Protest as Poetry at the “Migration and the Humanities” Conference

Harvard's Graduate School of Design
The Feb. 8 and 9 “Migration and the Humanities” conference, organized by the Mahindra Humanities Center, set out to illustrate a point: that the humanities are a powerful way of understanding the modern migratory experience.

The conference, held in the Piper Auditorium at the Graduate School of Design, spanned a range of activities, including a musical performance by the Silkroad Ensemble and a series of panels. On the first day, University President Drew G. Faust made opening remarks and author Junot Díaz gave a keynote reading.

Throughout the conference, isolation, hardship, and a certain physical transience that comes with being in motion emerged as the common themes of migration.

This poetic take on a gritty subject was at the heart of the conference’s message. Professor Homi K. Bhabha, the Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, placed strong emphasis on the role that art can play in political discussions. “The very thought of freedom in the mind brings freedom to the body,” Bhabha said in his opening remarks.

University President Drew G. Faust was equally committed. She began the entire conference with an assertion that characterized the rest of her speech: “Migration is a central and defining issue for this moment in history.” Bhabha and Faust both brushed up against politics (both speakers mentioned the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for example), but their words centered on the human experience.

It was Junot Díaz, however, who took center stage as the evening’s keynote speaker.He set out to tell the audience what was on his mind both “aesthetically and politically”—a prompt that led him to far-ranging responses. Díaz discussed his native country, the Dominican Republic, the particular burden of the female migrant, and the intersection of the “Me Too” movement with what he deemed the USA’s desire to label Latinx people “rapists.”

Audience members said they appreciated Díaz’s demeanor and passion for his subject. Melissa Q. Tang, a Cambridge resident, initially came to see Bhabha speak, but she left as a Díaz fan. “I’m completely wooed by Junot Díaz and how down to earth he is, how connected to communities he is,” Tang said. “And how unafraid he is to talk about things that he says were, quote, ‘mushy,’ like love.”

Others were more drawn to the conversation between Bhabha, Díaz, and New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal. “I really loved it,” attendee Anna M. Agathangelou said. “I enjoyed Junot’s points a lot. I think he was actually making some crucial interventions, and crediting Homi Bhabha along with Sehgal’s ways of thinking about art and migration.”

The conversation tended towards the “art” side: All three speakers discussed how the humanities give specifics to an abstraction. While the topics ranged widely, the three often focused on individual words (“death,” “spectrality”) and the type of artistic representation that Díaz called “granular.”

The three panelists did not reach any conclusions about the complicated debates they brought up, but they weren’t supposed to do so. The point of the conference was to hold a public discussion, to get people thinking about how art represents the migratory experience. “Protest is, after all, another form of poetry,” Bhabha said in his opening remarks—and the “Migration and the Humanities” conference included a heavy dose of both.

—Staff Writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at