From November 8-11, graduate students and professors from the UT Austin American Studies Department presented papers and chaired panels at the American Studies Association and National Women’s Studies Association meetings. Read on for our reflections on the conferences and to find out what we did in Atlanta.
I got to shake Kathleen Cleaver’s hand! My sister was on a panel with the iconic former Communications Secretary for the Black Panther Party as part of an ongoing project to process Ms. Cleaver’s personal photography archive, and I got to meet her beforehand. She was funny and no-nonsense and told us some very fascinating stories about giving birth to her first son while in exile in Algeria in 1969. It was pretty magical.
The annual conference for the National Women’s Studies Association is known by many for cultivating a space where scholars, activists, both or neither can come together and re-instate new—and old—feminist solidarities. The 2018 NWSA conference in Atlanta, Georgia was no exception. This was my second year attending and presenting at NWSA, and similar to my first year, I left feeling reinvigorated, re-charged, and re-inspired to pursue the feminist work that I have committed myself to, even before entering graduate school. Similar to so many other conference attendees, I was reminded of the importance and power behind the work that I do for my own community. This year’s conference was organized around the theme of imagining feminist futures of freedoms, and the variations of presentations truly illustrated just how multifaceted and exciting the future of feminist activism and scholarship is. One of the most memorable moments was when keynote speaker Angela Davis praised the diverse faces she saw throughout the hundreds of audience members—for her, this was so indicative of the rebirth of feminist politics in the wake of a socio-political predicament in the U.S. framed by anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-woman sentiments. Davis, as well as the other keynote speakers whose activism was rooted in the 1960s, recognized the power of organization and solidarity across multiple identity-lines. By recognizing the audience members in this way, it was as if the speakers were re-directing the gaze to make the claim, “we are here for you, as you are here for us.”
After chairing and commenting on a terrific ASA panel exploring intersectional considerations of multispecies justice, fellow panelist (and UT AMS MA alumna) Sherri Shue and I spent a wondrous evening at the Georgia Aquarium watching four juvenile whale sharks, manta rays, beluga whales and other charismatic megafauna float in the blue twilight.
Atlanta has one of the last remaining Trader Vic’s in the world, once the favorite restaurant of Rita Hayworth, my Houstonian grandparents (janitor/nurse), and Richard Nixon. Donald Trump shut down the last Trader Vic’s in New York City because it had “gotten tacky”—everyone hates their landlord. Now, there are more in Abu Dhabi than there are in North America. What does the tiki bar in Riyadh serve?
I was all nerves the 24 hours leading up to our session. As the chair, I’d been in touch with all of our participants, from the initial cold-contact email to the last-minute questions about printing on site. We knew as much about each other as our brief bios shared and we were to have a 90-minute conversation at 8 am on a Saturday. As happens with broad and generous session topics, the round-table was a somewhat eclectic mix that posed a bit of a head-scratcher: would this conversation make any sense? Yet, unbeknownst to me, all four of us had various, independent networks that somehow intersected: some in the digital humanities realm, others in museum studies, and yet more in pedagogy. Over breakfast after our session, we all followed each other on Instagram.
The serendipity of conferences reveals surprising relationships, and this is especially so at ASA where unusual presentations often have an unexpected and remarkable relevance. Similarly, those who attended the session and the questions they posed were ones I never expected, which was a good lesson for why we actually go to conferences. It’s not to present what we already know, but to be reminded that we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s what makes these projects interesting.
Here are some things I learned while attending NWSA and ASA in Atlanta:
- In Atlanta, as in Austin, no one is prepared for freezing temperatures
- The people in Little Five Points are cooler than I’ll ever be
- When you combine multiple tater tots into one giant tater tot, it’s called a tater cake
- Visiting a tiki bar with a tiki scholar is a joy
- If your Airbnb is in an “urban pioneering” building from 1970s, you’ll go through three layers of security and probably take some interesting selfies
- Receptions are life-savers (see no. 3)
- Old feminists rock
- In a pinch, a paper towel can be a coffee filter
- Presenting at two conferences in one weekend is exhilarating, and also a lot
- My colleagues are brilliant (but I already knew that)
Reflecting on this year’s ASA, I am only able to think about the bravery of all of the people I knew who got behind microphones in front of rooms full of strangers inside of what appeared to be the tallest building in Atlanta and said, “I have a monumentally important question about our social world.” It’s a strange place to ask monumentally important questions about the social world, and it is too bad there aren’t more places, less nerve-wracking places to ask such questions. The questions people were asking were urgent, about catastrophe, love, struggle, and the meaning of social existence, not mere intellectual exercises, and I hope we keep feeling brave enough to ask these personally important, righteous questions again and again, in public and in private places.