British Association for American Studies


BAAS 2023 Panel Review: 5E-Negotiating American Spaces

BAAS Panel Review: 5E- Negotiating American Spaces

From the musings of the Transcendentalists to Turner’s frontier thesis, Chicano Aztlán, and the intercommunal visions of the Black Panthers, space has long been critical to American Studies. On April 13th, an all-star interdisciplinary team of PhD students from the University of Manchester found a space at the BAAS 2023 Annual Conference to negotiate this keyword. Across four presentations, their striking and wide-ranging papers investigated “how space operates within our research fields across various literature and media and how different groups have negotiated space across society.”

Robert Hayden outside the Library of Congress during his spell as U.S. Consultant in Poetry from 1976 to 1978, Wikicommons.

The chairperson Samson Thozer opened proceedings with a lyrical examination of the poet Robert Hayden’s (1913-1980) writings regarding his childhood and adolescent home, the Detroit cultural hub and magnet for Black migrants during the Great Migration, Paradise Valley. Paradise Valley was a consistent source of inspiration for Hayden. The first Black Poet Laureate, Hayden once remarked that he could continue drawing upon his memories of Paradise Valley for the rest of his artistic life. Hayden’s poetry, first written amid the hardships of Great Depression Detroit revealed the everyday textures of the formal and informal economies in what Hayden called this “Paradise of Ironies”, earning him the sobriquet ‘the People’s Poet of Detroit’. In ‘Shine, Mister’, for example, the protagonist is forced to offer shoe shining because “Ford ain’t hiring”. Wealth, economic progress, limousines, jazz, and Black boxers all figured as icons for a place-based, heteroglossic language of Black empowerment suffused with rhetorics of Pan-Africanism and Black joy. In ‘Summertime and the Living…’ the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson (1878-1946) appears flying through the city “in his diamond limousine” to “set the ghetto burgeoning/with fantasies/of Ethiopia.” Perhaps most strikingly, however, Thozer also lingered on Hayden’s return to Detroit in the 1960s, after a department store had replaced his childhood home and the I-75 cut through the neighbourhood. Poems including ‘The Rabbi’ utilised motifs of youth to lament the dislocations of a gentrifying, deindustrialising city. Surveying this, Thozer argued, contrary to previous scholars that Hayden’s tone was not “angry but elegiac…joyous, and full of life.” Following his recent USSO review of Gene Andrew Jarrett’s recent biography of the Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, we await further research from this exciting project.

Thozer’s close textual reading and vivid portrayal of Black geographies also distinguished the following paper by Magdalena Müllerová. Her corpus was more chronologically wide-ranging, consisting of three reflections by Black authors on the relationship of African Americans to the American frontier, one of the most prevalent cultural tropes in American literature and one suffused with ideas surrounding race, savagery, national progress, and, inevitably, spatiality. Comparing Oscar Micheaux’s semi-autobiographical The Conquest (1913), Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1998), and Jeymes Samuels’s Western film The Harder They Fall (2021), Müllerová illustrated how Black authors across the twentieth-century reclaimed their own space within this mythos, challenging, ironizing, or subverting the key racialized tropes of frontier imagery.

The cover of Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1998), cover from Vintage International ed. 2014.

Morrison’s Paradise, for example, offered an alternative vision of the frontier through the unnamed women’s Convent that lies south of Paradise’s setting of Ruby, an all-Black town in Oklahoma. Müllerová illustrated how Morrison situated the Convent as a place for collaboration and understanding, for working through past traumas. Its practices, however, are demonised by Ruby’s male inhabitants, leading to the ritualistic re-assertion of patriarchal order as the commune is destroyed. More recently, Samuels’s The Harder They Fall directly challenged the racial tropes prevalent in Westerns, from the opening lines of his film—‘These People [i.e., Black Cowboys] Existed’–to his criticism of the conventional “good guys, bad guys” binary. As the film moves to the White town of Maysville, the landscape, buildings, produce, and even horses turn ever-whiter, including the inside of the town’s bank, which the protagonists attempt to rob. That visual Whiteness named a prosperity predicated on the exploitation of Black labour and indigenous land, indexing those “difficult entanglements of racial encounter” Katherine McKittrick considers integral to the Black sense of place.

