The Unexpected Caribbean

Unexpected Caribbean Symposium flyer

The Symposium brought an exploration of cultural connections and Caribbean art to campus.

The symposium created enriching spaces to have in-depth dialogues between visiting scholars, artists, KU faculty, students, and community members, allowing for a deeper understanding of the Caribbean region that too often gets simplified and stereotyped by the travel industry and mainstream media as a place of disaster or tourism. 

On the opening night we had featured visual artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre in conversation with Prof Randal Jelks from American Studies and Dr. Cassandra Mesick Braun, curator of Global and Indigenous Art at the Spencer Museum of Art. This event, entitled “Krik? Krak! A Conversation With Ulrick Jean-Pierre,” explored the historical, religious and artistic connections between Haiti and the United States, especially Louisiana—both present-day and its historical role as a part of the Louisiana Territory. Several conference participants were fascinated by Jean-Pierre’s painting “Map of Haiti–Louisiana,” which clearly identified Kansas’ place in the territory and prominent migration routes; they remarked that they had never before considered the historical and political connections between Kansas and other parts of the Midwest and the Caribbean. A group of undergraduate and grad-student dancers from the University Dance Company, under the directorship of Professor Michelle Heffner Hayes, researched Haitian history, culture, and spirituality for their performance of “Vini Pi Pre” [“Come Closer”] at the opening reception.

The keynote lecture by Krista Thompson, on “fugitive photography,” was particularly noteworthy as it allowed for learning about the practice of marronage in the Caribbean space. The keynote lecture by Apricot Irving, author of The Gospel of Trees, provided audience members a chance to consider the potentially dangerous and damaging side of volunteering and “aid” in the Caribbean through her own autobiographical experiences as the child of missionaries in Haiti. 

A variety of teaching resources and discussion for educators was included.

The symposium allowed visitors from around the nation to learn about KU’s significant Caribbean resources—particularly the noteworthy art holdings and library collections on Haiti and its diasporas. Betsaida Reyes, Latin American and Caribbean Studies librarian, and English graduate student Aundrea Davis developed a special exhibit featuring books(pdf) that highlighted the richness of  Caribbean culture through depictions of the region’s diverse fauna and flora, with texts covering everything from poetry to landscaping to medicine. 

Irving and Professor Emerita Daryl Cumber Dance, an expert in Caribbean literature and folklore, spent Saturday afternoon with the K-12 teachers, providing teachable moments through their work. Likewise, Professor Crystal Felima from the University of Florida explored how archives can be used as a way to de-construct simplistic narratives about the Caribbean. She provided examples of age-appropriate lessons plans for the K-12 teachers as well as resources they could use to introduce the Caribbean to K-12 students.

Activities included a variety of community members and KU departments.

The various activities, ranging from film screenings to the art exhibit to panels on Caribbean history, literature, architecture, sociology, and religion provided a space for many vibrant interactions between community members from Lawrence and other places around Kansas, such as Topeka and Wichita.

The Unexpected Caribbean Symposium allowed a space for collaboration with several partners, such as KU’s English Department, the African and African-American Studies, the Institute of Haitian Studies, the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies, the Spencer Museum of Art, and, beyond KU’s campus, the International Association of Caribbean Women Writers & Scholars, the Lawrence Public Library, the Raven Bookstore and the Watkins Museum.

The three-day symposium offered Kansans an opportunity to explore the diversity of the Caribbean through a variety of lenses, including through the eyes of Lawrence’s acclaimed native son, Langston Hughes. The “marathon” reading of Hughes’ and Bontemps’ children’s book, Popo and Fifinaand other Caribbean children’s literature pulled the second-highest number of community members, with participants as young as 10 months, a few 7-10 year-olds, teens, and older adults. The film screening of Murder in Pacot at the Lawrence Public Library drew almost 70 audience members–about half of them from the community–and participants eagerly asked questions and contributed comments during the Q&A session. 

The Unexpected Caribbean Symposium Program(pdf): October 18-20, 2018