Renée Alexander Craft’s experience as a scholar-practitioner has been remarkably varied. The sixteen years she has spent working with an Afro-Latin community located on the Caribbean coast of Panama who call themselves and their carnival performance tradition "Congo," have led not only to an ethnographic monograph, When the Devil Knocks, but also a series of artist installations and performance pieces. During her Public Engagement Fellowship, Alexander Craft will initiate a new collaboration with this community to bring their culture to a wider public by expanding Digital Portobelo, a preservation and research initiative.
Contemporary Congo practitioners are heirs to a rich tradition that celebrates the resistance of their cultural ancestors, Los Cimarrones. These formerly enslaved Africans escaped to the rainforests of the Americas during the Spanish colonial period to establish independent communities where they developed a unique culture out of their diverse influences. Digital Portobelo represents a collaboration among scholars, local practitioners, and educators that engages Congo culture through visual art, audio and video interviews with English and Spanish transcripts, and short contextual videos. As part of the Fellowship, Alexander Craft and her team will also launch a new intergenerational oral history component of the project, connecting middle and high school students with community elders to record their stories so they can be preserved and shared alongside existing research on the website.
The Congos themselves will continue to be co-creators throughout. It is a mark of how highly they value the work she has done with them that Alexander Craft has received the rare honor for a non-community member of being allowed to participate in the annual Congo celebration as a chorus member and dancer, yet another facet of her diverse vocation.