Humanities Festival Offers Array of Migration Stories

Buffalo's 198 String Band

Published October 2, 2014

The first Buffalo Humanities Festival, “Immigration Nation,” took place on September 26 and 27, engendering discussion on a topic that UB Humanities Institute Director Erik Seeman called “important, timely, and maybe a little controversial.”

“Dazzling. It’s an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success.”
Meg Wolitzer
NPR

Seeman explained that the aim of the festival was to get people talking about immigration in an open and multifaceted way, which it accomplished through scholar talks, music, art, dance, and even cuisine. “People did a great job communicating in clear, interesting language,” he said, adding that he has already received feedback from many participants who found the festival enlightening. “The level of the talks was pitched just right,” added Seeman. “Most of the faculty came from Western New York universities, but the talks were pitched at a nonacademic community, designed from the ground up with the community in mind.”

Festival events actually kicked off on Monday, September 22, with a book discussion of Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure, hosted at Betty’s restaurant and led by UB English Professor Joseph Conte. NPR’s Meg Wolitzer calls the book “Dazzling. It’s an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success.” This discussion was followed up on Friday, September 26 with a visit from the author, who conducted a reading at the Albright-Knox Gallery with an on-stage interview and book signing afterwards.

But the Humanities Festival featured much more than books. Friday’s events also included a screening of Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), directed by Marc Silver and starringGael Garcia Bernal.

The docudrama concerns migrants caught in the desert near the U.S.-Mexico border. Short films touched on disparate topics, including Native American families in Western New York and Ontario (Unseen Tears, 2009); deportation (Sin Pais, 2010); internment camps during WWII (The Caretaker, 2012); and displacement due to Hurricane Katrina (Home, 2009). Music and dance performances showcased the culture and history of Guinea, India, and the Dust Bowl, among others. Speakers gave talks on topics ranging from the Jewish immigration experience, to twentieth-century migration patterns of blacks in the United States, to deportation in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Additionally, the festival offered less formal discussions with local immigrants from Sudan, Burma, and Liberia, and Trinidad.

Seeman was so encouraged by the success of this year’s Humanities Festival that he hopes to do another one next year, with featured guest Jill Lepore, American History professor at Harvard University and contributor to the New Yorker. The festival was presented by the UB Humanities Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences in partnership with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Canisius College, SUNY Buffalo State, SUNY Fredonia and Niagara University. Additional sponsorship was provided by the John R. Oshei Foundation, the UB Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, the New York State Council for the Humanities and The Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies and Jewish Family Services.