‘When and Where I Entered’: Japanese African American studies professor offers an international perspective on the field

By Nayla Lee

It’s particularly important for non-black students in the African American Studies department to critically examine their positionalities in both the scholarship and social contexts of the subjects they embark on. This line of self-reflection can lead to uncomfortable realizations, but it can significantly deepen one’s understanding of the in-class and out-of-class issues that are relevant to the study of the African diaspora and its effect on the United States and beyond.

In her lecture on Wednesday, March 21, titled, “When and Where I Entered: An Intellectual Autobiography of a Japanese African Americanist,” Dr. Fumiko Sakashita discussed how she grappled with her place in these academic and social spheres, as the Secretary-General of the Japan Black Studies Association (JBSU) and as an associate professor of American Studies at Ritsumeikan University.

The lecture, titled in homage to professor and historian Paula Giddings’ book of the same name, was held in the Smith Hall lounge last week. The room was packed with students, faculty, staff and community members, with several audience members standing along the walls in order to see. The hum of excited voices, the smell of popcorn and the fireplace in the background all contributed to the cozy atmosphere in the room. Dr. Sakashita was introduced by Dr. LaToya Brackett, a professor in the University of Puget Sound’s African American Studies department. The two have a long personal and academic relationship, and were clearly excited about each others’ contributions to the discipline.

During the hour-long lecture, Dr. Sakashita described her experience growing interested in African American Studies and deciding to make it the focus of her undergraduate education, Master’s thesis, Doctoral dissertation, and finally, her teaching career. She told personal stories about translating videos and cassette tapes about the Civil Rights Movement into Japanese and back into English, and even showed the audience pictures of her diligent notes from the 1990s.

She described the classes she has taught, and the way she has been able to integrate African American culture and literature into English as a Second Language courses and public lectures. The presentation contained examples that included images of Michelle Obama and comparisons between the black Miss USA and the multi-racial Miss Japan, all of whom were heavily cyber-bullied. She also has her students translate songs and discuss other forms of visual art with meaningful histories in African American Studies.

Dr. Sakashita went on to tell the audience about her research, which has focused on the anti-lynching movement in the United States, African American literature and non-fiction, and anti-Blackness in Japan. “Racially biased views of black people are everywhere around the world,” she said. But she also noted her appreciation for the field for giving her a new perspective on other forms of institutionalized racism and oppression.

The universal lessons of African American Studies were also a topic of Dr. Sakashita’s lecture. She connected the subject’s emphasis on experiential learning and social consciousness to some of her own activism in other realms of her life, particularly through Project Disagree, a group that protests excessive military bases, especially in the Japanese island of Okinawa. One of the many articles she has translated into English is entitled “We Disagree with Any Kind of Sexual Violence and Military Presence.” The field’s interdisciplinary nature and commitment to active engagement offers its scholars opportunities for a deep and personal investment, regardless of racial identity.

This lecture was the third installment in the “But Some of Us Are Brave” series, organized by Dr. Brackett and Dr. Sarah West of the Hispanic Studies department. The series is named after an influential collection of black feminist literature, and aims to elevate “narratives of scholarship, resistance, and activism by women/womxn of color,” as stated by the promotional posters. Professor West expressed her appreciation for the inter-departmental support for their efforts. The final two events will both be held in Smith Hall room 106 at 5 p.m. on March 29 and April 5, 2018.

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