The Power of Words: Students Present at Africana Studies Symposium

At the Africana Studies Student Symposium, three students presented research on the power of the word in Africana culture, the role of Beyoncé in relation to third-wave feminism, and the symbolic nature of rebirth in African literature.

Provo, UT (January 21, 2016)—On January 21, three BYU students presented research papers in relation to their studies in Africana literature. All three students in the latter half of the symposium discussed the search for place and stability primarily through two key French novels texts and one world-renowned pop star.

French student Macey Richardson relied on two French novels for her research: Le Dernier Survivant de la Caravane, which details the story of Arab slave traders and their exploits of an African village; and Les Douceurs du Bercail, in which a group of African immigrants are detained in a French airport and eventually sent back to Africa.

Richardson focused her research on the power of the spoken word to communicate comfort and community. When threatened by the slave traders in Le Dernier Survivant de la Caravane, the chief of the village begins to sing. “The [chief’s] traditional African hymn of blood, of overcoming. . . give [the villagers] hope,” Richardson explained.

According to Richardson, songs and music also play an integral role in Les Douceurs. While being detained in a small, windowless room, an entertainer who is also being prevented from leaving the country begins to sing. Richardson said this pivotal scene in the novel “freed [the group] from their state of ‘unfamiliarness.’” These words and melodies gave the characters of both novels a grounding sense of place. Both groups eventually find a place in which to create a new home – the former after escaping from their masters, and the latter after being returned to Africa.

French minor Garret Nash’s work, which relied on the same novels as Richardson’s, focused more on the symbolic nature of both groups’ journeys. He explained that death is considered extremely unnatural in Africana culture, and thus the element of rebirth in both of these novels is what makes them so unique. Nash isolated three of the main thematic elements within the novels – the initial freedom, the capture, and the release – as the three main periods of African history: pre-colonial Africa (before the slave traders arrive, before being detained in the airport), the colonization of Africa (the capture of the villagers, the detainment of the French Africans), and post-colonial Africa (the escape of the villagers, the relocation of the French Africans).

Nash then asked the audience, “Are these people truly African? Where do they belong?” He concluded that they are indeed African, and that their sense of belonging stems not from their permanent location but from the mobile community that surrounds both groups.

French and English major Sylvia Cutler also explored place, but in a more metaphorical way. Cutler researched the way pop sensation Beyoncé is revolutionizing the way the media and music listeners alike view black female artists, who are creating a place in which they can express their sexuality without objectification.

Cutler posed the question, “Does Beyoncé’s brand of sex-positive feminism create a space that promotes black female subjectivity?” By doing a close reading of Beyoncé’s lyrics, Cutler comes to the conclusion that while the “capitalist music industry [may] objectify black female bodies,” Beyoncé has created through her music a safe place for herself and for other artists where “instead of being an object defined, she is the subject and the definer.”

Cutler, in quoting black feminist Patricia Collins’, seemed to summarize what both she along with Richardson and Nash were seeking to accomplish: that when the African communities define themselves, whether it be through location or through music, “[they] clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret [their] reality are entitled to do so.”

—Madeline Thatcher (B.A. English ’16)


Madeline is the assistant public relations coordinator for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a major in English and dual minors in European Studies and Creative Writing.

Painting “African woman 6” by Alexander Nanitchkov.