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This weekend, the Department of Africana Studies celebrated its one-year anniversary with a two-day conference titled “Future of the Field.”

On Friday evening, Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin put one foot in the past and the other in the future as she delivered the event’s keynote speech to a packed room in Claudia Cohen Hall.

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Griffin focused heavily on the institutional aspects of the progress made by the field of Africana studies. While she was pleased that predominantly white institutions and universities had incorporated black studies within the past 25 years, she was worried about “false representations of our past.”

“Popular culture narratives rewrite African American history as a triumphant narrative that leads directly to the election of the nation’s first black president while at best [marginalizing] the more radical elements of struggle, or at worst demonizing or actually lying about them,” she said.

She noted instances such as President Barack Obama’s remarks during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington as examples of detail marginalization. In this speech, Obama said that the nation’s perception of black “desire for government support,” “poverty” and the “bigotry of others” were barriers to their progress. Griffin pointed out that the president had not addressed key factors of their struggle such as deindustrialization, police brutality and defunded public schools.

Looking towards the future, Griffin expressed a desire for people from different fields such as anthropology, history and the arts to work together to create an “informed conversation” in Africana studies. “Institutional projects, in addition to nurturing our individual research … could house, could incubate [and] could fund collaborative dialogues, discussion, working groups and projects that are less about the production of new work as it is about taking the time to read works that we haven’t had time to read,” she said.

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Penn anthropology doctoral candidate Amber Henry said she already saw unity in the field, but appreciated Griffin’s hopes for increased cooperation.

“[Africana studies is] not only collaborative in the kind of work we do, but collaborative in the nature and spirit of being academics together,” she said. “We support each other and have one another’s backs.”

Norah Gross, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education, also valued the solidarity of the field.

“I appreciate the idea that Africana studies is a field that recruits, especially [because I am not] a person of color,” she said.

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Griffin saw the department’s conference as a hopeful sign of what is to come.

“This symposium has modeled what I hope is the future of Africana studies, as a space where we are made smarter and better by the conversations, debates and the dialogues we have and the actions we will pursue together,” she said.

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