Tuesday 19 November 2013

At the Mouth of the Mississippi: Archives, Histories, 12 Years a Slave

AMS Postgraduate student Nicole Willson blogs about her archival research in Louisiana as well as more contemporary representations of slavery in 12 Years a Slave.

Check out Nicole's blog here and follow her on twitter @NicoleWillson

Hey y’all. I’ve been in Louisiana for a week now, and that week seems to have passed by without me even realising. It has been eye-opening, liberating, and, of course, rewarding – on both a personal and professional level. For most of the time that I’ve been here, at least during the working day, I’ve been poring over manuscripts in the archives. I’ve become a regular and recognizable frequenter of several New Orleans institutions, and I’ve been welcomed and assisted by everyone that I’ve met. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Earlier today, I met with some American graduate students at LSU and together we discussed how intimidating the archives can be. The archival material that I have been looking at has been challenging, and not least because a lot of it is in manuscript form and written in a foreign language (not only French, but an archaic eighteenth-century French). To add to this, some of the manuscripts written in English have been equally, if not more, challenging – to give you an example, I spent about two hours trying to decipher a draft foreword that George Washington Cable wrote for his short story ’Tite Poulette, and had to transcribe it, writing down all of the variations of certain words that I could not quite make out, until I came out with the best possible outcome. What I found was interesting, and (I hope) useful, but it could easily have been two hours wasted.

The headaches of reading minute and foreign manuscript with magnifying glasses were assuaged slightly last Friday, when I met Wayne Philips, who manages the costume collection at the Louisiana State Museum. Wayne showed me a selection of ‘tignons’ – also described in the collection catalogues as ‘bandanas’ and perhaps best understood by us as headscarves – worn by women of color in antebellum America, and one in particular that is thought to have originated in Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti). I had been looking forward to seeing these artefacts, mainly because I think that the best histories are told through palpable objects, and to see them in the flesh pleased me no end. But unlike the manuscripts that had told me, and given me clues to, a great many things, the tignons harboured secrets that I was not able to penetrate. Other than the short descriptions in the LSM catalogues that indicated the origins of the artefacts and alluded to the (racial) status of their unknown wearers, there was no additional information to help me work out what these items might have signified to the wearer or to wider society. Wayne and I talked for some time about the various possibilities but agreed that we could really only speculate on what these might be. The stories of these objects we can only imagine because the presumed female wearers did not write them down – not to our knowledge, at least.

Today, after one of the better days in the archives, I went to see the highly acclaimed Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave. As you know, earlier this year I went to see Django: Unchained, and wrote a lengthy piece about it here. I have done a lot of thinking about Django, since I first saw it, and agree with my younger brother that it’s not really a slave revenge film – or even a film about slavery, for that matter – it is a white fantasy about the history that we would all like to imagine as having happened, and this fantasy is given ultimate sanction by the white liberator/avenger character King, who, in the end, is martyred. This film, in contrast, was an adaptation of the personal narrative of the same name recorded by Solomon Northup, a black musician from the state of New York who was beguiled, captured, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The film is not unproblematic, and some of the problems surrounding the adaptation had been brought to my attention earlier in the day when the graduate students that I had met with discussed it in their class on the American plantation, but I came out of the cinema with a sense that an important history had been imaginatively brought to life, without (m)any speculative of the fantasies that make films like Django much more problematic. There were holes and silences where those silences exist in reality; I was troubled and saddened, for example, by the fact that the narrative was unable to communicate the fates of enslaved women such as Elizabeth and Patsy, and still feel haunted by the thought of what may have lay in wait for them beyond Northup’s narrative.

Just before the film started, I saw a trailer for the film Belle,which tells the story of a woman of color who forms the second subject in Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Elizabeth Belle began life as the daughter of a slave woman from the West Indies and Admiral John Lindsay, and was raised in the household of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield. From the snatches that I saw, this film looks to be more of a romance than the stark and meticulous narrative of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it offers a window into another history that has seldom reached the level of public understanding: the story of what it was like to occupy a precarious space as a black woman in the household of white aristocrats.
I am glad that black histories from the diaspora are being gradually recuperated in film narratives like 12 Years a Slave and I can’t help but be excited about Belle, in spite of the romantic inflections, and I hope that the projection of modern fantasies about the experiences and sufferings of real people does not replace the excavation of those harder to find histories. There are of course things that we may never know, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking.

