Ever since the phenomenal success in the 1970s of Alex Haley’s novel Roots and its TV adaptation, casual use of the term griot to characterize any master of a cultural tradition has become a rather sloppy custom. In West Africa, a griot – a/k/a jali or djeli – is a person whose life is dedicated to the preservation of history and lore and the dissemination of news, typically accompanied by musical performance. But you can’t just learn to play the kora, memorize a bunch of story-songs and call yourself a griot; you have to be born into a particular family lineage.
In describing his own role in life, Dr. A. J. Williams-Myers, professor emeritus of Black Studies at SUNY-New Paltz, prefers the much-less-pretentious term fundi. In the Bantu family of African languages, a fundi can signify a learned person, artisan, expert or genius: someone who has mastered an area of endeavor fully enough to pass it on to others. It can also simply mean that you’re a mechanic. As long as you’re knowledgeable and exceptionally good at your craft, it doesn’t matter if it’s blue-collar or white-collar work; you still get respect. The Yiddish term maven would be a close equivalent.
If you’ve attended any event in the Hudson Valley in recent decades involving African-American history, you’ve undoubtedly heard Dr. Williams-Myers speak, in full fundi mode. Not only was he one of the primary moving forces in the Black Studies Department for decades (and its longtime chair), he is also the former director of the New York African American Institute, a member of the New York State Freedom Trail Commission, historian for the African Burial Ground Interpretive Center in New York City and a much-published historian. Among his most notable writings are Destructive Impulses: An Examination of an American Secret in Race Relations; Long Hammering: Essays on an African American Presence in the Hudson Valley to the 20th Century; On the Morning Tide: African Americans, History and Methodology in the Historical Ebb and Flow of Hudson River Society – Guide to the Survey of Historic Resources Associated with African Americans in New York State; and New York City, African Americans and Selective Memory: An Historiographical Assessment of Black Presence Before 1877.
Though still very much an active presence, Dr. Williams-Myers is retired from SUNY now, reaching the point in a long, remarkable career when things like the new African Roots Center in Kingston are being named after him. He’ll be the honoree at a fundraiser benefiting the Center’s Library to be held on Saturday, May 4 at Garvan’s in New Paltz – an event titled “Celebrate Dr. A. J. Williams-Myers’ Career and Contributions to Our Community and Beyond.”
The afternoon includes a buffet lunch and testimonials by distinguished guests. There will be music and a 50/50 raffle to raise funds for the Library. The event goes on from 1 to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $50 per person and can be purchased online at http://africanrootslibrary.org or by sending a check to A. J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center, PO Box 2203, Kingston NY 12402-2203, noting “Celebration Tickets” on the check memo line.
Luncheon for Dr. A. J. Williams-Myers
Saturday, May 4, 1-4 p.m., $50
215 Huguenot St., New Paltz