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Connections beyond boundaries

Daniel McNeil, director of Queen’s new Black Studies program, is passionate about exploring connections and the transfer of ideas across the Atlantic.

Daniel McNeil
Daniel McNeil

When activist Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa, he took solace and sustenance from the music of African American artists such as Marvin Gaye. In listening carefully to seriously soulful songs emanating from across the Atlantic Ocean, and adapting them to meet his local needs and political climates, Mandela offers us one revealing example of cultures that exceed the boundaries that the modern nation-state has provided for them.

On Oct. 21 and Oct. 22, the new Black Studies program will mark its launch with a series of conversations, screenings, and celebrations.

This fall, more than 100 undergraduate students are enrolled in Black Studies courses, spanning from Black Studies and Liberation to Black Student Activism and Critique, and Globalization and Black Health. The program is also home to three pre-doctoral fellows and a post-doctoral fellow who examine fields such as Black activism, Black student organizing on Indigenous lands, Black feminist thought, and the socio-cultural impacts of social media videos documenting anti-Black police brutality and their representations in contemporary art. Learn more.

Such cultural and political commitments are at the heart of Black Atlantic Studies, one of the research areas featured by Queen’s new Black Studies program, that prepares leaders and citizens for a global society. Program director Daniel McNeil, who joined Queen’s in 2021 as the Queen’s National Scholar Chair in Black Studies, is one of the experts working in Black Atlantic Studies. He spoke to the Gazette about his research and outreach work.

How would you define Black Atlantic Studies?

For many researchers and thinkers, the Black Atlantic is a network of cultures spanning Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe that was forged, in the first instance, by the transatlantic slave trade. It is a realm of thought, feeling, and action that can help us to step audaciously into the past, and imagine and build more fantastic futures.

Are you looking at a specific timeframe?

My teaching engages with the complexities of global Black communities since 1789, but my research tends to focus on the past hundred years.

My recently launched book, Thinking While Black: Translating the Politics and Popular Culture of a Rebel Generation, focuses on the work of celebrated and controversial critics who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s consuming rebel music, revolutionary film, and other forms of expressive culture created by world citizens and the descendants of enslaved individuals. It pays particular attention to the work and ideas of the prominent British intellectual Paul Gilroy (the author of The Black Atlantic, an extraordinarily influential book that popularized Black Atlantic Studies in academic and artistic institutions), and the notorious American journalist and film critic Armond White.

[Book cover] Thinking While Black: Translating the Politics and Popular Culture of a Rebel GenerationWhy did you choose to write about these two thinkers?

To explore how Gilroy combined his career as an academic with a supplementary career as a journalist, it seemed helpful to place his work in dialogue with White, who has had a long career as a journalist and only occasionally taught classes on film history and culture to university students.

The lives of these thinkers reveal how creative artists and critics have sought to conquer greedy and hostile culture industries with their rebel spirit, on the one hand, and demonstrate how we might smuggle moments of dissidence into academic and media institutions, on the other.

Is this work somehow connected to your research about multiculturalism in Canada?

While participating in a panel discussing the art exhibit “Artist and Empire,” Paul Gilroy said that there is a tendency for North American voices to drown out all others in transatlantic discussions. A Canadian participant in the panel immediately suggested this was a US issue, not a Canadian one. But Gilroy challenged that view saying Canada has been “selling multicultural snake oil” to the world for years.

Gilroy differentiates authentic multiculturalism – or what he calls “convivial multicultures” – from the unconvincing narratives of official and corporate multiculturalism. White is also interested in what he considers authentic multiculturalism as opposed to the shiny multicultural discourse of, say, corporate media outlets. So, Thinking While Black considers how the study of multiculturalism can remain as close as possible to the insinuating rhythms of the street, and not be confined to top-down public policies or corporate statements regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion.    

Can we tie this into the goals of Queen’s Black Studies program?

The Black Studies program similarly considers the complexities and capaciousness of global Black communities, and how we can make them legible, audible, and visible to diverse audiences.

[Graphic image] Black Studies PodcastIs the Black Studies podcast a step in that direction?

Yes! One of our hopes is to explore intellectual work within, beyond and outside the university. We take seriously the contention of Black Atlantic intellectuals such as C.L.R. James that ordinary people do not need an intellectual vanguard to help them to speak or tell them what to say. We’re striving to cultivate spaces for people to discuss and delve deeper into the nuances and wealth of Black life, livingness, and culture, and compile playlists and reading lists to supplement our conversations with scholars, activists, and artists about racism and resistance.

It’s wonderfully stimulating to work with students and recent graduates on the podcast and develop social media content that convey politically-infused acts of pleasure. It’s an incredible opportunity to engage with what Black teachers and artists such as Ashon Crawley call the practice of joy in and against sorrow.