Monday 11 November 2013

Research Seminar: Professor Coll Thrush

Professor Coll Thrush and Rebecca Tillett in conversation after his presentation

The American Studies Research seminar this week was delighted to welcome Professor Coll Thrush (University of British Columbia) for a talk entitled "London Entangled: Indigenous Histories at the Heart of Empire". Coll Thrush is in London on a research trip, and is in the midst of developing some very exciting work for his current book project. In the past, scholars have often treated Indigenous and urban histories as though they are mutually exclusive. But for Coll Thrush these two kinds of history are closely interrelated, or, to use his word, entangled. In a history of London framed through the experiences of Indigenous people who travelled there, from territories that became the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, he shows how stories of Inuit captives in the 1570s, Cherokee delegations in the 1760s, Hawaiian royals in the 1820s, as well as the memory of these travelers in present-day communities, all show the complex ways in which London is an important ground of Indigenous history and settler colonialism.

Thursday 24 October 2013

UEA 50th Anniversary: The Art of Conspiracy

 Discovered amongst the volcanic ash, discarded event programmes and shattered plastic pint glasses that covered campus the morning after the UEA 50th Anniversary celebrations, the following missive outlines the proceedings of the the School of American Studies' 'Art of Conspiracy' event. Or does it?..

To whomever this message reaches,

I have some disconcerting news.  As a contribution to the University of East Anglia’s 50th Anniversary Festival an assortment of departments, schools and faculties were asked to think up and run hands on activities throughout Saturday 28th September.  The School of American Studies’ input was an hour-long workshop entitled ‘The Art of Conspiracy’.  According to an unidentified whistleblower, a few days prior to the affair the organisers/puppet masters met in an unknown location to plan the event in painstaking detail.  We will never know for sure what happened in that meeting, but thanks to the testimony of several dependable experts and eye witnesses present at the workshop we have a clearer idea of what really happened that Saturday.

As people filed into room 1.6 of the Thomas Paine Study Centre, there was a certain tension in the air.  People knew something was going to happen, something important, but no one knew exactly what; all they could say was that they had been attracted by the mystic title and blurb in a programme that had been suspiciously handed to all of them earlier in the day.  Coincidence? I think not.

The deep rumble of chatter disappeared abruptly when Dr. Hilary Emmett introduced the running order of the event.  The experts have told me that everything happened exactly as Dr Emmett said it would – how convenient.

First, MA by Research student Joseph Broadbent gave a brief talk titled ‘The Logic of Conspiracy Theory’.  He proposed that conspiracy theorists do not live up to their stereotype and to illustrate this point he demonstrated that the tools to be a conspiracy theorist are innate within all of us.  For example, he explained how just a few biases we exhibit—such as the availability error, proportionality bias, the post hoc fallacy, pareidolia, confirmation bias, and the backfire effect—make us more disposed to believing conspiracy theories than we would initially have thought.  Mr. Broadbent went on to run a mini-experiment to prove his hypothesis.  By playing a verse of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ forwards, then backwards he managed to get the room to see how the song has been seen by some conspiracy theorists to be a part of a grand satanic plot.  Ending on that note, he left a list of how to build your own conspiracy theory up for the room to see.


Following this the audience, which had already been suspiciously sat in groups of five to eight, were invited to create their own conspiracy theories.  A chosen member from each group went to the front of the room and underwent a ritual, at the end of which they had selected three cards—a person, a corporation, and an event—that had to explain the oncoming zombie apocalypse.

 An eyewitness found this all incredibly troubling because we all know that the zombie apocalypse is going be here soon.  That the number 3 was used is more worrying because we know that it is the only divisor of the number of the beast that gives us the date of this oncoming catastrophe (2/2/22), but the team from American Studies carried on despite these objections.  It is quite clear that the academics from the school of American Studies knew far more about this event than they were letting on because the selection of three cards cannot be a coincidence.  Therefore, I shall name them so that all who deal with them in the future know about their role in this episode; they were: Dr Nicholas Grant, Dr Wendy McMahon, Dr Kaeten Mistry, and Dr Jonathan Mitchell.

After some clearly biased speculation and conjecture each group presented their findings which were rated by how complex and how believable they were.  These ranged from Bill Gates using Microsoft to create wirelessly updateable zombies, to Disney having already started creating mindless zombies (from Britney Spears to Miley Cyrus).  From Sarah Palin being a secret communist, to McDonalds being the epicentre of the future breakout.  On reflection, these entries leave us much to ponder as it is quite possible that they could be truthful, but cloaked in parody so as to disguise their truthiness from the sheeple.

So, we are left with several perplexing questions: first, was ‘the event’ a success? From the information I have to hand I think that for American Studies it would have appeared so, yes, as participants and lecturers alike were seen leaving happily discussing the art of the conspiracy theory.  And, secondly, lastly, and by far the most important, is Miley Cyrus a zombie?  Only time will tell.