If Müllerová’s paper first brought proceedings into the world of the cinema, the two following papers—from Heena Hussain and Naomi Sutton—powerfully utilised American filmography as a lens on recent American political history. First, Heena Hussain investigated animated films including Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Zootopia (2016), and, principally, Big Hero 6 (2014) to show how animation offered a space for conversations in post-9/11 America regarding issues of race, terror, and the vulnerability of space, its capacity to be lost and invaded. Big Hero 6 grossed over $657.8 million globally, becoming one of the highest-grossing animated films of 2014. Its plot takes place in a fictional Tokyo/San Francisco hybrid city named San Fransokyo. Its plot revolves around the robotics genius Hiro Hamada and the robot Baymax, a healthcare robot belonging to Hiro’s late brother Tadashi. Together, Baymax and Hiro combat the increasingly power-crazed Professor of robotics Robert Callaghan to protect San Fransokyo. Hussain argued that Big Hero 6 exemplified the paradoxical combination of post-9/11 American militancy and peaceful rhetoric. Moreover, its utopian setting portrayed a communion of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ aesthetics informed by techno-Orientalism. Animation, Hussain concluded, was primarily about the path to healing and community catharsis.

A cosplayer dressed as Big Hero 6’s Baymax at a 2015 convention, Wikicommons.

Finally, Naomi Sutton examined representations of gendered space in 1980s romcoms, a captivating story set against the intellectually fertile backdrop of Reaganism and the many activisms of feminism, counter-feminism, post-feminism, and the gay rights movement. This offered a compelling extension of her previous discussion of Nora Ephron’s films with USSOCast. Her paper was particularly effective in showing how Hollywood altered its depictions of groups of women to regulate the desires and anxieties of a changing post-feminist era. By the mid-1980s, Sutton argued, the boundaries of female space began to be questioned, with both Tootsie (1982) and Yentl (1983) featuring protagonists who presented themselves as another gender to progress in new spaces. Later in the decade, however, female spaces were presenting as being more dangerous. For example, the aspirant protagonist of Working Girl (1988) is situated somewhere between a Reaganite dream of climbing the corporate ladder and a feminist fairy tale. In the film, the associate in Mergers and Acquisitions Katharine Parker steals a merger concept from the aspirant yet much-derided working-class secretary Tess McGill. A story of competition, Working Girl seemed to suggest that only one woman could climb to the top of the corporate ladder at any one time. A year earlier, The Witches of Eastwick (1987) even depicted female space as the source of the return of the antichrist. Finally, When Harry Met Sally (1989), released six months after Reagan left office, showcased the cosy late-1980s re-emergence of female spaces, with women finding support within female-only friendship groups. Efforts to regulate these anxieties were expressed through an emotional emulation of the texts of mid-century romance films including Casablanca (1942), Roman Holiday (1953), and An Affair to Remember (1957). All this heralded a return to the pre-1960s world of traditional heterosexual romance. Concluded Sutton, “the fight for space on film was neither won nor lost in this period, it was simply a war of attrition that exhausted all involved.”

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck (1953), perhaps the quintissential 1950s romcom, Wikicommons.

To conclude proceedings, Sam Thozer’s provocative questions steered a free-flowing conversation on the broader theoretical relevance of space in American Studies. American space, Thozer argued, is always a conceit because it is always stolen Native American space. As such, what makes these spaces American? The denial, elision, and silencing of those pasts, the convenient forgetting of the violence wrought on these landscapes? Perhaps we need to speak less of negotiation and more of obliteration. If all four presentations focused on imaginings of space, it should not be ignored that all necessarily focused on the artificial and human. Altogether, however, these creative and closely intertwined papers all attested to both the analytical value of space and the rich interdisciplinary research currently underway in Manchester. While BAAS 2024 may be some way away, we eagerly await the next instalment from this thriving interdisciplinary collaboration.

About the Author

Tom Cryer is a second-year LAHP-funded PhD student at UCLÕs Institute of the Americas, where he studies memory, race, and nationhood in the twentieth-century United States.