By TRACY ARCARO
The American Historical Association, the Community College Humanities Association and the Library organized the conference "Interactions: Regional Studies, Global Processes and Historical Analysis," which was held at the Library on Feb. 28–March 3. The conference is the second phase of an effort that began with the 1999 institute for community college faculty, also held at the Library, called, "Globalizing Regional Studies." Both phases were funded by the Ford Foundation.
As conference Co-director Jerry Bentley said, the conference attempted to "twist the lens a bit and look at the past from a different point of view." Mr. Bentley explained that for 150 years professional historians searched archives for information that dealt with national communities: "Imagine what it would be like if, for those 150 years, historians had been going into the archives and looking for information and stories about the experiences that cross national boundary lines. Our understanding of the past would be completely different."
Colin Palmer, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, opened the conference with his keynote address on how people construct identity. For his examination of the topic, Mr. Palmer focused on how the children born in America from African slaves framed an image of their homeland and how the writers before the end of slavery constructed images of Africa.
The images of Africa found in the writings during the time before 1863 came mainly from clergymen, Mr. Palmer explained. He added that interpreters of history "must be cautious about making absolute statements about the representativeness of the clergymen's observations."
Although these African American intellectuals referred to Africa as a country, Mr. Palmer said that most writers today would not refer to the continent of Africa as a country and would be sensitive to the claims of each country's cultural religions.
African American writers before the end of slavery were, as Mr. Palmer said, mostly American born and were writing while the majority of their people were enslaved. Mr. Palmer explained that looking at the construction of identity through the writings of these people is necessary, because "we sometimes tend not to focus on how people shaped identities and how they framed images of themselves."
The writings of the African American intellectuals, according to Mr. Palmer, were influenced by the culture in which the writers were socialized, by the content of their formal education and by Christian principles they embraced. There were differences in the opinions of the writers, but "they all struggled to contest white definitions of themselves." This definition, he said, was the negative picture that African Americans were inferior to the peoples of European descent.
Mr. Palmer said that some writers focused on showing how Africa had a history of achievement prior to its decline. In 1815, William Hamilton wrote that "Africa can boast of her antiquity, philosophers, artists, statesmen, generals, curiosities, stupendous buildings and once widespread commerce."
Some African American writers, according to Mr. Palmer, blamed the fall of Africa on white Europeans because of the slave trade, which crushed the peace and happiness of African civilization.
Other African American writers, he said, attributed responsibility to Africans themselves: "As Christians, such commentators bemoaned the absence of Christian beliefs among the majority of the African peoples." An acceptance of Christianity in Africa would, according to the beliefs of these intellectuals, lead to Africa's redemption and regeneration.
Mr. Palmer said that the intellectuals who believed this theory realized that to accept Christianity would mean that Africa would have to rid itself of its own religions and change its social arrangements. However, Palmer explained, African American Christians thought that the embrace of Christianity would lead to moral improvement.
Mr. Palmer explained that not all African American intellectuals blamed religion or a group of people. Some writers expressed the view that Africa's rise and fall was only a part of the order of things—civilizations rise and fall.
The representations by the few African American writers of the time are not the only images of Africa present before 1863. Mr. Palmer said, "One clue that there were other constructions of Africa may reside in the names that African Americans gave to many of the organizations that they founded before 18b63 … suggesting an embrace of African heritage." He cites two Christian denominations as examples: the African Methodist Episcopal and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches.
Mr. Palmer's address on identity not only showed how there were varying views of Africa in the early 19th century, but also that an examination of another's culture requires a focus on that culture alone: "The distressing thing is that far too many writers, black and white, still view Africa and Africans through a Western and Christian lens."
During the three-day conference, scholars presented papers and discussed ideas focusing on different aspects of history. Each of the three days was devoted to a theme: "Movement of People, Ideas and Goods," "Networks and Connections Beyond the Nation State" and "Reconfigurations of ‘Area' and ‘State': Implications and Interactions." The three themes were divided into three sections each, Commercial Exchanges, Cultural Exchanges and Migration Diasporas; International Networks, Commercial Networks and Cultural Networks; and Constructions of Regions, Alternatives to the Conventionally Recognized Themes and Globalization.
Ms. Arcaro is on detail to The Gazette, the Library's staff newspaper.