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Conversation on Meaning of 'Diaspora' Extends Across Campus

Onogoing seminar brings together BC faculty from many disciplines

Asst. Prof. Arissa Oh (History) chats with author Colum McCann during his talk last month at a monthly seminar on diaspora and global migration that is supported through the University’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Mar. 13, 2014

Words are not always static in their meaning, says Professor of History Kevin Kenny – even a word with as unique and specific a history as “diaspora.”

Once solely a reference to the dispersal and exile of the Jews, Kenny notes that in the past several decades “diaspora” has been used to describe similar experiences of other populations – such as Africans, Armenians and Irish – and now seems to be a catchall synonym for “migration.”

“Discerning the difference between ‘diaspora’ and ‘migration’ isn’t a rhetorical exercise,” he says. “In the past, ‘diaspora’ conveyed an explicit set of circumstances and actions. But that is not the case nowadays. The word enables certain forms of political and cultural expression, and can both clarify and obscure the nature of human migration.”

Kenny is the creator and organizer of a monthly seminar on diaspora and global migration that brings together faculty and graduate students from across the University. Supported through the Institute for the Liberal Arts, the seminar – now in its second year – invites participants to consider diaspora and migration in multiple disciplines, such as history, law, political science, social work, theology and literature, through conversation as well as presentations by both BC and non-BC speakers.

One recent seminar, for example, featured a talk by award-winning novelist Colum McCann, author of Transatlantic, which interpolates diaspora/migration-related themes. Other presenters this academic year have included local independent scholar Len Lyons, on Ethiopian Jews in Israel; Assistant Professor of Romance Languages Regine Jean-Charles, on the Haitian diaspora; Westy Egmont, on the work of BC’s Immigrant Integration Lab, of which he is director; and Professor of History Marilynn Johnson on contemporary immigrant and ethnic politics in Boston.

“The seminar is meant to be a network, offering a chance for faculty and graduate students with an interest in issues of diaspora and global migration to meet in a way they might not otherwise,” says Kenny. “It’s always enlightening to me to see the different questions that people in other disciplines ask, and the answers they come up with.

“And this is a very appropriate activity for BC, as a Jesuit, Catholic university: engagement and inquiry through different perspectives on important human questions – and obviously, migration in its many forms is one of these.”

While he felt that there was sufficient interest for such an initiative, Kenny did due diligence before establishing the seminar.
“I sat down with 25 people across the University to get a sense of their take on diaspora and migration. I wanted to see what the possibilities were, what directions a seminar like this could go, and what people might get out of it. Clearly, we hit upon something: I don’t think we’ve ever left a session without feeling uplifted.”

The seminar’s scope and tenor has impressed Professor of Political Science Peter Skerry, whose research focuses on social policy, racial and ethnic politics and immigration. At one session, he presented a “split-the-difference” proposal for immigration reform: no deportation for undocumented immigrants, but no blanket amnesty path to citizenship.

“I don’t think a single person agreed with what I said,” recalls Skerry, “but it was the best discussion I’ve been involved in. Usually, discourse about immigration issues becomes emotional or pre-emptory, but this was a civil, engaged, and engaging, talk. It’s a credit to the way Kevin has structured the seminar, and the atmosphere he’s tried to create.”

Another regular is School of Theology and Ministry Assistant Professor Hosffman Ospino, who studies the US Hispanic Catholic experience – 43 percent of all Catholics in the US are Hispanic, millions of them immigrants, he notes.

“Being part of the seminar allows me to listen to methodologies to interpret diaspora and global migration, learn about other case studies that can shed light on what I am attempting to do in my research, and share some ideas emerging from my own work,” says Ospino. 

Presenters from outside BC have further enhanced the seminar, say participants. In his visit, McCann talked about Transatlantic’s account of Frederick Douglass’ trip to Ireland, and the legendary statesman’s efforts to seek ties between African Americans and the Irish through their legacies of migration and other hardships.

“To some extent,” Kenny says, “Douglass identifies with the Irish, but recognizes the struggle is different for African Americans: ‘I sympathize,’ Douglass says, ‘but there is no direct connection between the two cases.’ There is a commonality of human suffering for both groups, yet it’s far from identical.

“We also talked with Colum about how you write about issues of migration in literature. There are different questions to answer: Historians tend to ask ‘why,’ novelists more often ask ‘how.’”

Lyons’ talk on the dilemma over Israel’s admission of Ethiopian Jews rescued from that country’s civil war and famine raised other kinds of questions, Kenny says.

 “The Ethiopian Jews faced issues common to most any immigrants coming to a land they’d never known, and yet their situation also was unique and complex,” says Kenny. “Israel had to answer the question of identity – ‘Who is a Jew?’ – and determine how it applied to the Ethiopian Jews. Some Ethiopians practiced distinct Judaic rites but still claimed to be Jews, and they were admitted under Israel’s Law of Return for Diaspora Jews. Others, who had converted to Christianity under threat of persecution but continued to practice Judaism in secret, were allowed to enter – but for humanitarian reasons under the Law of Entry.”

If one function of an interdisciplinary seminar is to help inspire action among colleagues, then Ospino feels this one has succeeded: It has strengthened his desire for a research institute or center at BC attuned to the US Latino experience, aiding his exploration of how the Latino diaspora and patterns of migration from Latin America are transforming US Catholicism.

Adds Skerry, “I’m sure a lot of things have been prompted and stirred by these conversations. There might be the seed for a book, a conference, a collaboration, or a new way of addressing a topic in the classroom. That is the value in these conversations.”