On Wednesday, Nov. 11, the department of Africana studies at UMBC hosted the 37th Annual W.E.B. Du Bois Distinguished Lecture. The lectures offer new contributions to intercultural dialogue by inviting American scholars and public intellectuals to give a seminar addressing important issues of public culture, the social and political role of cultural differences, intercultural translation and the interactions between cultures, seen from a transatlantic perspective.
The lectures have been named to honor W. E. B. Du Bois as one of the most influential intellectuals, scholars, public figures and writers of 20th century America. This year, the scholar chosen to speak was Dinaw Mengestu, an Ethiopian-American novelist who was named a “20 under 40” writer by The New Yorker and received the National Book Award Foundation’s “5 under 25” award for his debut novel, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.”
The program began with a few opening remarks from Tyson King-Meadows, the chair of the department of Africana studies. He stressed the relevance of this lecture to contemporary society, making connections to the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the student protests happening at campuses all around the country, specifically in Missouri State and Yale, and even at UMBC.
He also mentioned the importance of this year’s lecture, as it marks the 50th anniversary of three key acts that forever altered American history and rejected race and ethnic-based exclusion: the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Naturalization Act and the Higher Education Act.
Mengestsu also mentioned the riots; however, the premise of his lecture was concerned with his experience as an Ethiopian in American society. He recalled something his father used to tell him when he was a child: “remember, you are Ethiopian.” As a child, he thought his father used to tell him this to instill a sense of pride in him about his culture and heritage. He now notes that there was a secondary desire behind his father’s words.
“‘Remember you are Ethiopian’ was another way of saying ‘remember, you are not American’ and furthermore ‘remember, you are not Black in America.'” If you told your children they are Ethiopian, then perhaps it was possible to free them of that far greater burden — the burden Du Bois spoke of when he said “always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s self by the color of his skin,” said Mengestu.
Mengetsu concluded, “I’m not sure there’s a better measure of how quietly, viciously and insidious our cultural racism is than this.”
Mengetsu soon realized that denying his African American culture was like erasing a part of himself. He continued to explain the specific experiences that opened his eyes and made him embrace his identity as a black American.
Barellie Thompson, a junior majoring in sociology, noted the importance of this lecture, “speaking from the African American perspective, there is a significant number of African Americans who are trying to figure out how to connect with their African heritage.”
“I think it’s important to note that the two opposing cultures can synergize. Listening to him made me realize that it’s less important for us to claim certain areas or cultures of Africa, and more important for us to stand together since we face the same discrimination regardless of whether we are born in Ethiopia or America,” said Thompson.