Waxing black

Polished Tubman Centre launch comes up short on political edge

By sigcino moyo

Academics and benefactors gather at York University Thursday, September 12, for the official opening of the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, a global digital library and archive of materials relating to the history of Africans.

The centre's namesake, Harriet Tubman was, of course, the black feminist and political activist who escaped from Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1849 and conductor of the Underground Railroad that moved thousands of black slaves from the U.S.

The centre boasts an impresive international advisory board. Sadly, this launch isn't well attended by the general public or by certain -- let's say -- social and political entities who one might expect would have an interest in being spotted at such a fete.

The officious outnumber the casually or tribally attired by a whopping margin. Somehow there doesn't seem to be enough black in this slave mix, but how much visage noir is enough?

Circular acknowledgements and expectant congratulatory mouth-music become the order of the day.

André Kramp, the director of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, an affiliate of the centre, muses on the notion of "what can be done to promote genuine cultural pluralism."

Nice sentiment, but none of this would be possible without an infusion of cold hard cash. Enter Carmen Charette, vice-president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), who bandies about a figure of $600,000 while chirping about "the spirit of partnership and collaboration."

Then there's IBM's involvement.

Dominic Lam from IBM lets it be known with some pride that the Tubman project alone "has doubled York's computer capacity." Slaves had obvious worth as commodities, and it seems nobody was shy about keeping records.

Lam's rap on the role of IBM in research support doesn't foster a sense that the mega-conglomerate is involved for reasons of social conscience. He gaffes and sputters into IBM's support of "research in physics" and how oxygenation occurs in the human body.

The keynote speaker, York history prof and Canada research chair in African diaspora history Paul E. Lovejoy, decked out in a royal-blue and high-yellow dashiki, does the Presentation of the Digital Library.

He waxes diasporic: "We cannot erase the pain and suffering that Africans had to endure, but we can work to erase the legacy of racism that is a product of that slavery."

Reparations and the great debate about payback to blacks aren't mentioned in all this jabber. Not the place for such talk, I suppose. Odd.

At the reception that follows, grad students who've put a lot of time into the project are tickled to be out of the cage socialize before going back to the rock pile for the night shift.

A loose-tongued busy-body keeping tabs on all the professors and would-be luminaries, fetching booze for them and eye-balling the decadent dessert platters, lets leak, "As white as he is, Paul's a good man and knows a lot about black issues. Oh, perhaps I shouldn't have said that."

The reception is near done and the arrival of an emissary of an ethnic media outlet is anxiously awaited, but he never shows. There's always the next day's symposium on religious practices in the black diaspora.


There's a mere smattering of people on the plush couches that line the room. The penetrating irony of the many empty black plastic chairs just won't dissipate. Would my ass be here if I weren't working?

Grad students trickle in, still bleary-eyed from having snuck in a nap, grousing about how the two-hour lunch break decimated the ranks from the lively morning sessions.

A distinguished attendee shuffles over to a couch away from the front, huffing, "I better be here in case I fall asleep," and does exactly that. But Elisée Soumonni's rundown (The Religion Of The Brazilian And Cuban Returnees To West Africa) of Americas-influenced Christian, Catholic and Muslim behaviour when "back home" is definitely worth the drive to York.

An impromptu piss break before the last speaker has people hitting the juice-and-muffin stand, and there's a buzz over an Algerian attendee's story that he's had to forgo a guest-lecturer opportunity in the States because his visa application will take three months to process.

The aforementioned Lovejoy offers some consolation, then quips, "What, did you apply on September 11?"

"No, Friday the 13th," the Algerian says, deadpan.

An edgy laughter fills the room.

the end

original publication: NOW | VOL. 22 _No._3