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UB conference to focus on racial justice and public history

Reclaiming Our Ancestors II will include a showing of the re-enactment of the documentary "Gina's Journey: The Search for William Grimes," based on Regina Mason’s extraordinary odyssey to reclaim the pioneering narrative of her ancestor, the author of "Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave," published in New York in 1825. 

By BERT GAMBINI

Published September 26, 2017

“Each ancestor that we recognize, claim and study shifts our understanding of where we came from, where we are and where we are going.”
Kari Winter, Professor
Department of Transnational Studies

A distinguished group of scholars, filmmakers and artists will join many descendants of authors of slave narratives at UB for three days of community events, conversations and workshops on racial justice and public history being held Oct. 19-21 at various locations on UB’s campuses and throughout Buffalo.

“Reclaiming Our Ancestors II,” organized by Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies, comes two years after she convened an unprecedented gathering of the descendants of authors of slave narratives for a series of discussions, reflections and writing exercises.

The first iteration of Reclaiming Our Ancestors explored participants’ ancestral roots, bringing them back through time to re-establish the rich historical cadence of events and stories that reconnected family members to relatives whose passions and collective vision produced the largest body of literature ever written by enslaved people.

For this year’s event, Winter, who also serves as executive director of UB’s Humanities Institute, has shifted the program’s attention from an intensely personal experience involving only the descendants of these illustrious authors to a broader community event that will incorporate many voices, including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who will convey welcoming remarks to conference guests and attendees at 9 a.m. Oct. 20 in the Greenhouse Room of Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel, 391 Washington St.

Winter says this year’s Reclaiming Our Ancestors II will foster partnerships across various lines, bringing together scholars and non-scholars; the past and the present; and local and national interests and concerns.

A complete schedule of events and list of presenters is available online. Aside from an evening of jazz on Saturday, the conference is free and open to the public. Space is limited, though, and registration is required.

“The idea is to explore examples and models of creating public history and transforming spaces,” says Winter. “We’re not assuming there’s a single model that works equally well everywhere. Instead, we’ll look around the country at initiatives and achievements related to racial justice and public history, and then focus on what could be implemented locally and what’s happening locally that can serve as a model for other cities.”

Winter says Buffalo is already a point of national interest with grassroots efforts and coalition-building symbolized by organizations like PUSH Buffalo and its work to create sustainable and affordable housing, and the city’s Partnership for the Public Good, which is building relationships committed to the common good in Buffalo.

“There are also many different gardening and urban agricultural groups working with UB faculty,” says Winter. “It might seem unexpected that urban agriculture is connected to racial justice, but food is a central issue for people and where they come from — it’s also one of the areas in which we can most immediately appreciate the value of diversity.”

In fact, the luncheon on Friday will include a discussion of food as a source of cultural memory, with presentations by three participants — Susi Ryan, Sharon Leslie Morgan and Nadia Shahram — who have published cookbooks in addition to their other work in the fields of history and racial justice.

Reclaiming Our Ancestors II will probe possibilities couched within the individual words of its title, each with implications that, for Winter, stretch across the program’s overarching goals.

Since the 1970s, “reclaiming” has been a central strategy of feminist and civil rights scholars to discover what has been lost, overcome silences and call attention to what has been neglected or disappeared.

Though the conference focuses first on African-American history, the pronoun “our” pushes participants to consider the politics of who is included and who is excluded, and to move toward understanding that all life is interconnected.

“Ancestors,” explains Winter, is a concept that invokes intellectual and cultural genealogies, as well as biological lineage. Ancestry helps explain humanity by honoring the reality and limitations of our predecessors.

“Each ancestor that we recognize, claim and study shifts our understanding of where we came from, where we are and where we are going,” she says. “Although the vast majority of the past remains unknown, the truths of our lives are vastly enriched when we understand and appreciate a wider array of particular stories and gain awareness of more aspects of the whole fabric of the past.

“That’s why it’s so important that our imaginations and landscapes and cityscapes be populated by a rich and appropriately diverse array of acknowledgement of where we come from.”

Like the first groundbreaking event, Reclaiming Our Ancestors II is sponsored by UB’s Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender and the university’s Humanities Institute. It is also co-sponsored by a major programming grant from UB’s Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy.

The first event captured the attention of national media, such as The New York Times and NPR.

The intensity of 2015’s workshop created a bond among participants that matured into a nation network. It was an inspiring success, and duplicating, or surpassing, that achievement, says Winter, is an imperative more important today than it was two years ago.

“What’s so interesting and unfortunate is that all the issues we talked about at the first workshop have become so much more important two years later,” she says. “The resurgence of white supremacy and the battle over Confederate statues are two issues that demonstrate that what we worked on then is today all the more incredibly urgent.”

With her current interest exploring the connections among past, present and future, Winter says the presence of descendants of authors of slave narratives, again at this year’s event, brings those temporal perspectives into full, unified view.

“We see where this comes together when we meet someone like Lynne Jackson, a descendent of Dred and Harriet Scott, who is working to both preserve the achievements and importance of their struggle for freedom in light of the atrocity of the country’s worst Supreme Court decision [Dred Scott v. Sandford] and the worst imaginable legal statement of racism in American history, when the court said a black man, free or enslaved, had no rights that the white man was bound to respect,” she says.

“Lynne worked successfully to have a statue of Dred and Harriet Scott installed in front of the courthouse in St. Louis [where Dred Scott initially sued for his freedom in 1846] and she has organized dialogues about slavery and race with descendants of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who issued that horrific statement.”

Winter says her hope is that Reclaiming Our Ancestors II will move African-American history toward occupying a more central stage in our imaginations and in our cityscapes.

“We have an opportunity with this gathering to open channels between the past and the present that are important in every community,” she says. “Having these conversations can help us move toward the future in a healthier and more just way.”