It was our distinct privilege to facilitate four days of exchange and collaboration between activists, artists, intellectuals, and colleagues across the disciplines during the 2007 American Studies Association meeting. The versatility and engagement of those who convened in Philadelphia—not to mention within American Studies and Ethnic Studies more generally—underscored that categories such as “activist,” “artist,” and “scholar” are by no means mutually exclusive. As Vicki Ruiz stressed during her presidential address, “American Studies Association members participate in a myriad of coalitions.” Still, Ruiz’s call to investigate and unsettle “América Aquí” simultaneously led the Program Committee to seek performances and sessions that innovatively explored the power of knowledge production, creative endeavor, and sociopolitical engagement to reimagine both local and transhemispheric relations. We not only sought to trouble the all too easy and still prevailing association of “America” with an Anglophone United States. We also wanted to encourage the pointed interrogation of cultural hegemony, imperial practices, indifference to public health crises, resurgent nativism, and exclusionary visions of citizenship at a time when active collaboration between academics, independent scholars, activists, artists, and broader communities is vital if not imperative. By emphasizing the arts, moreover, we desired to create a program that highlighted the dynamic role of artistic production across time and encouraged new angles of vision on the interdiscipline of American studies itself.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the theme of “América Aquí: Transhemispheric Visions and Community Connections” generated a markedly high number of submissions on Global, Transnational, and Cross-Cultural Studies. As program co-chairs, we—Michele Mitchell, María Montoya, and David Román—were delighted that these submissions resulted in over seventy accepted sessions reflecting the range of ASA membership. Many of these panels, including two that explored how the turn to the transhemispheric either complicates the use of keywords or potentially introduces new ones, featured senior scholars who have pushed American Studies in ever more global directions. Other panels that fit under a global rubric, notably “Resisting War: Activism by Soldiers, Veterans, and Military Families,” produced significant dialogues between community activists, independent scholars, and scholars positioned within universities. Still others, such as “American Studies in Vietnam,” “Cosmopolitanism and Its Discontents: States and Statelessness in the Writings of the Early Republic,” and “The End of the World: Narratives of Immigration, Border, and Identity in a Global Age,” prominently featured scholars based outside of the United States. The focus on the arts this year additionally resulted in provocative visions of the cross-cultural and transnational in panels exploring borderlands visual culture, popular art and the war on terror, and Indígena performance.
Philadelphia, a city undergoing its own arts renaissance, seemed especially appropriate for our explicit invitation for scholarship on the visual, literary and performing arts. We were pleased that our call solicited exciting work in these areas as well as innovative programming at local art venues. Among the most exciting events at this year’s conference were the standing room only back-to back sessions at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts on Thomas Eakins’s celebrated painting, The Gross Clinic. Scholars, students, curators, and critics packed the auditorium to discuss the history and legacy of this important nineteenth century painting. We extend our sincere thanks to both Jennifer Doyle and Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, who coordinated the efforts of many to insure the event’s success. We were also pleased to produce Coco Fusco’s performance, A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America, at The Painted Bride, an alternative arts organization in downtown Philadelphia. This performance addressing the role of female interrogators in the War on Terror was preceded by a panel entitled “Retro Coco,” which provided an overview of Fusco’s interdisciplinary career. We also featured on-site performances by E. Patrick Johnson, a performance scholar/practitioner whose Sweet Tea: An Oral History of Black Gay Men of the South, was especially well-received; Michael Kearns, a Los Angeles-based AIDS activist who read and performed excerpts from his over twenty years of engagement with HIV/AIDS through the arts; and Zoë Strauss, a Philadelphia-based visual artist whose photographic images graced the ASA 2007 Program booklet. And, thanks to the Site Resources Committee, attendees could enjoy a mural arts tour of the Center City as well. These events—along with the dozens of panels on music, theatre, dance, performance, photography, film, visual arts, spoken word poetry, and other related art forms—highlighted the significant role of the arts in American history and culture and the necessity of this scholarship in the American Studies Association.
Indeed, Zoë Strauss’s photograph of a restaurant plastered with music advertisements inspired the title of President Vicki Ruiz’s keynote address, “Citizen Restaurant: American Imaginaries, American Communities.” A labor historian who has participated in community initiatives throughout her career, Ruiz underscored that armchair activism is never enough as she called for “a renewed emphasis on multi-ethnic civic collaborations” within American Studies programs. Ruiz did more than detail what needs to happen in the academy when she offered evocative, trenchant commentary on wide-ranging “food fight[s]” that ultimately spring from anti-immigrant impulses. Given how many restaurants across the United States rely upon immigrant laborers, Ruiz fittingly concluded by imploring us “not to dine on diversity but to dish up social justice.” Such a reflection on the necessity of sociopolitical engagement spoke powerfully to sessions on this year’s program about immigration debates, citizenship, Ken Burns’s “The War,” the 2008 Presidential election, scholars and public policy, Hurricane Katrina, and the Post-9/11 World.
We accomplished much but there remain areas of concern. Despite our trans-border calls, Latin America and the Caribbean in and of themselves—not in reference to United States—still do not seem to fit comfortably within most conceptions of American Studies. We also still do not reach out enough to social sciences, particularly political science, law, and economics, in ways that can foster productive discussion. While we were pleased with the large number of graduate students and assistant professors who presented engaging work, we note some attendees’ concern that not enough senior scholars were on the program. On another front, last-minute cancellations compromised some panels and we encourage those who acquire a highly coveted spot on the program to make all efforts to use the privilege.
Assembling the program was a daunting task at times. We could not have done it without John Stephens, the amazing ASA staff, and our dedicated program committee, who all worked creatively and cooperatively. Finally, it has been our pleasure and honor to work with Vicki Ruiz, one of the great mentors and intellects in our field.
Michele Mitchell, María E. Montoya, and David Román