UM College of Arts and Sciences researchers integrate interdisciplinary work in the Caribbean Studies Group.
The social, cultural, and political roots and routes that have historically framed the Caribbean region flow through the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. The College has led a concerted effort to include, as part of its research and pedagogy, the cultural, historical, and literary traditions of the Caribbean for more than a quarter century.
“There is a long history of Caribbeanist collaboration at UM, including the Caribbean Literary and Cultural Studies program, founded by Sandra Pouchet Paquet some twenty-five years ago, Caribbean-focused working groups of the former Center for Latin American Studies, and faculty partnerships with colleagues in UM Libraries’ Special Collections and the Cuban Heritage Collection,” says Department of History Associate Professor Kate Ramsey.
College faculty who work on the Caribbean seek to build on that strong history and legacy through a new initiative supporting interdisciplinary research and scholarship as well as partnerships with regional institutions.
Beginning spring 2017, the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas (UMIA) will have a new Hemispheric Caribbean Studies research area. It may be new, but it comes from a lengthy and venerated institutional heritage. The initiative is the culmination of discussions among College faculty aimed at creating a hub for Caribbean-focused research, scholarship, teaching, working groups and programming at UM.
“A group of CAS faculty—including Jafari Allen, Donette Francis, Lillian Manzor, Louis Herns Marcelin, Patricia (Pat) Saunders, and myself—began meeting last year to see if we could further integrate our efforts and create more opportunities and support for Caribbeanist cross-disciplinary collaboration,” explains Ramsey.
The group’s initial members bring a broad diversity of research and scholarship to bear—from social anthropology and history to literary and cultural studies; from transnational feminist studies to the politics of religion; and the roles of power, violence, and marginalization in the Caribbean region.
Ramsey’s work focuses on the politics of religion, law, and performance, as well as on histories of medicine and healing in the Atlantic world. She is the author of “The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti,” and with Department of Anthropology Associate Professor Louis Herns Marcelin, co-curated the 2014 Lowe Art Museum exhibition Transformative Visions: Works by Haitian Artists from the Permanent Collection and co-edited the catalog that accompanied the show.
Haiti and the Haitian diaspora in South Florida have become one of the focuses of Marcelin’s research, along with his work in Brazil, and countries in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Dominican Republic. Marcelin’s desire to bridge the gap between academic research and real-world impact led to his founding of the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with the goal of improving the educational, socio-economic, and political conditions there and in the Caribbean through landmark studies, such as “Public Policies, Migration, and Development in Haiti” and most recently, “Mapping Assets-Access for an Equitable Recovery and Reconstruction” after the Hurricane Matthew disaster in the south of Haiti.
“The premise of my work is that academia and production of knowledge have no use if it is self-serving,” says Marcelin. “Unless we put what we know to the service of communities and people who are the most vulnerable, and who are not vulnerable, we are doomed to fail.”
Others in the College have had an impact in other ways and in other countries.
Associate Professor of Anthropology Jafari S. Allen has done extensive research on race, sexuality, and gender in Cuba and the Caribbean. His groundbreaking ethnography, “¡Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-making in Cuba,” sheds light on the marginalization of blacks and prejudice against sexual minorities on the island. He’s completing another book that traces black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture and politics on both sides of the Atlantic, from Brazil and Barbados to Vienna and London. All of this with an eye towards a third project examining Miami as a “hemispheric city,” a crossroads of the Global South as well as of the U.S. South.
“We often forget about Miami being a part of the State of Florida and of the southern U.S. that has very different demographics from the rest of the country,” says Allen. “It has a very different history and very particular needs that have to be recognized and met,” he continues. “Whether people have connections, family connections, to the Caribbean or not, they are participating in Caribbean flows every day.”
Puerto Rico has been the focus of Department of Anthropology Assistant Professor Will Pestle’s work for more than a decade. Currently, the bioarchaeologist and his students are focusing on a spot on the southwestern tip of the island, looking back over roughly 6,000 years of human occupation there to discover how the people and changing environment interacted and impacted each other.
“We are trying to look at climate change over basically the whole time-span during which the island has been inhabited,” says Pestle. “The hope, obviously, is that we might be able to distill, not necessarily a policy from this, but some lessons. The reality is that the same sort of broad, climactic shifts that have happened over the last 6,000 years in terms of increasing sea levels and fluctuations in rainfall are the sorts of things that are going to affect Caribbean communities and small island communities going forward.”
Several of the faculty who make up the HCS group study the Caribbean and its influences in the Americas.
Department of English Associate Professor Donette Francis, director of American Studies, specializes in Caribbean literary and intellectual histories, American immigrant literatures, and African diaspora literary studies, as well as transnational feminist studies and concepts about sexuality and citizenship. Her book, “Fictions of Feminine Citizenship: Sexuality and the Nation in Contemporary Caribbean Literature,” explores the comparative histories of racial and sexual formation throughout the various linguistic territories and diaspora from emancipation to the present in the novels of Caribbean women writers.
Her current book project is an intellectual history of Caribbean transnational literary culture in the 1960s, which moved between the regional Caribbean to England, Canada and the U.S. Since arriving at UM, she has started a third interdisciplinary project that aims to understand Miami’s black artistic practices in the visual arts, dance, literature and music from the 1980s to present. These various research interests are core to her classroom instruction, where students regularly utilize the University’s extensive archives and collections, in addition to “using the city of Miami as a lab.”
Associate Professor of English Patricia Saunders says program founder Sandra Pouchet Paquet, professor emerita, did a remarkable job building the Caribbean Studies program at UM by establishing relationships and collaborating with other universities in the Caribbean like the campuses of University of the West Indies in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad.
“When their graduate students get funding, they send students to UM to do research, and we send our students there to do research in their archives as well,” says Saunders. “We always make sure our students are well-connected to faculty and other graduate students at the University of West Indies, the College of the Bahamas and other regional institutions.”
Saunders, whose research and scholarship focus largely on the relationship between sexual and national identity in Caribbean literature and popular culture, is the author of “Alien/Nation and Repatri(n)ation: Caribbean Literature and the Task of Translating Identity,” which traces the emergence of literary nationalisms in the Anglophone Caribbean. Her current book manuscript is entitled, “Buyers Beware: Epistemologies of Consumption in Caribbean.”
Saunders also views Miami as a vast learning environment where students can experience the Caribbean through literature and the arts, in relation to what they learn in the classroom.
“In Miami, you not only have access to Caribbean artists who visit the city regularly for residencies, but to the art spaces in which they work,” Saunders says. “Students get to see what materials the artists are working with and learn why. These experiences expose students to the synergies at work among and between Caribbean artists.”
- CARLOS HARRISON / Special to UM News