The Sawyer Seminar at Rutgers–Newark kicked off the first of five events scheduled for the 2022-2023 academic year. 

The daylong session at Express Newark last week, titled, "Responding to Anti-Asian Hate: Politics, Organizing and Education," consisted of three panel discussions that drew together prominent scholars, activists and educators to trace the origins of today’s anti-Asian hate, grapple with its continuing legacies, and envision ways to fight it in the present moment.

Rutgers-Newark Creative Writing Professor Cathy Park Hong, an acclaimed poet and author of the book "Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,'' stressed the significance of Asian Americans speaking out on the subject, even if it felt uncomfortable or burdensome. "It's really important for (us) to take over the platform, to speak up. Because no one else is going to do it,'' she said. 

RU-N Chancellor Nancy Cantor delivered the opening remarks, framing her address by foregrounding the country’s dramatic uptick in racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment since the 2015 campaign kickoff of former President Donald Trump, and lamenting the “pitting of communities by race, religion, language and heritage.”

“To borrow a phrase from my fellow social psychologist Rupert Nacoste,” said Cantor, “our ‘hibernating bigotry’ is not hibernating, and it knows no geographic boundaries and shows no shame in assigning a diverse membership to the ‘other,’ repeating the sins of historical exclusion and racist discrimination, as if we haven’t learned a thing from Native American genocide, Atlantic slavery, the Chinese exclusion Act, forced internment of Asian-Americans, and the list unfortunately goes on."

Cantor then pivoted to urbanization, noting how she can’t think of a more fitting place than Newark to hold the Sawyer Seminar Series, a global city that people of different backgrounds have been moving in and out of for 350 years, and how the lingering question of inclusion/exclusion and ownership—who can rightfully stake a claim to the land, citizenship and civic participation—has been part of the historical narrative since both Newark’s and the country’s founding.

After Cantor closed her remarks, the first panel to convene was a conversation between Hong and renowned Columbia University Historian Mae Ngai. The panel was moderated by Rose Cuison-Villazor of Rutgers Law School.

At one point early in the discussion, after Ngai talked about what historians bring to the table to address the current crisis, Cuison-Villazor floated a provocative hypothesis: whether people invoke too much history when talking about present-day anti-Asian violence. "Some might say we're talking too much about history and not enough about the present," she said, before turning to her panelists for responses.

"The obvious answer is no," said Park Hong. "The past is present. We bring the past into the present to understand the future. And in this age of digital capitalism, we have this opposite effect: Everything is archived, and nothing is known. We have this influx of information that's not being converted into actual knowledge. And knowledge is what we use to gain wisdom and make wise decisions."

The second panel, which convened after lunch, focused on the promises and perils of immigrant and interracial organizing and featured Deepa Iyer, Co-Coordinator of Solidarity Is, part of New York City’s Building Movement Project; Professor Vivian Truong, of Swarthmore College; Professor Ellen Wu, from Indiana University Bloomington; Professor Diane Wong, of RU-N's Political Science Department; moderator Jamie Lew, a Professor in RU-N's Sociology department.

The third and final panel, titled, “Make Us Visible: The Fight to Incorporate AAPI and Immigrant Histories in K-12 Education,” featured Professor Jason Chang, of the University of Connecticut; Julia Wang and Kathy Lu, from Immigrant History Initiative; and moderator Jack Tchen, Professor of History at RU-N and Co-Director of the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience.

A recording of the discussion can be found here. 

The ExternalSawyer Seminar Series, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is bringing together scholars, performers, activists and organizers from around the country to focus on a variety of topics related to natives, nativism, migration and immigration in the American city. Leading the way in organizing the series has been English Professor Belinda Edmondson, Associate Professor of History Kornel Chang, Anthropology Professor Sean Mitchell, and Africana Studies Post-doctoral fellow Bernie Lombardi, who are working with a team of RU-N graduate students and administrators to see the yearlong project through.

All events are taking place at Express Newark. The series lineup going forward is: 

October 27: Politics Across Borders: Immigration, Nativism, Activism and Trans-Border Political Sentiment, will examine the complexity of political sentiment and action among some immigrant communities in the Newark area and beyond. It concludes with a roundtable involving panelists and progressive activists from Brazilian communities in the region.

November 2022 (TBD): Migration, Displacement and the Arts, which brings together scholars and performers to examine the intersections between migration and the arts and consider questions about the role of music, dance, and performance in articulating displaced identities in urban migrations, how literary and visual arts can evoke memories of war, or how the culture of cities has been formed and transformed by global migration.

March 8, 2023 (Tentative date): Black Citizenship, which will explore the relationship between Black communities, both native-born and immigrant, and the question of American citizenship. It explores this relationship in various contexts: through political ideologies, religious communities, and shared cultural heritage

First Week of April (TBD): Pandemic and the City, info forthcoming.