Episode 57 │ The World Is Black and Brown (TRINIDAD/CUBA/SPAIN)
Updated: 9 hours ago
"My mentor says often, she tries to get students to travel outside the United States because you realize that we are the world, actually. The world is Black and Brown... that can really flip something in your brain that's very empowering [because] we're used to not having a comfortable claim of ownership of a space." (Alec, Episode 57)
I have some Spartan friends (fellow Michigan State University alums) to thank for making this episode possible! My good friend Irene Li (from episode 4) and our mutual friend Sho introduced me to today's guest, Alec, back in August of 2019 when we all met up for lunch one day. During our conversation, Alec mentioned that he'd gone to Trinidad for research purposes while in undergrad (also at MSU), so I gave him my card and encouraged him to let me know if he wanted to be a guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad. Cut to January 2020 when I was formulating a list of potential guests, and Irene stepped in again to reconnect me with Alec. He said he'd be happy to share his experiences, so here we are!
Alec is a community organizer from Michigan. As a freshman at Michigan State University, a general education class introduced him to the study of sociology, which he found "exhilarating" because it gave him the language and conceptual tools to express why certain ideas he'd grown up believing were incorrect and harmful (e.g. the idea that poor people are poor because of their own bad decisions or lack of skills). As he explained to me, he was able to understand for the first time that, "Individuals' lives are not shaped by the subjective conditions of that individual. They're shaped moreso by society." From there, he decided to major in sociology and as he explored various interests within that field, he took a class with a professor named Dr. Jualynne Dodson. Dr. Dodson eventually became Alec's mentor, and as a result Alec became involved in the African Atlantic Research Team (AART), a research and mentoring collective of which Dr. Dodson is the founder and director.
One of the aims of the collective is to train under-represented students to earn their PhD, and Alec's interest in an academic career had him eyeing a study abroad program in Peru that would be focused on community-based research and engagement. However, this program was structured for Alec to already have much of his research project planned before even arriving in Peru. For this reason Dr. Dodson cautioned him against it, saying that he couldn't truly understand the community he'd be studying or know what questions to ask without having had an initial exposure to said community. So instead, Alec went with AART to the Caribbean to research the African diaspora, which is basically the presence and migration of Africans or African descendants around the world over various phases of history.
Under Dr. Dodson's direction and with a group that included both undergraduate and graduate participants, the project kicked off in 2016 with a week-long trip to Trinidad and Tobago. Having done some pre-research beforehand, Alec and the team did informal conversational interviews with people they encountered while out and about. This allowed the team to expand their preliminary knowledge of the histories of African-descended people on the island and how they got there. While in Trinidad, the group also also attended the Translatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR), which took place at a university in the town of Saint Augustine that year.
The following year, Alec went with AART to continue the next phase of the project in Cuba. AART has had a research site in Santiago de Cuba for the past 20 years, and while the group spent much of their time interacting with and learning about the local community as they had in Trinidad, this trip involved a greater emphasis on Afro-Cuban religious traditions (Regla de Ocha). This meant observing various activities and ceremonies within the religious community there, as well as presenting on some of their findings up to that point at the 2017 International Conference on African and Afro-American Culture. Both this conference and the TRRR in Trinidad were different from typical academic conferences in that they were more focused on bridging the gap between academy and community. Their aim was to start a dialogue with local community members, as opposed to keeping the knowledge that was produced within academic circles only.
The following year, after having continued to build on the research they conducted in Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba, AART's project culminated with the 2017 Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD) Conference in Seville, Spain. ASWAD was very intentional in selecting this city in southern Spain, since it's a site of African diasporic history in Europe that not many people know about. (It turns out that Lori Tharps from episode 34 isn't the only one concerned about unearthing the history of Black people in Spain in order to counter their erasure from Spain's historical narrative.) During their presentations, Alec and his colleagues each spoke to their own interests that they were trying to investigate in relation to African diasporic cultures, but as a group they also discussed their experience learning and implementing research methods along the way. Alec recalls that AART received some really positive feedback, especially from professors who wanted to better teach research methods to their own undergrad students. He and his colleagues were also commeneded for their ability to articulate concepts, and their approach in centering local Cuban and Trinidadian community members' understanding of the world instead of imposing their own on them.
Organizing for collective liberation
In all, the AART project that Alec was involved in lasted over a year and a half, and one of the end goals was to create content for an MSU Broad Museum exhibition on cultural artifacts from the African diaspora. Since he's no longer an MSU student and hasn't been closely involved with the project in a while, Alec doesn't know whether the exhibition is still in development or if it has been shelved. But as for his own personal experience, the impact of that project remains to this day. Going to Trinidad and Tobago was important because it was his first time really traveling internationally, and being in a place were Black and Brown people were the majority for once. And outside of presenting at ASWAD, Alec's time in Spain was made even more fascinating by visiting a historic Moorish palace called the Alcázar of Seville. But Alec definitely loved Cuba the most! He felt like the society was more humane and less exploitative than in the U.S., and he noticed a lot of meaningful parallels between Regla de Ocha and facets of Buddhism that he'd been exposed to previously.
Alec graduated from MSU in 2018 and now works in the Metro Detroit area. Though he no longer wants to pursue a career in academia, he's been steadfast in continuing to educate himself on social theory and put it into practice by organizing for collective liberation. Besides traveling for research purposes, Alec has also been to China to explore his cultural heritage, as well as to the Philippines to spend time with family. In the future, he would like to continue exploring his heritage by visiting Japan for the first time.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "The World Is Black and Brown (TRINIDAD/CUBA/SPAIN)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Community-Based Research and Engagement in Peru (MSU study abroad program)