Michael Gomez shares his knowledge on African diaspora, engages campus in discussion

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Michael Gomez spoke on the COLL 300 curriculum and African diaspora in the Commonwealth Auditorium. COURTESY PHOTO/ WM:EDU

Wednesday, Nov. 6, students and faculty members gathered in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium for a discussion about the African diaspora featuring guest speaker Michael Gomez. The lecture was organized as part of fall 2019’s COLL 300 program, which focuses on modern patterns of movement and migration.

The COLL 300 program is designed to foster greater global awareness and engagement among students at the College. This semester, the program is bringing three speakers to campus as part of its broad semester theme.

In September, Muhammad Baqir, a prominent Islamic scholar, visited Williamsburg to discuss connections between the material and spiritual spheres of life. Gomez was the semester’s second speaker, and will be followed by cultural anthropologist Nancy Frey Wednesday, Nov. 13, who will discuss migration and movement through her experiences working along the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Gomez, a professor of history, Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, joined three panelists in illustrating the complexities of academic scholarship on the African diaspora.

In addition to his professorial duties, Gomez is the founder of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora, an organization devoted to exploring the global dispersal of people with African descent through various socio-cultural lenses. The non-profit organization chose the College of William and Mary to host its tenth biennial conference, which brought Gomez to Williamsburg for four days of lectures, talks and open-ended discussions.   

The conference, which was held at the Williamsburg Lodge from Tuesday, Nov. 5 to Saturday, Nov. 9, has been typically held in larger metropolitan areas than Williamsburg. The first conference was held in New York City, and others have been held abroad in an array of diverse locations including Seville, Spain and Accra, Ghana. The conference coincided with the ongoing COLL 300 speaker series, making Gomez available to serve as a speaker.

Students at the talk expressed various rationales for attending Gomez’s talk. Many were present because of their COLL 300 class, including Val Meleshkevich ’20, who said Gomez’s academic and professional endeavors demonstrate clear links to his coursework this semester. 

 “I’m here today representing my COLL 300 class, Movement, Theory and Practice … I think it’s definitely going to relate to this speech here,” Meleshkevich said. 

Professor Christine Nemecheck introduced Gomez and the panel’s two other participants, professor Iyabo Osiapem and Anthony Joseph ’21. In her introductory remarks, Osiapem described uncovering Gomez’s work with the African diaspora and referenced how accessible Gomez made the topic seem in “Reversing Sail,” one of his first books detailing the experience of diasporic communities.After reading Gomez’s literature, Osiapem was thrilled to meet him personally at a conference years after having been introduced to his work. 

“I thought of him as the most impressive person who studied the African diaspora, and he made it seem so real and accessible,” Osiapem said. “ … then I met him at a conference and talk about fangirling.” 

 Panelists noted that ASWAD’s choice of Williamsburg for its conference is especially meaningful given southeastern Virginia’s complicated history with enslaved people. 

 Since 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves in Jamestown — which lies six miles away from the College — Gomez argued that there is significance in hosting the conference so close to a location intrinsically linked with the African diaspora.

Gomez began his talk by explaining ASWAD’s origins. The organization hosted its first conference in New York City 18 years ago and since then has invited scholars, community members and interested parties to learn about the African diaspora through examinations of history, anthropology, women’s studies, literature and a myriad of interdisciplinary forms of analysis. Gomez argued that ASWAD is unique in welcoming diverse perspectives at its conferences and commented that the organization is designed to foment discussion among all people, not just those with a Ph.D. 

 Osiapem, a frequent attender of Gomez’s ASWAD events, contextualized how vital the organization’s emphasis on openness is compared to other non-profit, research-driven conferences.  

 “One of the things that I find wonderful about ASWAD, it is not only academics … we tend to find a lot of conferences that are exclusive to people with Ph.D.’s and people who do research,” Osiapem said. “The times I’ve attended ASWAD, you see all sorts of people there, people with interest, people who do their own research at home, and I think it’s an engaging organization for that reason.” 

 Gomez went on to elaborate his personal experiences learning more about the African diaspora, which began during his undergraduate career. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in United States history with a regional emphasis on the American South, at which point he recognized that he knew little about the African diaspora or the African continent. This ultimately led him to pursue a master’s degree in African history, and by then he had uncovered a genuine passion for the subject. 

This gradually evolved into a specific interest in diasporic people of African descent, which Gomez views as the culmination of a lifelong, existential struggle to define himself given the complexities of the African American experience. Looking back, after years of research, field work, manuscripts and on-site visits, he credits one moment as particularly influential in guiding the creation of ASWAD and fomenting his passion for the diaspora. 

 “The question emerged concerning our backgrounds … I was the only African descended student on the stage,” Gomez said. “… One student said I’m German, the other said I’m Irish, another said I’m Jewish, and then they came to me … that was a moment because all I could say was, ‘well, I’m black.’” 

 Gomez then elaborated how he characterizes his background, given that his father is from Puerto Rico and his mother is from Mississippi. Ultimately, he describes himself as an African that also happens to be an American — and told audience members that reaching that conclusion was an exercise in self-discovery. 

 In one of his final statements, Gomez said that ASWAD and similar organizations are part of the United States’ broad cultural mosaic. However, he cautioned audience members that the country is approaching a crossroads, where it can either embrace diversity or shun it entirely.  

“I think at some point, American society as a whole needs to make a decision as to who we’re going to be,” Gomez said. “Are we going to be heterogeneous and pluralist or not? And if we’re going to be heterogeneous … then we need to learn about the components of society, and we need to start learning about that from elementary school through college.”

 “I think at some point, American society as a whole needs to make a decision as to who we’re going to be,” Gomez said. “Are we going to be heterogeneous and pluralist or not? And if we’re going to be heterogeneous … then we need to learn about the components of society, and we need to start learning about that from elementary school through college.”