The University of Maryland has been awarded a two-year, $500,000 grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch an interdisciplinary African Diaspora studies research seminar that will examine the impact and interplay of nationality, ethnicity and gender among first- and second-generation African immigrants as well as U.S. native-born African Americans.

The project, led by African American Studies Professor Sharon Harley, will bring together distinguished senior scholars, rising junior scholars, and graduate and undergraduate students to examine how multiple facets of identity affect personal reflections as well as social and cultural interactions within and between these diverse populations. 

“These individuals, both native-born and increasingly of multicultural, multinational origins, share African descent but are not of one mind about how they self-define their U.S. identities,” said Harley, former chair of the Department of African American Studies and a scholar of black women's labor history and racial and gender politics.

Recent years have seen tremendous growth in immigration from Africa, along with consistently strong immigration from Caribbean nations. The U.S. is facing a complex array of social and cultural changes as a result, with a shifting demographic composition that reflects new and historic mixtures of peoples and attitudes regarding identity and cultural representations of blackness, Harley said. 

“Dr. Harley’s expertise and research will help to explain the complex relationships developing as our nation becomes more diverse,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “Her work builds on our great strengths in African-American history, culture, and literature, and we are very happy to build on our collaboration with the Mellon Foundation.”

Time-honored conceptions held by many, if not most, native-born African Americans may not accurately indicate the experiences of new citizens or their perspectives regarding self-identity as first- and second-generation Americans, Harley said. But because of their numbers and activity in their new communities, and through their relationships with native-born African Americans, the immigrant populations are influencing the evolution of black identity. 

“In the face of the divisiveness and misunderstandings about the terms that define identity under the circumstances of an increasingly multi-ethnic racial population, academia must lead the way in understanding with clarity how we, as a nation, move forward on a path to full inclusion for those populations,” Harley said. 

The grant will support research seminars, social media outreach and a series of public events at venues including the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture at the University of Maryland, with an inaugural seminar at the University of Ghana in June. 

“I am delighted that the Mellon Foundation is recognizing Dr. Harley’s significant and innovative work with this generous grant award,” said Gregory Ball, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland. “This comprehensive project will support an interdisciplinary research seminar about immigration, race and gender to improve our understanding of the diverse history of both African immigrants and U.S. native-born African Americans.”

The seminar initiative will culminate with a public museum program co-hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Students will have opportunities to get involved through research seminars, membership on the seminar advisory committee, internships and involvement in social media marketing campaigns, which they’ll carry out in conjunction with the University of Maryland African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities initiative, also funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.