The Sawyer Seminar at Rutgers University–Newark held the fourth of five events scheduled for the 2022-2023 academic year, with a daylong session at Express Newark last week focused on the multilayered issue of Black Citizenship.
The program, which consisted of three panel discussions and a Black and Indigenous filmmaker screening “tour,” drew together prominent scholars, activists and educators to explore the relationship between Black communities, both native-born and immigrant, and the question of American citizenship in various contexts: through political ideologies, religious communities and shared cultural heritage.
SASN Dean Jacqueline Mattis delivered the welcoming remarks, beginning her address by recounting her own path to U.S. citizenship, starting with contemplating having to relinquish her native Jamaican passport to become a U.S. citizen, how many of the answers to questions she would be asked on the citizenship exam were unknown to most native-born U.S. citizens, and the day her graduate-school department chair, Eric Berman, at the University of Michigan drove her to her exam in Detroit. She remembered talking with Eric about the complexities of their shared and distinct identities, the complexities of becoming a citizen, the antisemitism his family navigated after emigrating to Brooklyn, their distinct gendered/racial/class/native vs. foreign-born immigration journeys, and the precarities and privileges of each of their positions.
She said the conversation about citizenship is more than about its legal definitions, that “it’s a conversation about the individual and the communal...about the existential, the relational, the sociopolitical, spiritual and historical meanings of what it is to belong to a place.” She added: “To be a citizen goes beyond the legal. It’s to be a part of a community, sometimes a community that did not contemplate your existence.”
Mattis recounted how the judge who swore in her cohort reminded them of their obligations as U.S. citizens and the conditions under which this new privilege could be revoked—or how they could be deported. Never once, Mattis said, did the judge, himself a child of European immigrants, mention the obligations the country had to them: “He did not tell us in this new bidirectional relationship, our nation has an obligation to care for, educate, remember, protect, not harm, to recognize, to uplift and honor our dignity and humanity, and honor our voices.”
To be a citizen goes beyond the legal. It’s to be a part of a community, sometimes a community that did not contemplate your existence.
The seminar continued with an in-depth discussion between Salamishah Tillet, Henry Rutgers Professor of Africana Studies and Creative Writing at RU-N, who is Co-Director of the Price Institute and Director of Express Newark, and award-winning poet, essayist, playwright and editor Claudia Rankine, a Professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University, whose book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, won the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry (along with other honors), and who was a United States Artist Zell Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow in 2016.
Tillet asked Rakine discussed Rakine’s transition to the U.S. as a child immigrant from Jamaica; Tillet’s bifurcated experience as a child in Boston, Trinidad and New Jersey; Rakine’s reading habits early on and how she got interested in writing; differences in schooling and race relations abroad and in the U.S.; writers and thinkers who influenced Rakine the most (James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich ranked high).
At one point, Tillet asked Rakine about the interweaving of the textual and visual in her work, and Rakine alluded to her childhood trauma growing up with an abusive father and how, early on in her intellectual and creative journey she gravitated toward writers like Shoshana Felman, who works in the fields of psychoanalytic literary criticism, perfomativity theory, feminism, and Holocaust testimony, and the avant-garde plays of Samuel Beckett.
“The question was, how do you bring the language of pain out, without being stuck in the actual story, and put it in the landscape as a thing that is functioning all the time for all of us on different levels, so that people are talking to you, but what they’re telling you is in a way irrelevant, but what they’re expressing is what’s important,” Rakine said, “And I became really interested in that, in how you say a thing without being caught in the narrative.”
The wide-ranging morning conversation between Tillet and Rakine was followed in the afternoon by a discussion titled, “Black Citizenship,” moderated by Hyacinth Miller, Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at RU-N, which featured Kimberley Johnson, Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU; Niambi Carter, Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park; Yarimar Bonilla, Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York; and Reuel Rogers, Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University.
The final panel of the day, titled, “Black Citizenship and Religion,” included John Jackson, Professor and Dean at the University of Pennsylvania; Zain Abdullah, Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University; Todne Thomas, Associate Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School; Carlos Decena, Professor, Latino and Caribbean Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at RU-New Brunswick; and was moderated by Wendell Marsh, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at RU-N.
The Sawyer Seminar Series, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is bringing together scholars, performers, activists and organizers from around the country to focus on a variety of topics related to natives, nativism, migration and immigration in the American city. Leading the way in organizing the series has been English Professor Belinda Edmondson, Associate Professor of History Kornel Chang, Anthropology Professor Sean Mitchell, and Africana Studies Post-doctoral fellow Bernie Lombardi, who are working with a team of RU-N graduate students and administrators to see the yearlong project through.
The fifth and final Sawyer Seminar event, titled, “Pandemic and the City,” will take place at Express Newark on April 12.
A full replay of the Black Citizenship discussions can be viewed here.