the Middle Passage. Her 2216 notes explored speculative divisions between beings modified so that they no longer have to eat, and unmodified beings which still used food as an energy source. By doing so, Benjamin had the audience consider what part of “humanity” was discarded in the context of slavery. In the future, she asked, when we have the power to design “‘ideal’ genomes, what versions of humanity are discarded?” Benjamin concluded by observing that “fictions are not falsehoods, but re-fashionings.”

 

‘African American Studies and The Lessons of Experience’

The experiential effects of American racism–the continual lived experiences of racial insult, injustice, and the denial of equal citizenship–led to concerted efforts on the part of African American scholars to pursue the study of their people through multiple academic venues and disciplinary perspectives. Joined by sympathetic white scholars in the decades ahead, they developed a growing body of research that was, in turn, deployed in the real world as a weapon against Jim Crow. The reciprocal roles of academic work and on-the-ground activism appeared prominently on American campuses with the rise of Black Studies in the 1960s and 1970s. These roles remain conjoined in new ways in the twenty-first century.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is also serving in her last year as the chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard, having held this position since 2006. Prior to coming to Harvard in 1993, Professor Higginbotham was a tenured member of the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She has enjoyed many years as a teacher, beginning her career as a public school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in Washington, DC, before moving to the university setting. She has also taught at Dartmouth College and the University of Maryland, as well as holding visiting professorships at New York University and Princeton University. At the special invitation of Duke University, she taught at the Duke Law School in academic year 2010-2011 as the inaugural John Hope Franklin Professor of American Legal History.

 

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

 

“In the new beginning was The Word.
And The Word was with Mother and Father.
And The Word was absence…”

Born in Haiti during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, Edwidge Danticat – whose parents moved to the United States when she was a child, leaving her in the care of relatives – discovered The Word at the foot of family storytellers and in the books of French language writers.  As a child, she watched that mixed literary heritage upset as well as comfort her neighbors and countrymen.  The staging of an Albert Camus play following a political murder was one of its most striking examples.

Inspired by Camus’ landmark essay “Create Dangerously” and his definition of art as “a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world,” Danticat’s lecture will focus on her experiences, and the experiences of other immigrant artists, living and working – culturally, linguistically and politically – between several sometimes violent and unfriendly worlds.

Sponsored jointly by the Department of African American Studies and Princeton University Press, the Toni Morrison Lectures spotlight the new and exciting work of scholars and writers who have risen to positions of prominence both in academe and in the broader world of letters.

The lectures are published in book form by Princeton University Press and celebrate the expansive literary imagination, intellectual adventurousness and political insightfulness that characterize the writing of Toni Morrison.

▶︎ What Was African American Marriage?

What was marriage under slavery? Professor Tera W. Hunter’s new book, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century provides an intimate glimpse of the affections and complexities of black marriage in the United States from its origins. In an illuminating conversation, Professor Tera Hunter and Professor Eddie Glaude discuss major takeaways from the book, key language introduced by Hunter, and various new understandings about African American marriage and family life from 1800 to the present day. A common assumption shared by liberal and conservative commentators alike is that low marriage rates in African American communities are a byproduct of slavery. However, Hunter’s research shows that marriage among African Americans, respected by law or not, was widely embraced in earlier times. From slavery to reconstruction, a desire to marry and build lives together factored centrally in the hearts and minds of African American men and women. After marriage was legalized following emancipation, black marriage rates started to eclipse white Americans’ by the turn of the twentieth century. Hunter suggests current declining marriage rates may best be attributed to advantages offered to some Americans, and denied to other Americans at specific, consequential junctures, such as in the wake of World War II. Bound in Wedlock is a groundbreaking book which, through an extensive archive, dismantles pathologies as it fascinates.

 

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This podcast was recorded, edited, and published by the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.

Audio Engineer & Technical Specialist: Elio Lleo
Media Specialist: Allison Bland
Music: Courtney Bryan, composer, AAS Postdoctoral Fellow alum, assistant professor of music at Tulane University