Penn State receives $225,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Funding allows scholarly and public exploration of racial disposability and cultures of resistance

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of Penn State faculty led by Cynthia Young, associate professor and head of the Penn State Department of African American Studies, has received a $225,000 charitable grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminars program to examine racial disposability and cultures of resistance.

The Mellon Foundation established the Sawyer Seminars in 1994 to support comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. The seminars, named in honor of the foundation's long-serving third president, John E. Sawyer, intend to bring together faculty, foreign visitors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from a variety of fields mainly, but not exclusively, in the humanities and social sciences, for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants.

According to Young, “Racial Disposability and Cultures of Resistance” seeks to identify and examine the ways that marginalized racial subjects in the Americas creatively, politically and intellectually disrupt the logic of disposability using practices of organized resistance and an everyday politics of refusal. 

This seminar comes at a pivotal time in our nation’s history, Young said. “White supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, protests against police violence around the nation, sports figures taking a knee during the national anthem, and a president who fuels resentments that divide us by race, ethnicity and class — events such as these make our Sawyer Seminar timely. With this Mellon grant, the African American Studies Department at Penn State will now help shape a national conversation about the important social issues that stoke inequality today.” 

“Racial Disposability and Cultures of Resistance” brings together humanists and social scientists representing a variety of disciplines. This includes faculty from the departments of African American Studies, History, Comparative Literature, Geography, English and Communication Arts and Sciences, as well as scholars within the Rock Ethics Institute, the Richards Civil War Era Center, the Africana Research Center, and the Modern and Contemporary Studies Initiative.  A portion of the Mellon Foundation grant will support one Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow and two Sawyer Seminar Dissertation Fellows during the 2018-19 academic year.

The seminar will be organized along four thematic tracks that allow scholars to examine the politics of disposability from a variety of analytical perspectives: epistemologies, environments, infra/structures and aesthetics. These four thematic tracks will also help structure a culminating Sawyer Seminar conference slated for September 2019 and subsequent seminar-related publications.

Additional Sawyer Seminar-related events planned for the next two years include:

  • The Sawyer Seminar Series, which will feature workshops, public lectures, poetry readings, film screenings (with the scholar/directors present), and public conversations in 2018 and 2019. The series kicks off in January 2018 with a workshop and public keynote on race and the criminal justice system with James Forman, Yale Law Professor and Author of "Locking Up Our Own," nominated for the National Book Award in 2017. A film screening of Marcus Rediker’s film, “Ghosts of Amistad,” is being planned jointly with the State College Area School District for February 2018.
  • A film series designed to broaden public participation in the seminar across the University community and in State College. Featured films will provoke conversation around the ways in which the visual rhetoric of crime, gender, and citizenship conceal and/or justify violence against some black bodies.
  • A digital humanities project where researchers can compile relevant data on resistance practices — digital, oral, written, performance-based — and logics of disposability. The proposed interactive site will map environments, aesthetics, epistemologies and infrastructures that shape racial disposability and cultures of resistance across the Americas.

“Racial Disposability and Cultures of Resistance” also complements “All In at Penn State: A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion,” a university-wide initiative that seeks to foster an open-minded community and thoughtful discussions around the differences that make us a dynamic and complicated community, respectful of everyone regardless of background.

To learn more about “Racial Disposability and Cultures of Resistance,” contact Cynthia Young at  Information about upcoming Sawyer Seminar-related events will soon be posted on the Department of African American Studies’ website at

Last Updated October 06, 2017