Thursday, October 2, 2014

Authors – and their works – speak to ASALH mission

Toussaint Louverture, Nathaniel Turner, Sengbe Pieh, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman are familiar iconic symbols of heroism whose struggle in the United States, Africa and the Caribbean helped to change the status quo of their day: racism and slavery.
     Celeste-Marie Bernier, the Dorothy K. Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History at the University of Memphis, traces the lives and histories of these six men and women in her book, “Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination.”
Dr. Earnest Jenkins (seated left), associate professor of art history
at the University of Memphis, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, the Dorothy
K. Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History at the university.
Currently on leave as professor of African American Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK, Bernier was among dozens of authors showcasing their literary works at the 99th Annual Association for the Study of African American Life and History Convention (ASALH).
     The four-day convention at the Peabody Hotel, Sept. 24-28, drew a smorgasbord of authors locally and nationally, including Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, who autographed copies of his books, “The Education of a Black Radical: A Southern Civil Rights Activist’s Journey, 1959-1964” and “Mine Eyes Have Seen: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Journey.”
     Although the theme of ASALH was “Civil Rights in America,” the number of authors and their scholarly works were particularly broad-based, noteworthy, and coincided with the bevy of academics, government officials, community leaders and activists in attendance.
     The struggle for civil rights and the residual effects of slavery were duly noted in many of the authors’ works and also among the vendors who stocked their booths with artifacts, art, African clothing, and educational material that was reflective of ASALH’s mission.
     The mission is “to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community.”

People aren’t telling the story…

Bernier’s work is representative of ASALH’s mission. She researches and writes extensively about racism, inequalities and slavery from the vantage point of a white Briton. There is very little difference between racism, inequalities and slavery in the United States, she said, and racism, inequalities and slavery in Great Britain.

“The big issue in Britain is empire and maniacal, aristocratic inequalities,” Bernier explained. “Growing up there as a kid I learned about slavery through people trading…and slavery was a word that was never used. So we have forces of amnesia that are still very powerful.
     “Currently, governmental practices are to remove references to black British history in favor of mythologizing a white Briton,” she said, “because, it suits current ideas around immigration and conservative policies and racists practices.
     “One of the most powerful experiences has been understanding black British histories and how fascinated black British performers and musicians are with African American histories. So many of them will ask me questions about what I know about African American life and culture.”
     Bernier’s assorted transatlantic experiences and scholarship drew her to Memphis and, of course, the ASALH convention.
     “One of the most powerful things about being in Memphis is teaching courses and research that I do about slavery… (The) city very much has a long history, and a powerful history, not only in terms of social, political, legal issues about slavery, but also music, art, photography.
     “I grew up in a French, Canadian, Irish community. When my mom was dying, she wanted to read Harry Jacob. She didn’t want to read the great white British classics,” Bernier said. “So that notion of understanding poverty and class and nationhood, I was very careful to let people know how I came to this story, why I’m interested, and what it is that I’m trying to do.” 

People aren’t telling the story, she said.

‘Repositories of ongoing history…’

During a mid-day luncheon at the convention, Bailey – lawyer, judge, civil rights activist, actor and author – relayed his experiences growing up in Memphis, participating in the sit-in movement in Louisiana, becoming a black radical and birthing the National Civil Rights Museum
     While “The Education of a Black Radical” encapsulates Bailey’s collective experiences in the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, the book “Mine Eyes Have Seen” is mostly pictorial. Both books, however, trace the author’s journey during that turbulent era.
     An avid reader, Bailey also has a penchant for writing. The world he grew up in and the struggle to overcome the vestiges of Jim Crow laws and the racist practices of its perpetrators is now fodder for his books and lectures.  
     Bailey is telling his own story, which made him the man he is today. And he is not willing to yield that narrative to someone else. The ASALH convention was important to him for that reason, he said, and also because it served as a disseminator of “information about black life, history and culture.”
     “These things are about connections and getting to know people and people getting to know you,” said Bailey. “It’s a chance to talk to people who’re interested in works of history and stories about struggles.”
     The written word is important and books can be “repositories of ongoing history,” Bailey said. For this reason, the authors book signing and the various panel discussions was the underpinning for the ASALH convention.
     “There’s a different breed of people who buy books…hold them…and read the pages,” Bailey said. “It’s more than what the information is in it. It’s an experience when you make the commitment to read a book. The important thing is understanding how the written word can be used to communicate.”

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