Writing Diaspora at Keene State

Keene State College hosted a diverse, ambitious, and accomplished group of scholars and artists on campus this semester. Their innovative, visionary work provoked extended discussions about home and belonging—but also ancestral memory and lost homeland. Our intellectual community coalesced around issues of historical disruption, geographic dispersion, and diasporic kinship.

Through poetry, music, dance, film, memoir, and fiction, we examined how art and imagination influence strategies of resistance and deepen our understandings of social justice. We considered how new technologies connect us instantly to distant points in space and time, propelling the fragmentation of everyday life. Such a constellation of ideas brought into focus new insights about the displacement and recovery of memory, of voice.

The first few weeks of 2015 set the tone for the semester. The American Studies department sponsored a film series for Black History Month, including Baraka’s Dutchman, the documentary Take this Hammer (featuring James Baldwin), and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. An encore screening of Paris is Burning was shown by popular demand. On the radio, I played four single-artist shows—J Dilla, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday—tracing a vanguard lineage from hip-hop to the blues.

This year, we celebrated one hundred years of Lady Day and fifty years of Black Power. We marked the golden anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and King’s march from Selma to Montgomery. Keene State’s office diversity and multiculturalism, led by Dottie Morris, hosted events each week recognizing our radical history and reflecting on current crises of systemic injustice and state violence.

Many programs were offered in memory of the Civil Rights activist and seminary student Jonathan Daniels, born here in Keene, who participated in the Selma march. Daniels was murdered by a deputy sheriff (another unpaid volunteer, it’s worth noting) in the summer of 1965 while protesting segregation and black disenfranchisement in Alabama. The local historical society currently features an exhibit of religious art by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy praising the heroes, and especially the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

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In March, I journeyed with a colleague to Amherst, MA, where Sister Sonia Sanchez, herself a veteran activist and prophetic poet, performed with the New Africa House Ensemble (look for video, hopefully, coming soon). After their set, Sanchez, John H. Bracy, and James Smethurst gave talks drawn from their recent co-edited Black Arts anthology. The book is an instant classic. Sister Sanchez, as ever, brought fire to the mic. The seven-piece band, in a tight pocket, laid down standards like “Naima” and “Maiden Voyage” as a point of departure. Stunning artwork by Brenda Jones hung in the Augusta Savage gallery, contributing a visual dynamic to the inter-arts collaboration.

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The following week, Keene State hosted the Jamaican critic, novelist, poet, and filmmaker Imani Tafari-Ama, who spoke on Rastafari theology, race and slavery, gender identity, reggae music, and the postcolonial evolution of Jamaican culture and politics. Her recent novel, Up for Air, deals with the 2010 Tivoli Incursion—in which at least 73 civilians died during a police manhunt for Christopher Dudus Coke. Her emphasis on historical trauma and gendered violence makes her work an essential counterpart to Marlon James’ celebrated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which deals with masculinity, gang violence, and geopolitics in a similar fictional/historical mode–in his case revolving around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley. Tafari-Ama give riveting lectures and also performed her work alongside students who rapped poems penned in her honor.

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Around the same time, the Keene is Reading program held a lecture by our resident jazz impresario and musicologist, Julian Gerstein, an expert on diasporic percussion—especially that of Martinique. He gave an incisive reading of the thematic role of music in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah (the Keene is Reading text for the year) and spoke about Fela Kuti’s radical politics and postcolonial philosophy, forged in part through his family’s leftist affiliations and emboldened by his experiences with the Black Panthers in California. For additional context, we watched and discussed the film adaptation of Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Nigerian Civil War. That conflict remains divisive; the film’s release in Nigeria was delayed by the government.

Following a short recess for spring break, our campus rallied with several more standout performances. Choreographer Robert Moses and his Kin troupe presented the New England premiere of Nevabawarldapece (Neva-B-A-Warld-A-Pece) at the Redfern, our vibrant performing arts center. Moses’ work, composed in collaboration with Carl Hancock Rux and Laura Love, explores collective action and social movements across the twentieth century. Leading a discussion with students and faculty, the choreographer explained that he was particularly inspired by the difficult moments—the low points—in these struggles. He pinpointed the frustration that drew student activists to the Black Power Movement.

It was only two days later that poet Afaa Michael Weaver visited the English Department to lead classes and read from his profoundly transforming work. Recently published, City of Eternal Spring fulfills a trilogy that includes The Government of Nature and The Plum Flower Dance. Weaver also read from A Hard Summation, a suite of thirteen poems that covers African American history from the Middle Passage to the present. He spoke about discovering his genetic heritage and the conscious impact of his working-class roots in Baltimore. He emphasized rootedness in place, but also travel and worldliness. Weaver talked about his spiritual practice and the importance of cultivating mindfulness, but cautioned, too, that the pursuit of peace necessitates painful confrontation.

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The same week, the poet Peter Balakian spoke and read from his memoir, Black Dog of Fate, which tells of his coming to awareness of his family’s escape from the Armenian Genocide. The book reckons with historical trauma and explores what it means to create and inhabit diasporic identity. This month marks the centennial of the beginning of that atrocity, reminding us of the political stakes of memory.

The weekend presented an essential opportunity to unwind at the Vermont Jazz Center. Chilean tenor player Melissa Aldana and the Crash Trio (bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela) lit up Brattleboro’s best music venue. The group’s intense beauty was fueled by their fierce improvisational chops and cohesion, complemented by more meditative grooves and freer tangents.

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April brought us to the culminating event for the Keene Is Reading program, which featured two major Nigerian fiction writers: E.C. Osondu and Helon Habila. I first read Habila’s work during graduate school; we met just after I returned from Nigeria and discussed literature, music, and Lagos. His latest novel, Oil on Water, is an environmental thriller about the devastating ecological, cultural, and political impacts of oil extraction in the Niger delta. The novel achieves a remarkable balance between narrative momentum, aesthetic innovation, and political imperative.

