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Spring 2000

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Debating Afro-America

The Rev. Eugene Rivers and Darryl Pinkney confer as the three-day Afro-America forum winds to a close.

     S kidmore in February was the site of an intensive, sometimes passionate forum to assess “Afro-America at the Start of a New Century.”

     Sponsored by Salmagundi, the journal published at Skidmore, the three-day forum brought together 21 leading authors, critics, and scholars from across the U.S., including several well-known and controversial figures in the national debate on race, such as Harvard sociologist and author Orlando Patterson, activist clergyman Eugene Rivers, and radical journalist Jill Nelson. After a Friday-evening opening session, the wide-ranging discussion—involving all participants at a large horseshoe-shaped table—continued in three more sessions during the weekend. The forum drew large audiences, and transcripts will be published in a special fall 2000 issue of Salmagundi.

     The agenda ranged from gender relations to rap music to the role of the black church, from educational testing to “community” in the ghetto to the lingering effects of slavery. A common starting point for the discussions was Patterson’s recent book Rituals of Blood, which attributes the root of many problems in Afro-America to a crisis in gender relations and a breakdown in the family. Forum organizer Robert Boyers, Tisch Professor of Arts and Letters, acknowledges, “This is very sensitive material,” and adds, “Quite understandably, numbers of participants were reluctant to dwell at length on some of the more disturbing features of Patterson’s book.” While some argued that the focus on family unduly excluded alternative institutions (from homosexual partnerships to the church), others replied that alternative institutions should be respected only if they can provide the nurturing and support that so many black children are evidently missing.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers and Darryl Pinkney confer as the three-day Afro-America forum winds to a close.

     For conference co-chair Ann Seaton, assistant professor of English and associate editor of Salmagundi, it was “fascinating and educative just to see these very intelligent people, from opposite ends of the spectrum on some issues, come together in one room and struggle to agree even on a basic vocabulary for discussion.” Seaton was also impressed by the audience, especially the Skidmore students. “I was proud of them. They asked some great questions, and I thought they ‘got it’ better than the panelists sometimes, because they were comfortable with these issues and very open to the whole experience.”

     After 13 hours of debate—punctuated by moments of laughter, a few “pointed and painful exchanges,” and even “a barrage of angry epithets”—Boyers says, “the meeting reached nothing remotely resembling a consensus.” Many did seem to agree, however, that Patterson’s book points out important new directions to explore in the effort to improve the conditions of black America. In any case, says Seaton, the panelists’ wide range of disciplines and styles of argumentation, and the vigor of their debate, “engaged and energized everybody. For days afterward, people were milling around the hallways talking about it. I’ve been around the block at a lot of race conferences and forums,” she laughs, “and this one was unique.” —SR

 


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