By Ana Hurler
Members of the University of Maryland community discussed how race relates to pop culture, scholarship and representation at the 4th annual Parren J. Mitchell Symposium in the Stamp Colony Ballroom on Wednesday.
The symposium was organized to honor the late Maryland Congressman Parren J. Mitchell. Mitchell became the first African-American to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland in 1952 after suing to gain admission. He earned a degree in sociology, and the department honored him in 2015 by adding his name to the Art-Sociology building.
The Critical Race Initiative, the Department of Sociology and the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences hosted this year’s symposium with the theme “Truth & Lies: Race, Media and Politics.” The event consisted of panels throughout the day of professors, journalists, scholars and writers.
The panels, entitled “The Power of Popular Culture,” “Intersectionality and Critical Race Theory: A Dialogue” and “The Politics of Racial Representation,” served to create a discussion between the distinguished speakers and the audience about those topics in today’s media landscape. The day ended with keynote speaker Kevin Blackistone, a journalism professor and sports columnist for The Washington Post.
Brienne Adams, a PhD student in American studies, said it’s important especially for graduate students to learn about the topics that will affect the lives of the students they will teach.
“As a scholar of popular culture myself, I’m very interested in events like this that showcase different thought processes that are needed to really get at some of these issues,” she said.
The first panel of the day discussed elements of popular culture that have sparked a dialogue about race. One example was Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance.
“There was a breadth of voices represented, and we definitely need to always talk about race, media and politics,” Adams said. “It’s important to always put those voices at the forefront to be able to better represent America as a whole and some of the issues that are important to us. That’s what we get from popular culture.”
The second panel — presented in conjunction with the African American History, Culture and Digital Humanities initiative — featured Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Bonnie Thornton Dill, and distinguished University of Maryland professor of sociology, Patricia Hill Collins. They, along with three other scholars, discussed black digital scholarship and their personal experiences.
Thornton Dill said intersectionality is “fundamentally about issues of power and inequality,” as well as “how you take this knowledge to interpret the world.”
Collins remarked that today’s media landscape has made it easier for people to tell their own stories, no matter what their position or status. Now, people “on the bottom” can use these platforms to shape their own images, she said.
“There’s a place for a lot more variety and re-framing of what you see,” Thornton Dill said.
The panelists discussed the issues they have encountered when creating works that only focus on the black story. Collins recounted some of the problems she encountered creating her award-winning book Black Feminist Thought. She said she was told to make comparisons to other races in order to validate her writing. Collins decided it was unnecessary.
“Be clear about who the work is for and why you’re doing it,” she said.
“What makes you think you can’t get to the universal?” she asked about writing only about the black experience.
The panelists concluded by discussing how the new technological tools we have changed the way people evaluate the questions of race they present in their research.
“It seems increasingly clear that the future of these areas of study cannot remain within the academy,” Thornton Dill said. “People have to see why this matters.”