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Last modified: Friday, March 24, 2006

Year-long faculty, student research effort culminates in "Variations on Blackness” conference

March 24, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Crash, a provocative film that received the Oscar this year for best picture, depicted the sometimes volatile intersections of race relations in Los Angeles and, ultimately, the United States. A major conference next week organized by Indiana University will examine the different shades of race and highlight the ways in which this difficult subject can be discussed more broadly.

"Variations on Blackness," to be held Thursday (March 30) to April 1 on the IU Bloomington campus, is an interdisciplinary, international conference on race-making in the modern world. Presenters will address the circumstances behind the various meanings of blackness in different cultural contexts, from what it means in the United States to the definitions at work in Cuba, South Africa, India and elsewhere.

With the exception of an event at the IU Art Museum, all conference sessions will be at the Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. Seventh St. "Variations on Blackness" is free and open to the public, but registration is required. To register or for more information, go to

The conference marks the culmination of a year-long initiative hosted by the IU Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, and it is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the College Arts & Humanities Institute, the Multidisciplinary Ventures Fund of the Office of the Dean of the Faculties, the Office of the Chancellor and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

This initiative includes a year-long faculty workshop on the same subject and a year-long graduate research seminar. The conference, the faculty workshop and the graduate seminar are meant to produce new knowledge about the African diaspora and, more specifically, about the various meanings of race in the modern world.

To begin the conference, in combination with a reception and special exhibit gallery tour at the IU Art Museum, Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and a special consultant for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, will deliver a keynote lecture on Thursday.

Gaither's lecture, "'Still Life Revisited' and Other Adventures in Iconography; The Art of Eldzier Cortor," will begin at 5 p.m. in the Whittenberger Auditorium of the Indiana Memorial Union. Works on paper by Cortor will be on display in the exhibit "Black Spirit" until May 7 at the IU Art Museum, located at 1133 E. Seventh St.

Other keynote speakers include James Campbell, associate professor in American civilization, Africana studies and history at Brown University, who will discuss African Americans' return to Africa from 1787 to the present time. His presentation will focus on what it means when everyone assumes they are alike though they really are not.

A third keynote address will focus on poet Langston Hughes and the futures of diaspora given by Brent Hayes Edwards, associate professor in the Department of English at Rutgers University.

IU professors Vivian Nun Halloran of the Department of Comparative Literature and Matthew Guterl of African American and African Diaspora studies are co-organizers of the initiative and view the conference as a starting point for establishing IU as a national leader in the study of race.

Both Halloran and Guterl believe it will be important to provide unique ways to conduct research and to engage in ongoing conversations. As Yale University was once marked in the late 1980s as the place to study cultural history, Halloran and Guterl believe that with a large pool of interdisciplinary faculty, IU has the potential to establish itself as the place to study race.

"The questions surrounding the issue of race need to be framed both globally and comparatively," Halloran said. "It's not a matter of finding one person who can take the lead or one conference to facilitate discourse. It must be ongoing, collaborative and interdisciplinary, so that multiple faculty with disparate research interests can collectively shape a common agenda and vocabulary."

Guterl, now in his third year on the IUB faculty, added, "IU has managed to make interdisciplinary work manifest across the College of Arts and Sciences and the Bloomington campus as a whole. The real standard of interdisciplinary work is that it makes individual contributions to specific fields even as it encourages new connections across fields and disciplines. This doesn't happen easily, and it depends on the curiosity of students, the inventiveness of faculty and the support of leadership in the university administration."