The 2018 American Studies meeting not only evoked the year’s thematic interactions of emergencies and emergences, it also provoked conversations about the living and heterogeneous histories of the conference’s location and the field of American Studies. Notably, the programming drew on the rich intellectual and political histories of the city and the state. To begin with, the fact that the meetings happened simultaneously with those of the National Women’s Studies Association invoked the histories of Atlanta as a site of black radical formations that were internationalist, queer, and feminist. NWSA and ASA members attended and participated on panels at both conferences, creating a synergy that was both historical and historic. Moreover, there were panels commemorating the history of black lesbian feminist activism within the city of Black women’s resilience in the face of Georgia’s convict leasing system in the Jim Crow era, tours of the archival collections at Spelman College, and sessions assessing the role of Atlanta as a music capital. Recognizing the ways in which Atlanta and Georgia cannot be simply pressed into a black/white binary, a site-committee session also addressed the city as the home of Latinx communities and struggles over immigration.
Several of the sessions addressed the current moment of state restrictions by the U.S. The panel “Travel Bans and Border Walls: The Weaponization of Foreignness in the State of Racial Emergency” included some engaged and timely papers by junior scholars. Each of those papers considered how the Trump era stigmatizes foreignness as a means of mobilizing white antagonism. Also, the panel by the Marxism Caucus on the “Marxism, the University, and Legacies of 1968” included a number of fantastic papers that observed how the various struggles that made of 1968 come to bear on the contemporary campus activism.
There were also several sessions organized around the celebration of new books and the commemoration of previously published ones. Three of those were program committee panels that highlighted Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Sara Haley’s No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, Nikhil Pal Singh’s Race and and America’s Long War, and Sherene Razack’s Casting Out: Race and the Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. All of these panels were moving and at the same time deeply engaged in the theory, method, and practice of American Studies.
One of the major highlights of the meeting was the work presented by that year’s artist-in-residence LeAnne Howe. Howe is the author of novels, plays, poetry, screenplays, and scholarship that deal with Native experiences. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma some of her awards include: the Western Literature Association’s 2015 Distinguished Achievement Award for her body of work; the inaugural 2014 MLA Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures; a 2012 United States Artists Ford Fellowship; a 2010 Fulbright Scholarship to Jordan; and an American Book Award in 2002 for her first novel, Shell Shaker. Howe read her poetry about American Indian removal at the reception for lifetime members. She followed that reading with a reading from her upcoming novel Savage Conversations, a fictionalized tale about Mary Todd Lincoln’s actual nightmares about a Native American man who’s trying to murder her. Both readings were ways to engage the histories of Georgia and the U.S. as settler colonies and as the producers of a racial and settler unconscious that makes Native Americans central to those histories.
Howe’s poetry reading prefaced Roderick A. Ferguson’s presidential address, “To Catch a LightFilled Vision: American Studies and the Activation of Radical Traditions.” The talk brought together the importance of our site and the region of the South while addressing some of the most significant issues in the field. It drew upon Ferguson’s own family history in Georgia to identify the insurgent possibilities of an intellectualism not arising from an urban Northern cosmopolitanism, but rooted in the supposedly “savage” and “backward” soil of the rural US South. Grounding his intellectualism in the thinking, theorizing, and creative expression of his mother, aunts, grandparents, church community, high school classmates and teachers, and many others, Ferguson described working class rural Black communities as a powerful and fertile source of complex theoretical engagements. The talk helped to mark a longstanding American Studies’ investment in exploring intellectual and political formations from below.
President: Roderick Ferguson, University of Illinois, Chicago
Co-Chair: Avery Gordon, University of California, Santa Barbara
Co-Chair: Grace Kyungwon Hong, University of California, Los Angeles
Co-Chair: Junaid Rana, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign