On the Seminar

The Sawyer Seminar, “Racial Disposability and Cultures of Resistance, is a project of Penn State’s Department of African American Studies, the College of the Liberal Arts, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“Racial Disposability and Cultures of Resistance” focuses on regimes and relations of disposability and resistance in various sites, including Brazil, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico and the United States, from the 18th century forward. Racial disposability names a bundle of practices, institutions, and laws that demographically distributes and neglects civil rights, concentrating the use of force and threat of incarceration on particular communities with limited recourse to investigation and remedy. Similarly, our approach holds a range of institutions within the analytic frame of racial disposability to probe the functional connections between them. For instance, what is the relationship between the denial of public resources (education, clean water, etc.) to predominantly Black populations in some urban centers and the extraction of personal resources from other Black, urban populations through overpolicing practices that generate fines, compound debt, and wage garnishment? Disposability draws attention to the dual condition of value extraction and abandonment. The seminar equally attends to discarded citizens and non-citizens who are marked in ways that heighten vulnerability to violence with impunity—while situating these practices within the longue durée of racial terror and slavery throughout the Americas. African Diasporic Studies provides an analysis that questions the contours of the nation-state frame while producing alternatives. This Sawyer Seminar not only raises the question of whose lives count and to whom, as the Movement for Black Lives suggests, but also when and how particular lives count, and for how long and to what political ends.

Though these processes are produced, funded, and perpetuated at the level of state and corporate practices and policies, racially disposable populations never simply acquiesce. Be they Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Nicaraguan, or African-American, they respond in ways that are unpredictable—through real-time cell phone recordings, for instance—challenging the cultural logic, daily structures, and entrenched practices that reduce Black populations to targets for temporary use or permanent extermination. Those whose lives, bodies, and communities have historically been defined as disposable resist this characterization and its social effects through a variety of cultural and political strategies. Black communities, particularly youth, artists, and activists, have produced a rich repertoire of aesthetic practices, popular cultural movements, and activist traditions that refute the normalizing logic of racial disposability by asserting the creativity and resilience of Black life. This seminar takes seriously the multiple ways that marginalized racial subjects creatively, politically, and intellectually disrupt the logic of disposability with practices of organized resistance and an everyday politics of refusal.


Seminar Sponsors:


Seminar News:

January 2018

December 2017

November 2017:

October 2017:



Meet the Presenters:

November 13: Jelani Cobb

January 31: James Forman

February 8: Marcus Rediker and Tony Buba

February 14: Jessica Luther

February 22: Roger Reeves and Yogita Goyal

March 15-16: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

March 26: David J. Leonard

April 17-18: Junaid Rana

September 19-20: Deborah Thomas

October 11: Maryam Kashani


Featured image credit: Courtney Desiree Morris. “Crossing,” Soil. (courtneydesireemorris.com)