Review: HOTCUS Annual Conference 2017

Historians of the Twentieth Century United States Annual Conference, University College Dublin, 16-18 June 2017

The tenth annual meeting of Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) took place in an uncharacteristically balmy Dublin, hosted by University College Dublin situated in the fair city’s south side. The event attracted delegates from Melbourne to Oslo and seemingly everywhere in between, a fitting testament to its growing international appeal. It was also encouraging to see a strong representation of academics and postgraduate students from American universities. Representative of this eclecticism was an impressive breadth of research throughout the panels encouraging lively debate among seasoned academics and burgeoning researchers alike. Indeed, this was the largest gathering of HOTCUS delegates in the organisation’s history, a further indication of its independent growth, and its contribution to the field of American Studies.

Reflecting the present tumultuous environment of US domestic and foreign policy, HOTCUS 2017 addressed a range of robust themes rather than a solitary one. Friday afternoon played host to papers that mirrored a climate of marginalisation in twentieth-century US society. Christopher Phelps (University of Nottingham) gave a fascinating account of Gay Liberation Movement advocates in the form of the Black Panther Party, reinforcing their mantra of ‘All Power to All People.’ Continuing the re-examination of those historically pushed to the fringes of US society, papers by Jessica K. Hope (University of Cambridge) and Nick Witham (University College London) dealt with racially motivated attempts to reconfigure blackness though print media. The day’s rich and diverse discussion culminated in a superb plenary address delivered by Penny Von Eschen (Cornell University). Entitled, ‘Nostalgia, Triumphalism, and New Enemies: From the Post-1989 U.S. Identity Crisis to the Rise of Trump,’ Von Eschen’s address charted the fractious waters of the post-anti-Communist environment that the US faced at the denouement of the Cold War. She argued that fraying domestic and foreign policy relations would reverberate throughout the next two decades challenging triumphalism at every turn. With reference to particular examples, Von Eschen interrogated the way the US cherry-picked global issues that would ostensibly benefit the country, while trivialising other matters that it deemed ‘unfixable’.

Penny Von Eschen delivers her keynote speech

Saturday morning’s discussions picked up from where the plenary address had left off, with papers that addressed such themes as American power and national security. This included an enthralling panel, chaired by Penny Von Eschen, which homed in on whistleblowing in the American century. Dawn Marie Gibson’s (Royal Holloway) re-imagining of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) bodyguard outfit, complimented Zoe Colley’s (University of Dundee) presentation of the relationship between the NOI and Black Power icon Eldridge Cleaver, adding to the breadth of research on the NOI but also introducing violence within the US as a core theme of the weekend. Miguel Hernandez’s (University of Exeter) documentation of the Ku Klux Klan’s lobbying for the passage of the protectionist Johnson Reed Act of 1924 – which significantly restricted Asian immigration to the US and represented a huge, if temporary victory for the KKK – was one such example of this prominent topic. Equally potent was Christine Knauer’s (University of Tuebingen) analysis regarding the matrix of lynching. From its linguistic interpretation to its insidious trivialisation, Knauer’s paper touched on the advocacy and promulgation of lynching in both the South and North while considering the context and governing forces of black migration in the 1920s and 1930s.

Contiguous with race and violence was Ruth Lawlor’s (University of Cambridge) illuminating tableau of the rape allegations made against black GIs during WWII and the ramifications that tailed them home. The incisive analysis of the NAACP’s Legal Defence Fund, headed by Thurgood Marshall, questioned the sanctity of such rape claims, discrediting the human rights records of the German state in the process as a mode of defence. This paper extended the national boundaries of this violent narrative to an international milieu. Coupled with the motif of racial violence, Christian O’Connell (University of Gloucestershire) introduced memory through an examination of African American quartermasters situated in Italy in the 1940s. This detailed depiction of black experiences during the war explored the unique cultural exchanges that occurred drawing on oral history and personal accounts from salvaged diary entries and photographs.

HOTCUS 2017 also witnessed the second instalment of the Women in American Studies Network (WASN) organised by Megan Hunt (Northumbria University), the first of which was launched at BAAS in April. WASN discussed a multitude of issues that face women, and any person who identifies as a woman or is marginalised along the gender spectrum in the realms of academia. These concerns ranged from visibility in the field to difficulties ingrained in student perceptions to being taught by women. WASN also offered an opportunity to expand the discussion on race and class in the broader spectrum of American Studies. Emanating from the prospects of opportunity, HOTCUS also held a beneficial roundtable that scrutinised teaching fellowships for American Studies throughout the UK.  This further encouraged a much-needed dialogue that centred on teaching limitations as well as opportunities.

The conference venue

In the final sessions of the weekend delegates were once more treated to a swath of papers sweeping in theme from gender to the conceptions of statehood. An engaging expose on race, labour, and culture merged as Beverly Bunch-Lyons (Virginia Tech) presented a vivid account of ‘Dupe Joints’ in Raleigh, North Carolina, which served an economic purpose for rural black women to provide for their families during Prohibition. Bunch-Lyons’s presentation once again wrangled with prevalent overtones of historical memory, demonstrating exhaustive oral history research. Similarly, Traci Parker’s (University of Massachusetts Amherst) presentation of the discriminatory hiring practices of Sears Department Store and the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) detailed the travails of gender discrimination and its intricate association to racial discrimination in the age Affirmative Action. Parker poignantly acknowledged that matters of gender were obfuscated, particularly from a legal perspective.

In the spirit of historical re-appropriation, the panel ‘Rethinking the 1920s’ did exactly that through a contextual prism that characterised the vibrant decade through a diverse but structured schema. Gareth Davies (University of Oxford) presented an arresting paper dealing with the ‘first modern disaster’— the 1927 Mississippi Flood. Davies skilfully mapped the struggles that plagued the Coolidge Administration in the wake of the disaster, including the advancement of print media technology and Congressional pressure to provide relief. On a national level too, Davies’ research branched out to assess the stupefying mortality figures that went unreported, particularly of African Americans, and captured the zeitgeist of evolving attitudes towards such disasters that bedevilled the US.

From left to right, David Shorten, Bruce Shulman, and Gareth Davies speak at one of the final panels, ‘Rethinking the 1920.

Continuing in this revisionist vein, Bruce Schulman (Boston University) advanced and reinforced the argument that the 1920s represented an interstice of styles and structures within US politics. Schulman’s new foray focused on the establishment of the modern media apparatus with particular reference to MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a new departure in studio autonomy. This fed into a larger motif of the nationalisation of American society in the 1920s, blended with what David Shorten (Boston University) called, ‘conservative internationalism,’ in assessing the role played by US bankers who provided US loans to war torn Europe after WWI thus challenging the traditional ‘isolationist’ model of the Wilson Administration. In doing so, this altered the global perception of the US for the remainder of the century and beyond.

The three-day event was a resounding success, with the presentation of important and ground-breaking scholarship that continues to define HOTCUS’s mission whilst enriching the history of the twentieth century US. With that, HOTCUS 2017 drew to a close as delegates went their separate ways out into the Dublin sunshine. All that remains is to extend a huge thank you to all those who helped organise the event, particularly Dr Conor Tobin of UCD and Dr Nicholas Grant, who leaves his role as HOTCUS events secretary this year, for their major collaborative effort to make this event such a huge success.

About Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O’Brien is a first year PhD student in history at University College Dublin. His research is focusing on black power grassroots activism in the city of Chicago between the years 1968 and 1983.
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