British Association for American Studies


Symposium Panel Review: ‘Visualising the Americas: Kent’s Third Annual Americanist Symposium’, The University of Kent, Keynes College, Monday 3rd June, 2019.

Conference Review: ‘Visualising the Americas: Kent’s Third Annual Americanist Symposium’, The University of Kent, Keynes College, Monday 3rd June, 2019.

From pre-colonised American Indian art to contemporary graffiti murals, the Americas have a rich and varied visual history. This one-day symposium, co-organised by three PhD candidates at the University of Kent – Ellie Armon Azoulay, Sarah Smeed, and Megan King – invited panellists and speakers to focus on one particular image or object as a catalyst for exploring larger themes, trends and figures. The Susan Sontag quotation ‘everything exists to end in a photograph’ has perhaps never been more relevant since the proliferation of mobile technology and the increase in visual surveillance. [1] Thus, the focus of this symposium was highly topical, and gave the entire day a lively and engaging focus.

Visibility and imagery as a means of gaining representation was a theme that ran through many of the panellists’ papers. Jennifer Dos Reis Dos Santos (Aberystwyth University) presented her paper, Voodoo Feminism, which argued that the image of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, empowered and broadened the scope of black femininity outside of the traditional domestic sphere. The question of domesticity in many Voodoo practices was raised in the Q&A which led to a brief discussion on how Voodoo practices transformed the domestic space for women in these communities. Refreshingly, Dos Reis Dos Santos highlighted the matriarchal power of an often stereotyped and misunderstood religion which, she argued, gave African American women greater agency over their own lives and their communities. 

Emily Brady (University of Nottingham) followed a similar thematic thread in her discerning and engaging paper on African American women photographers in the US military. The paper charted a clear progression in the agency given to African American women in the armed forces: due to trailblazers like Elizabeth ‘Tex’ Williams, who highlighted the professional achievements of African American women through photography that displayed a ‘politics of respectability,’ other African American women, such as Grendel A. Howard, were able to thrive in the same professional landscape. Brady’s paper touched upon some very contemporary subjects, as questions of diversity and equality still pervade professional bodies, including the armed forces, today. The paper did highlight the progress which was made by women like Elizabeth ‘Tex’ Williams, while also reminding us of the changes that still need to be made in our society. Given the data collated by Advance HE in 2018, which illustrated the shocking lack of equality amongst senior staff in British universities and the dearth of black women professors in the UK, this paper inspired some important conversations that feel particularly relevant in our current moment. [2]

The conference had opened with the theme of visibility: in the first paper of the day, Charlotte James’ (University of Nottingham) paper on photographic representations of Harriet Tubman highlighted the use of photography as a tool for memory. This paper generated a number of fascinating discussions, one of which related to the proposal by the Obama administration to put an image of Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill (a decision which has now been delayed by the Trump administration). James captured the important debate that this issue has sparked, as some critics have highlighted the dark irony of placing the image a formerly enslaved woman on the symbol of American capital. Another valuable conversation this paper inspired related to a picture of a recently completed Harriet Tubman mural in Cambridge, Maryland, that went viral on twitter after a small girl was photographed reaching out towards Tubman’s outstretched hand, which extends over a broken down wall. One participant pointed out that the imagery of the wall is especially interesting given President Trump’s intention to enforce divisions through wall building, while the figure that his administration is trying to keep from the twenty-dollar bill is synonymous with the breaking down of barriers between people. 

Contemporary conversations about race and representation were also the focus of Adam Dawson’s (University of East Anglia) paper entitled ‘Some Chips and a Pack of Gum: Objects and the Black Male Body in Contemporary African American Young Adult Literature.’ This was a very moving paper which focused on the ways ‘thing-power’ contextualises black male bodies as dangerous when under the white gaze. Relating the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, Dawson was able to demonstrate the irrelevance of the objects mistaken for weapons in each of these cases, and compellingly reason that it is the black male bodies themselves that serve as a coded threat when scrutinised by the white gaze. This was a particularly effective paper which inspired a lot of generative deliberations after the panel.

The third annual Kent Americanist Symposium displayed the depth and breadth of postgraduate research within American Studies, ranging from the invigorating and vital work by the aforementioned panellists, to papers such as Alice Patchett’s (Durham University), which compellingly presented the depiction of corn in American gothic and horror fiction. Ultimately, the theme of the symposium, the papers that were given, and the discussions held around them, were a true testament to the Americanist mission of finding unique and thought-provoking lenses through which to view the Americas. If, as Sontag stated, ‘everything exists to end in a photograph’, then the images that drove this symposium served as a reminder that the discipline of American Studies is a vibrant and varied field which can indeed point towards the ‘everything.’

[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin UK, 2004, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=uZ-sBAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=susan+sontag+on+photography&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi87pqVu9ziAhXRShUIHZdfA1IQ6AEIOTAD#v=onepage&q&f=false, (accessed 9/6/19). 

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/sep/07/uk-university-professors-black-minority-ethnic, (accessed 10/6/19).

About the Author

Jack Dice is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent. His work focuses on twentieth century American modernism, particularly in New York, with links to Marxism and eco-criticism. He enjoys cooking, playing music and exploring the Kent countryside.