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European Scholars Tap Fordham’s Bronx African American History Project

Archives are dusty old documents that live in a cool dry vault, right? Wrong.

When it comes to the digital humanities, like oral histories, they are archives that often live online. In the case of the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP), the archives have begun to reach beyond the streets of the Bronx to Berlin, Paris, and Italy.

A small global community of academics and artists have met through BAAHP. They continue to share research and insight that goes well beyond the borough’s borders and the academic parameters of the archive.

Mark Naison, Ph.D., professor of history and African American studies, said that hip-hop music, an extensive part of the oral histories, has global significance. Since 1984, the music has spread from the Bronx to marginalized communities everywhere, including Turkish communities in Berlin and African and Arabic communities in Paris. It is recognized as the voice of the disenfranchised.

The Power of Networking

For academics researching these global communities, the archive has become a touchstone, said Naison.

As far back as 2005, Naison began to network with scholars from Berlin and Paris who were interested in BAAHP.  One researcher, Susan Stemmler, Ph.D., at  Leiterin College at Volkshochschule Aachen, Germany, is a German hip-hop scholar who now works on migration issues.

“I wanted to show how people can relate to the place where they live by using hip-hop as a global language.” said Stemmler. “I was interested in rap in different languages, rap in local languages. There’s an area in France where young people rediscovered the local dialect used by older people. They used the accent in their rap lyrics in a very contemporary way.”

Stemmler lectured at Fordham on her findings in 2007. She said that along the way she met hip-hop artist LA Sunshine, one of the great MCs from the genre’s early years. She introduced LA to Naison, and his history is now part of Fordham’s archive.

“The exchange was exciting. Many people work on very different topics but the common reference point is the Bronx as an area,” said Stemmler.

Naison said Noel Garcia, Ph.D., a sociologist with his own social policy company in Spain, found out about Stemmler’s and Naison’s efforts and later invited the two to lecture in Barcelona on hip-hop culture as a global phenomenon.

And Simone Cinotto, Ph.D., an Italian scholar and professor of modern history at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, has spoken several times at Fordham about the Italian/black collaboration in popular music.

Inspiration from Italy

“I found out about [the archives]while doing research related to the Bronx,” said Cinotto. He said his first book, Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City (University of Illinois Press, 2013), sparked conversations with Naison about creating an Italian-American version of BAAHP. The end result was the Bronx Italian American History Initiative, launched last year.

Other initiatives, such as artist in residence grants, concerts, and, of course, the continued collection of Bronx oral history, have lent BAAHP the credibility to bring world-class talent to lecture at Fordham. Akua Naru, the Cologne-based hip-hop artist, traveled from Europe to speak in one of Naison’s classes in January.

“My music is about black women’s stories—what happened, and how that informs us right now,” said Naru.

Having once been an artist-in-residence at Fordham, Naru said that the program introduced her to other artists and thinkers whose work she admires and with whom she continues to stay in contact. They include poet Melissa Castillo-Garsow, Ph.D., and Clifton Watson, Ph.D., director of the African-American Male Initiative at The Children’s Aid Society.

She said she found Fordham, the BAAHP, and Naison in the first place through an academic based in Cologne, Germany.


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