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:

March 2019

February 2019

January 2019

December 2018

  • Herman Bennett, Sawyer guest speaker scheduled for February 2019, receives praise for newly released book, African Slaves and Black Kings.

November 2018

October 2018

September 2018

August 2018

July 2018

June 2018

May 2018

April 2018

March 2018

February 2018

 January 2018

 December 2017

  • Take Note: Jelani Cobb on Politics, Race and Writing (Interview)

 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: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
March 26: David J. Leonard
April 17: Junaid Rana
September 19: Deborah Thomas
October 4: G. Reid Andrews
October 22: Michele Reid-Vazquez
February 11: Maryam Kashani
February 21: Herman Bennett
March 21: Christopher Loperena
April 3: Brittney Cooper
April 17: João Costa Vargas


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


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