Diaspora dissected in Black History Month keynote talk

By Jonathan McJunkin

On Wednesday night, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, the founding chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at UMass Amherst and a prominent figure in the non-violent civil rights movement, gave the keynote address for Macalester’s celebration of Black History Month. Thelwell spoke on African Diaspora in a speech that was promoted as “everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.” Professor Thelwell is a prominent scholar in his field. His most recent major work is “Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggle of Stokely Carmichael,” and he also wrote the acclaimed novel ‘The Harder They Come” about the life of Rhygin, a folk hero in his native Jamaica.

During his talk before the modest crowd in Kagin Hall Thelwell had the air of an engaging professor giving a lecture. Throughout the talk he moved around the stage and often spoke without notes, and would often rhetorically ask, “Why am I talking about this?” before moving into an explanation of his train of thought.

At the start of the address, Thewall joked that it was “Great to be here at Carleton-it’s also great to be in Wisconsin with all that’s going on write now.”

Joking aside, Thelwell remarked at the end of the speech that he was impressed by all the classes he visited during his stay at Macalester. “The students seemed to be engaged and creative,” he said, “and having been around the academy for many years I’m usually cynical about these things.”

He began his talk on African diaspora by defining the term as it would be used in his discussion. “There is a contemporary diaspora currently going on caused by changing climate or economic and political upheavals,” said Thelwell, “but for the purposes of this discussion we will focus on historical diaspora.”

The etomology of the word diaspora was used as a metaphor for it’s multifaceted nature. Meaning essentially “to scatter seeds” from the Greek, the term was first used to describe the Jewish experience with exile from Babylon. “Scattering seeds doesn’t just imply displacement, it implies sowing the growth of those seeds latter,” said Thelwell, alluding to the often-neglected influence of African culture throughout the diaspora that he would discuss later.

Thelwell spoke throughout the talk of what he saw as the central myth of African diaspora-that through the displacement of the slave trade, the influence of original African culture was largely lost. He quoted Stokely Carmichael to frame his counter-argument: “Naked and chained we have come, but surely we did not come defenseless.”

Thelwell summed up the myth and the argument against it. “As an element of the exodus of slavery, they lost the values and customs of their culture-we simply have to look at contemporary reality to see that that is not the case,” he said.

“Europeans Rule, Africans Govern” was a summary phrase Thelwell used to describe the situation in many of the countries of African diaspora, such as Jamaica and Brazil, both historically and contemporarily.

“The ruling institutions may be controlled by Eurpoeans-the courts, the most valuable land, formal religion” said Thelwell, “but the most important elements of culture, those elements of society that aren’t related to rule, are distinctly African. The popular religions, the music, the values, the culinary tradition, even the architecture.”

“In many of these countries, one could say that Africa colonized Europe,” said Thelwell, referring to the role of the culture of Africa in the diaspora.

Thelwell summarized the reasons for African culture’s survival in the countries of diaspora close to the equator focusing on key concepts geography, demographics, and religion.

The bulk of Thelwell’s speech, after this background historical information, was illustrative stories of African Diaspora and examples of quality scholarship around the issue. Often both of these served to belie what he sees as the dominant narrative of diaspora.

The stories included that of a woman who was an influential religious leader in Brazil after being sold into slavery by rivals in a power struggle. When approached by a delegation of her son, the king of her native village, with an offer to return, she declined. Thelwell used this story to illustrate the way African culture was able to gain influence even after diaspora.

Thelwell mentioned a number novels and scholarly works dealing with diaspora that he recommended for futher study, such as the novel The African by Harold Courlander. He said it was unfortunate that such works were not very well known in the general narrative, while novels such as The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Stryron, which he called a “travesty,” win Pulitzer Prizes.

“There’s a lot of scholarship out there,” said Thelwell, “but it seems that some of the most important books don’t make it into the canon.”

Thelwell ended his address with a discussion of diaspora in contemporary life. He spoke at length on the challenges of living in a time of massive human displacement and movement, and of the contradictions of cultural preservation in the information age-referring to what he sees as the rise of a universal culture through the internet.

“What that’s going to mean, I don’t really know,” said Thelwell, “those are the questions that your generation has to deal with.