Renée Alexander Craft began this project in 2013 as one of two inaugural Digital Innovation Lab/Institute for the Arts and Humanities Faculty Fellows at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked to expand it with the support of a 2016-2017 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship and a 2019 IAH Schwab Academic Excellence Award. An Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and the Curriculum in Global Studies, her research analyzes dialectical constructions of “blackness” and performances of black cultural nationalisms in the Americas. For the past twenty years, her research has centered on an Afro-Latin community located in the small coastal town of Portobelo, Panama who call themselves and their carnival performance tradition “Congo.” Enacted through embodied storytelling, costumed dancing, singing, and drumming, the tradition honors the history of the cimarrones, self-liberated Africans who fought for and won their freedom during the Spanish colonial period. The main drama of the tradition takes place during carnival season, which peaks on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the beginning of Lent.
Alexander Craft has conducted over thirty in-depth interviews with intergenerational Congo practitioners; witnessed and participated in the Portobelo Congo tradition both within the town and with the group as it traveled to other cities and townships; engaged in archival research in personal archives in Portobelo and in public archives in Panama City (such as the National Library, Panama Canal Authority Library, the National Archives, and the libraries of the two main tourism bureaus); and witnessed nationalist celebrations involving different Congo communities, including celebrations surrounding the 2003 centennial. In addition, she has staged three performance projects in Portobelo and the US as a part of her critical/performance ethnographic process. Through Digital Portobelo: Art + Scholarship + Cultural Preservation, she uses digital tools and platforms to broaden the scope and impact of her performance-centered humanities scholarship.
Alexander Craft has completed two manuscripts as well as this digital humanities project, which reflect this focus. The first is an ethnographic monograph titled When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama, (The Ohio State University Press, January 2015). The second is a novel based in part on her ethnographic field research titled The Part of Me That’s Mine. Like her broader research and teaching, each project engages the relationship among colorism, nationalism, nationality, language, gender, sexuality, class, history, religion, and region in discourses of black inclusion, exclusion, representation, and belonging.
In addition to the Portobelo-focused projects, Alexander Craft collaborated with Kathy A. Perkins, Sandra L. Richards, and Thomas F. DeFrantz to co-editing The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance (2019) and received a Durham Arts Council Ella Pratt Emerging Artist Fellowship in 2013 for I Will Love You Everywhere Always, a children’s book dedicated to helping children cope with death and loss.
Alexander Craft holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. She earned a MA in Communication Studies and a BA in English, both from UNC-Chapel Hill.