LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas has been selected to receive a prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar Award to research chronic health conditions among African and African-descendant populations.
KU’s 2019-2020 Sawyer seminar, “Chronic Conditions: Knowing, Seeing & Healing the Body in Global Africa,” will convene an interdisciplinary group of scholars for eight public lectures and four performances held at sites across Kansas. The goal is to develop new ways of thinking about the historical, social and political processes that have given rise to disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases among Africans, African immigrants and African-Americans.
Event dates and locations will be set in spring 2019.
“This is the first Sawyer Seminar award KU has ever received, and it is a tremendous honor,” said Chancellor Douglas A. Girod. “This award highlights the university’s commitment to bringing scholarship into public spaces and applied research in the humanities.”
The project, which was awarded $225,000, is co-directed by Kathryn Rhine, associate professor of anthropology; Abel Chikanda, assistant professor of African & African-American studies and geography & atmospheric science, and Cassandra Mesick Braun, curator of global indigenous art in KU's Spencer Museum of Art, in partnership with the Kansas African Studies Center (KASC) and the Hall Center for the Humanities.
Through a focus on communities that share African roots, the seminar will explore how legacies of slavery, colonialism and segregation have rendered black bodies particularly vulnerable to misapprehension, oppression and exploitation in medicine, public health and development initiatives.
“This dialogue is urgently needed,” Chikanda said. “In the United States, African-Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to die from an initial heart attack or lose a child in infancy. They experience higher rates of rheumatoid arthritis, obesity and diabetes and are treated less aggressively and effectively for cancer, pain and depression. In Africa, age-specific mortality rates from these same conditions are higher than in any other region of the world.”
“The seminar ultimately endeavors to change the conditions that shape how medical and humanistic knowledges are produced, brought into conversation with one another and disseminated to the public,” Rhine said.
Related exploration into these global health disparities will begin when Rhine leads the 2019 KU Global Scholars seminar. This program for sophomores will emphasize intercultural learning opportunities and faculty-mentored research.
“The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is dedicated to increasing the involvement of students in our research mission,” said Clarence Lang, interim dean of the College. “An especially exciting component of this seminar is the opportunity for collaboration between faculty and students, from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows, in a variety of disciplines.”
In addition to lectures and performances, the seminar will engage KU scholars and clinicians with visual artists through two humanities-based labs. In these participatory experimental spaces, seminar participants will build online exhibits of digital objects, including podcasts and other multisensorial representations of their work. Following the conclusion of the Sawyer Seminar, Mesick Braun will curate an associated exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art titled “Healing, Seeing, Knowing the Body.”
“The Sawyer Seminar builds on the university’s strong tradition of research on African and African-descended communities around the world,” said KASC Director Elizabeth MacGonagle.
The Mellon Foundation award coincides with KASC securing more than $2 million in Title VI National Resource Center and Foreign Languages and Area Studies funding from the U.S. Department of Education to advance scholarship in African studies through fellowships, curriculum development and community outreach.
The Mellon Foundation's Sawyer Seminars program was established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. The program funds seminars that convene faculty, visiting scholars, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from the humanities, social sciences and related fields. The grant provides additional support for one postdoctoral fellowship and two graduate fellowships.
Image: "White Man on a Pedestal," 2017. Credit: Doreen Garner.