Irish Association for American Studies and British Association for American Studies Joint Conference, Sixty-first Annual BAAS Conference, Queens University Belfast, 7-9 April 2016
If social media is anything to go by, ‘IBAAS’ the joint conference between the Irish and British Associations for American Studies was ushered in with much excitement. Twitter was inundated with #IBAAS16 updates of those making their way to Belfast. The typically erratic Northern Irish weather may have surprised some but it did little to dampen spirits. Over three days almost one hundred panels treated attendees to papers from an international cohort of academics, demonstrating the breadth and scope of American Studies. Despite, or perhaps because of, the variety of interests, the conference generated a significant amount of cross-panel discussion and thought.
A number of papers considered the representation of race in US literature. Beginning with depictions of Native American and slave culture by white authors, Dara Downey (Trinity College, Dublin) and Hannah Murray (University of Nottingham) both noted the emphasis of exotic portrayals of non-white American residents. Charles’ W. Chestnutt and Washington Irving’s fetishized representations of folk magic allowed for whites settlers to be defrauded with supplies of ‘magical items’. In the questions following the session, both Downey and Murray noted that these tropes are still used today in fictional representations of folk magic, for example in the TV series American Horror Story: Coven (2013). Depictions of race as an exotic quality in the nineteenth century contrasted starkly with papers on race and ethnicity in contemporary United States, where race is positioned as an American issue. Shima Jalal Kamali (University of Sussex) discussed Langston Hughes’s character Jesse B. Semple and Hughes’ column in the Chicago Defender. Hughes understood his audience and used the column and character to help African Americans deal with the everyday racism they faced with wit and levity. Nicole King (University of Reading) used the short stories of Z.Z Packer and Edwidge Danticat to discuss the complexities of race and migration in modern America. These stories discussed the notion of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ American and what masculinity means in the United States and Haiti.
The contemporary and historical impact of protest movements was also a notable area of interest. Gavan Lennon (Canterbury Christ Church University) emphasised the use of music and poetry to represent both the #BlackLivesMatter movement and wider concerns about racial inequality. Considering verse from a wide variety of sources—from poets like Claudia Rankine and Danez Smith, to musicians as varied as Leadbelly and Beyoncé– Lennon highlighted how it has been used to demonstrate the daily impact of institutional racism. Here and elsewhere, links were drawn between traditional art forms and contemporary use of social media in raising awareness of the everyday repercussions of racial inequality. The latter was also the topic for Denijal Jegić (Johannes Guttenberg- Universität Mainz) who discussed links between #BlackLivesMatter and the black-Palestinian solidarity movement. Jegić noted the solidarity between #BlackLivesMatter and the short film ‘When I See Them I See Us’, which asks viewers to remember those African Americans and Palestinians who have lost their lives at the hands of the police and military. The use of social media has created a platform for global awareness and cooperation within these movements. Yet, as Nicholas Grant (University of East Anglia) discussed, this is not solely a contemporary issue. There are similarities between the mutual support of American Civil Rights activists and those in anti-Apartheid movements in South Africa in the 1960s, which used similar methods of organization and non-violent direct action. The plenary lecture on Friday expanded on these conversations, with Deborah Willis (NYU). She used photography to illustrate the way race has been portrayed on film from emancipation to the present day. Willis addressed the importance of the ways in which African Americans and their culture have been recorded, using examples of how photography has been used to portray racial violence, from the NAACP display of a banner in New York of lynching in the South, to images of protest in Ferguson, Missouri. Willis noted the importance of photography in representing marginalised experience.
The following day saw conversations regarding the relation of society to the self, examining a range of media. Joanna Freer (University of Exeter) discussed the mixed media of Kathy Acker’s anarchic texts, expressing her counter-cultural narrative and drawing many similarities with Patricia Malone’s (Queen’s University Belfast) paper on the autobiographies of female punk musicians. Malone noted the desire for these musicians to create their own safe space within the counter-cultural punk movement, which still conformed to patriarchal societal norms. These feminist communities were able to foster a sense of a place where women’s opinions could be heard and valued; their role was not simply to stand on the side lines while men took centre stage. In stark contrast to Malone’s punk feminists was Laura Rose Byrne’s (Trinity College Dublin) paper on rock groupies of the 1960s and 70s. These women, while purportedly free spirited and part of the sexual revolution, frequently took a subservient role to the desires of men, giving their bodies but receiving little in return. An enduring theme was that women in America sought to create a place to express their own experiences, opinions and views; both within the without the traditional patriarchal societal norms.
In these disparate discussions of race and gender it was clear that the two topics overlap. Interrogation of the hierarchical power structures within American society, their manifestations and their challenges, informed many of the panels. From nineteenth century depictions of voodoo practitioners to twenty first century rock music, it was clear that within any culture, or counter-culture, privilege and marginalisation were present. Post-panel discussions were used to draw together historical and contemporary issues of race and gender inequality in the U.S. and how these established modes of thinking have been challenged. The papers showcased a number of fascinating projects, which provided constructive and encouraging conversation between the presenters and the audience.