About the Institute

Black Aesthetics and African-Centered Cultural Expressions: Sacred Systems in the Nexus between Cultural Studies, Religion and Philosophy

July 13-August 1, 2014
Emory University, Atlanta, GA

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The Interdisciplinary Project on African Diasporic Culture, Religion and Art (IPADCRT) is a three-week summer institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities for college and university faculty to engage in, study, and collaborate around the topic of Black Aesthetics and Cultural Expressions.  The institute will focus on the development of African-based sacred systems in the nexus between cultural studies, religion, and philosophy, and their influence on the arts.  Indeed, the artistic expression of African diasporic peoples, and the narratives of being and belonging responsible for shaping individual and collective identities are found in the visual, performance, fine and applied, and folk arts.

The institute will offer twenty-five college and university teachers an opportunity to participate in lectures, workshops, and public performances led by celebrated historians, literary religious studies scholars, and artists in an effort to understand the meanings associated with black art, its production, and its ongoing relevance as a medium of liberation.  NEH Summer Scholars will address concepts and ideas grounded in traditional scholarship and folkways, discussions related to the black aesthetic and cultural practices, while seeking ways to broaden and revive interest in this area of scholarship for future research and intellectual inquiry.

The institute will be based on the Emory University campus from July 13-August 1, 2014.  NEH Summer Scholars will be required to attend all meetings and to engage fully in the work of the institute.  During the institute, NEH Summer Scholars are not allowed to undertake teaching assignments or any other professional activities that are not directly related to their institute participation. To defray the costs of attendance, all NEH Summer Scholars will receive a stipend of $2,700 to help cover travel, housing, and food.  Half of this amount will be distributed upon arrival at the institute and the remainder will be distributed after successful completion of the institute.  These stipends are taxable.  NEH Summer Scholars who, for any reason, do not complete the full tenure of the institute will be required to return a pro-rated portion of their stipend.

Intellectual Rationale

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By hypothesis, ethnic and social identities are constituted by multidimensional elements.  Many such elements provide a basis for our ability to identify persons and groups, cultures and their artifacts as European or African, for example, or as European American or African American.  The elements involved, ranging from physiology to culture, emerge from each group’s historical-cultural origins, and from the distinctive psycho-social and bio-environmental factors involved in its subsequent development.  An exercise in critical theory could involve determining the minimal complement of such elements, without which an ethnic or social identity is inchoate; that is, does not cohere—or is incoherent as a culturally identifiable reality.   The term ‘reality’ used in connection with culture and identity opens up, of course, the issue of so-called ‘essences’ or essentialist construals of ethnic and social identity.  By contrast there are social constructivist perspectives that view all such identities as culturally constructed rather than essentially constituted.

Moreover, from an existentialist perspective or philosophy, human nature itself is only partially determined by psychobiology, or by physiology and environment as baseline factors.  Posterior to that generative base human nature becomes a culturally constructed reality, as expressed by the existentialist manifesto that ‘existence precedes essence’ (Sartre) and not vice versa.  The converse in classical Western philosophy is evident in such definitions of human essence as ‘rational animal’ (Aristotle) and in any number of variations on homo sapiensthe human being as knower, including significantly homo poetes (cf. poet), homo faber (maker), homo ludens (player), and so on.  From this point of departure, how do we claim that art works and cultural-religious expression generally including productions and performances, also convey discrete and identifiable ethnic and social identities?  Are such expressive identities a matter of essences or social construction or both?  (For example are we both homo religious—wherein to be human is to be religious?—and also creators of religion; as in Durkheim’s ‘man makes religion’ versus ‘religion makes man?’)  As regards African heritage identities, or specifically African diaspora cultural creations and their religious substrata, a minimum complement of such ‘Afrocentric’ (Asante) elements or ‘essentials’ might include a familiar catalogue such as:

  • ‘Flash of the Spirit,’ the energy that ‘makes the god’ present, or ‘makes something spiritual’—its ashé (Yoruba); cf. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit; Jahn, Muntu
  • Call and response, the antiphonal back-and-forth between sound or ‘word,’ and its response or enactment, e.g., in preaching, oratory, music, and movement, kinetics or action (activism?); cf. Harrison, Drama of Nommo
  • Improvisation as a creative imperative, vs. mono-cultural repetition or transmission of something received ; e.g., jazz, gospel, ‘soul music’ renditions of preceding forms or versions

Of course there is no need prematurely to limit such a catalogue; a heuristic (seek-and-find) attitude is far preferable.  Nor need we claim some sort of ethnological uniqueness for any of its elements.   Rather than argue uniqueness for any feature or set of features we need only posit a distinctive deployment of any that conveys culturally identifiable contents.  By hypothesis such contents may comprise either empirically verifiable referents (e.g., a blues tune derived from a West African work song) on the one hand, or ‘significations’ on the other—whether imputed ethnic content is verifiable or not—in order to qualify something as African, African-derivative or African-continuous.

In sum, Afro-American and African Diaspora comparative ethnography of the sort that the anthropologist Melville Herskovits practiced, emphasizing the analysis of New World objects against the African background, has tended to flatten history and “process.” The question of discontinuity, as opposed to an assumed historical continuity based on visual similarities, is skirted (see Mintz and Price 1992; Price and Price 1980; Palmié 1993); as well, an object’s meaning and value, which are contextual, not essential, change with changing discursive formations. Rather than considering the production of black aesthetic and African centered cultural expressions and their meanings as essential and continuous through time, we need to see these things, as protean objects of ongoing reconstitution.

NEH Summer Scholars will engage in a critical examination of primary sources, the development of African-based sacred systems in the nexus between cultural studies, religion, and philosophy, and their influence on the arts. Participants will attend lectures, workshops and public performances led by celebrated historians, scholars, and artists in an effort to understand the meanings associated with black art, its production, and its ongoing relevance as a medium of liberation.  As part of the institute, participants will be required to develop a syllabus and lesson plans, a research project, or a collaborative exercise between disciplines and their respective fields, which utilizes the concepts and ideas discussed over the duration of the program.

Institute Schedule

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Note: Guest speakers are being confirmed. Please check back. Full schedule of workshops and events TBA. 

View or download a preliminary schedule of events (11/19/13).


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