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Osondu’s book of short stories, Voice of America, navigates Nigerian and American consciousness and culture in the context of transatlantic migrations. His characters cross and re-cross borders, face cultural alienation and systemic oppression, and yet remain true to their personalities, humor, and ambition. The British edition of his recent novel, This House is Not For Sale, features an original painting by Lemi Gheriokwu, who designed album covers for Fela Kuti.

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Many thanks to Keene State’s English and American Studies departments and the entire Arts and Humanities faculty, especially Mike Antonucci, Emily Robins Sharpe, and Bill Stroup. Dottie Morris and Sharon Fantl deserve vast credit for their programming and community outreach. I am thankful for students’ serious engagement with these pressing issues of cultural difference, creative expression, and political change. And I write with profound gratitude to the many artists and scholars who contributed to the intellectual life of Keene State College this semester.

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Yesterday marked the inaugural voyage for my radio show on the campus station, WKNH Keene, sailing the airwaves at 91.3 FM every Thursday from 4-6pm. The students from my Caribbean Literature and Music class encouraged me to start the show, and it was one of them who trained and tested me last week, so I dedicated my first show to the course and played two hours of Caribbean music. Of course it’s not comprehensive, but this isn’t an assignment, after all.

The show streams live at wknh.org. But unless I’m spinning all vinyl, I’ll make the playlists with Spotify and embed them here for your streaming enjoyment.

Afro-Cuban Allstars

When Alejo Carpentier published the first major survey of Cuban Music in 1945, he knew that much remained unsaid. “Much will be added” he wrote, “when scienteists undertake the study of the continent’s music and its African roots.” He goes on to demonstrate that the musical culture of the Americas had already influenced Europe. Rhythms known to have existed in the 17th century–and in all likelihood much, much earlier–persist today.


And yet, there are still difficulties for any rigorous analysis of Cuban music, and especially for examining the powerful Afro-Cuban strain in that tradition. Antonio Benítez-Rojo explains that “The main obstacles to any global study of the Caribbean’s societies, insular or continental, are exactly those things that scholars usually adduce to define the area: its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity; its contingency and impremanence; its syncretism, etc. This unexptected mix of obstacles and properties is not, of course, mere happenstance.” Rather, it is a result of imperialism and colonialism.

Carpentier was well aware of this. He describes the vilification of African cultural heritage over the course of centuries, detailing the prohibition against African religion, language, and drums (which combined the two). He explains the racial basis of social stratification in Cuba. Carpentier writes: “All these factors contributed to the attitude held by well-heeled men of mistrusting all matters black, and since they were not inclined to ask difficult questions, they did not notice that high on the scaffolds, in the heat of the foundries, under the sun of the rock quarries, or in the coachman’s seat, an entire sea of humanity was on the move, a people who conserved their poetic and musical traditions.”

With a confidence and forthrightness uncharacteristic in its time, Carpentier deemed these traditions “quite worthy” of study.

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To study the region’s supposed fragmentation and instability, Benítez-Rojo proposes the notion of chaos as a framework for approaching such complexities. “In truth,” he writes, “the field in which Chaos may be observed is extremely vast, for it includes all phenomena that depend on the passage of time; Chaos looks toward everything that repeats, reproduces, grows, decays, unfolds, flows, spins, vibrates, seethes; it is as interested in the evolution of the solar system as in the stock market’s crashes, as involved in cardiac arrhythmia as in the novel or in myth.”

Music, or course, is temporal by nature, and so becomes a nexus of cultural practices and performances. Benítez-Rojo explains: “Nature is the flux of an unknowable feedback machine that society interrupts constantly with the most varied and noisy rhythms. Each rhythm is itself a flux cut through by other rhythms, and we can pursue fluxes upon rhythms endlessly. Well then, the culture of the Peoples of the Sea is a flux interrupted by rhythms which attempt to silence the noises with which their own social formation interrupts the discourse of Nature.” This is the difference between rhythm and polyrhythm. Cuban music, in other words, interrupts nature–ironically–even as it mirrors it.

Inhabiting this “paradoxical space,” one has “the illusion of experincing a totality, there appear to be no repressions or contradictions; there is no desire other than that of maintaing oneself within the limits of this zone for the longest possible time, in free orbit, beyond imprisonment or liberty.”

This was precisely the effect of the Afro-Cuban Allstars’ performance; the audience was suspended, even transformed by their polyrhythm and counterpoint.

Still, the implications of the polyrhythmic concept, for Benítez-Rojo, are more far-reaching. He suggests that “rhythm, in the codes of the Caribbean, precedes music, including percussion itself. It is something that was already there, amid the noise; something very ancient and dark to which the drummer’s hand and the drumhead connect on a given moment; a kind of scapegoat, offered in sacrifice, which can be glimpsed in the air when one lets himself be carried away by a battery of batá drums.”

With deliberate gestures they demonstrated the je ne sais quoi, the unspeakable dimensions of diasporic cultures of improvisation. Benítez-Rojo again explains: “When a people’s culture conserves ancient dynamics that play ‘in a certain kind of way,’ these resist being displaced by external territorializing forms and they propose to coexist with them through syncretic processes… But aren’t such processes perhaps a denaturing phenomenon? False. They are enriching, since they contribute to the widening of the play of differences. To begin with, there is no pure cultural form, not even the religious ones. Culture is a discourse, a language, and as such it has no beginning or end and is always in transformation, since it is always looking for the way to signify what it cannot manage to signify.”