“Masters of the Word” at BMCC

November 13, 2006

Thriving cultures spawn stories, which in turn recreate those same cultures as a means of survival. On November 9, 2006, BMCC celebrated a CUNY-wide interdisciplinary conference, “The African Presence & Influence on the Cultures of the Americas.” BMCC’s segment, “Griots of the New World,” was conceived as a forum to explore the ways in which the keepers of oral tradition have influenced the cultures of the Americas and the African diaspora.

In West Africa, griots are historians, spokespersons, political advisors, and spiritual guides. They are feared and praised at the same time and called “Masters of the Word.” There are several cultures in which griots have ensured the continuation of their distinct traditions.

“Africa too often becomes a country in people’s minds, not the continent that it is,” said moderator Merle Collins. “We have neglected a very important part of our education. That is why I made my video.”

A filmmaker and Professor of Comparative Literature and English at University of Maryland, Collins paused during several phases of the screening to explain certain rituals depicted in her work, From Africa to the Caribbean: Approaching an Understanding and Appreciation of the Grenada Saraka.

During breakout sessions, the BMCC community, students, and neighbors had the opportunity to explore several different fields of discipline in examining the impact of storytelling. Other sessions touched on controversial, timely topics such as Crimes Against Humanity and Reparations.

“The program and the vibrant dialogue it encourages are very intense,” said Senior Vice President Sadie Bragg, who is hopeful about the forum’s future.

Throughout the campus, classrooms became stages set for readings, music, politics, cinema, and dance. The curtain call to the events was a musical performance conducted by Professor of Music, Eugenia Yau. In the words of one BMCC student, Jack W. Estes, “Events like these help to inform, educate, and create an awareness in everyone.”

The daylong forum came to a close with a speech from the Associate Dean of Office of Academic Affairs, Michael Gillespie, who has been conceptually instrumental as BMCC’s representative during the planning phases of the conference.

BMCC and Hostos community colleges have gotten funding from the university to put the program into print as part of a CUNY-wide effort in creating an anthology. In addition to BMCC, several other CUNY colleges took part in this interdisciplinary CUNY conference from November 6th to the 9th: Baruch College, The City College, Graduate Center, Hostos Community College, Kingsborough Community College, LaGuardia Community College, Medgar Evers College and York College.


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