April 12-13 ASI Conference "Reframing Mass Violence in Africa: Social Memory and Social Justice"

African Studies Initiative Public Symposium co-sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, UMN Extension Global Initiatives, and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

The African Studies Initiative (ASI), a University of Minnesota Title VI African Studies National Resource Center funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is pleased to convene this international public symposium on Reframing Mass Violence in Africa: Social Memory and Social Justice. The Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC), Global Programs and Strategy (GPS) Alliance, UMN Extension Global Initiatives, and the Center for Holocaust
and Genocide Studies (CHGS) are co-sponsoring the symposium. This event is the latest in a series of Institute for Global Studies events exploring mass violence and its reframings in other geopolitical contexts, including Europe and Latin America

Understanding the history of mass violence in Africa—and its political, social, and cultural aftermaths—is vital to understanding contemporary life on the continent. Africa has been shaped and scarred by some of the largest episodes of mass violence in modern human history, including the trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades and the nearly continent-wide experience of colonial expropriation and dispossession. In recent decades, genocides in Darfur and Rwanda and civil wars in such contexts as Algeria, Angola, the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Sudans—often with at least partial roots in colonial histories and the ongoing influence of foreign powers in the post-independence period—continue to roil Africa. Yet in focusing attention on mass violence in Africa, do U.S. and other observers perpetuate reductions of Africa to violence? How do those of us based in the U.S. academy address that problem? When, for example, some U.S. scholarship and media portrays violence in Africa as “ethnic” or “tribal” genocide, eliding the fact that such violence might stem from a struggle over material resources, political access, etc., do such representations distort and obstruct a deeper understanding of that violence? Are the categories we use to speak of violence in some ways constitutive of that violence? How might reframing those categories challenge us to see and to rethink the problem in new ways? How do African academics, journalists, and policymakers understand “mass violence,” and how might the categories they use to interpret it project different modes of redress?

View the Conference Schedule

The symposium has been organized into three core panel sessions engaging these and related questions:

Uncivil Wars: Repression, Revolution, Fragmentation, and the Record

  • How might “civil” wars be interpreted as the result of complex determinants, exogenous as well as indigenous? What of “failed states”?
  • Do the assassinations and disappearances perpetrated as a result of the intransigence of dictatorships qualify as mass violence? How are revolutions mobilized to spur repression? Are revolutions excesses of communal violence?
  • Why are some wars made “civil” when they should not be? How do we restore forgotten genocides to history?

Remembering and Representing Genocide: Darfur and Rwanda

  • Where and when does mass violence by one or more groups against others turn into genocide?
  • Were the Darfur and Rwanda genocides driven by communal or ethnic conflict, as common representations suggest? Might they be reframed as contests over political or economic resources, or as responses to climate change, desertification, ecosystem degradation? Where foreign powers are complicit, do these contests turn also geopolitical?
  • How might the representation of the Darfur and Rwanda genocides be reframed through the lens of women’s experience? Do women’s bodies remember genocide differently?

Economies of Violence and the Labor of Marked Bodies: Race, Gender, Religion, Migration

  • How might gender and sexual violence be brought into the frame of “mass” violence?
  • How is religion marshaled as a force for or against mass violence (e.g., apartheid, terror) by states and revolutionaries?
  • Might the mass violence of workers in protest represent unfinished struggles for decolonization and social justice? What of state or police violence against insurgent labor? Should that too be brought into the compass of mass violence?
  • Can we reframe dehistoricized discussions of the contemporary “refugee crisis” by foregrounding histories of violence (e.g., colonialism, apartheid) and their role in forced migration and the displacement of refugees?

To reframe mass violence in Africa is to call attention to overlooked determinants and definitions and to invite fresh analysis that African peoples and allies might marshal not only for redress and restitution of past trauma but also for prevention of future violence. The organizers understand “reframing” in its many senses:

  • Representation in mass media, policymaking, historiography, orature, literature, art, photography, film, dance
  • (Re)mediation and reconstruction
  • Redress and reparations
  • Revisitation and reinterpretation
  • Transitional justice between dictatorship and democracy
  • Response, in all forms

The organizers are delighted to bring into conversation, here at the University of Minnesota, scholars from Africa and the United States whose work explores these urgent questions. All are welcome!

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