A. Nonymous.

Monday 14 October 2013

Beyond the Border: The Vancouver Poetry Conference (1963)

Date: 23rd November 2013
Organiser: David Mc Carthy (PhD Candidate at the School of American Studies)
Email: davidmccarthy.uea@gmail.com

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most seminal events in modern American poetry, the Vancouver Poetry Conference 1963. Following the publication of Donald Allen’s prescient The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Warren Tallman and Robert Creeley gathered a number of the New American Poets together in Vancouver for three weeks of poetry readings, public lectures, workshops and roundtable discussions on contemporary experimental poetics. This occasion helped to consolidate and disseminate some of the major theoretical arguments informing experimental American poetry of the period and facilitated an unprecedented level of cross-fertilisation and dialogic exchange between current and successive generations of experimental North-American poets.

To coincide with UEA’s own fiftieth anniversary, the School of American Studies is hosting a one-day conference intended to reassess the continuing legacies of the Vancouver Poetry Conference, its participants and the open-form poetics being championed at it. Speakers will include David Arnold (author of Poetry and Language Writing: Objective and Surreal), Daniel Katz (author of The Poetry of Jack Spicer) and Miriam Nicholls (editor of The Holy Forest: The Collected Poems of Robin Blaser and The Fire: The Collected Essays of Robin Blaser), alongside a range of postgraduate and early-career researchers from the UK, US and Canada who will be discussing issues relating, but not limited, to; the dynamic relationships and intertextual dialogues between the participants (chiefly, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and Denise Levertov), the influence of the conference and its participants on the development of experimental Canadian poetics, instances of Trans-Atlantic poetic exchange between North-America and British little-magazines, the notably absent Jack Spicer, and the general disregard and transgression of literal and conceptual borders endorsed by the open-forms of the New American Poets.

Beyond the Border: The Vancouver Poetry Conference (1963) will also include a screening of the Canadian film-maker Robert Mc Tavish’s new documentary The Line Has Shattered, which chronicles and explores this landmark occasion in innovative North-American poetry using archive footage and interviews with some of the participants half a century later. In addition, Michael Palmer, one of the most important American poets writing today and an original attendee at the Vancouver Poetry Conference, will be giving a reading to conclude the event and help celebrate this important anniversary.    

Trailer for Robert Mc Tavish’s The Line Has Shatteredhttp://vimeo.com/60036134

Michael Palmer’s Page at Poets.org - http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/98

You can register for the conference here. The deadline for registration is 21st October 2013.

Friday 20 September 2013

The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich

Black History Month Exhibition
The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich
@ Norwich Millennium Library

Date: 15th-31st October 2013.
Nature of event: Exhibition
Title: The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Time: Weekdays: 9am-8pm Saturday: 9am-5pm.
Cost: Free
For more info email: n.grant@uea.ac.uk 

Running as part of the celebrations for Black History Month 2013, this exhibition will examine the extent to which the local political landscape influenced the character of anti-apartheid protest in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. Made up of original materials form the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archive, it will outline the efforts of Norfolk based activists to promote the boycott South African goods and document the fundraising campaigns launched to enable black and coloured students from South Africa to study at UEA. 

Racial Profiling: The Case of Trayvon Martin

Public Lecture: Racial Profiling: The Case of Trayvon Martin - Prof. Charles Lumpkins
Date: Sunday 20th October 2013
Venue: UEA London (Room 5.18)
Time: 11 am – 1 am – Talk followed by Q&A.
Cost: Free


Prof. Charles Lumpkins (Penn State University) will be discussing the recent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of the African American teenager Trayvon Martin. He will analyse the racial significance of the case in the US as well as the continued problem of racial profiling in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prof. Lumpkins is lecturer in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of African Americans with particular interests relating to the history of social and political movements, the history of the working-class. He 2008 he published American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics with Ohio University Press.

The talk will take place on Sunday 20th October at UEA London, 102 Middlesex Street, London E1 7EZ.

Please email n.grant@uea.ac.uk to register.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Black History Month 2013

The School of American Studies is running a number of free public events to coincide with Black History Month. Led by UEA staff and postgraduates, all of these talks are completely free and will be held at the Norwich Millennium Library as well as Fusion at the Forum (see event listings below). They will cover a range of subjects from Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to the Anti-Apartheid movement in Norwich. If you'd like any more information about any of these events, or AMS's involvement in Black History Month as a whole, please email Dr. Nick Grant (n.grant@uea.ac.uk).

Full list of events:

Title: ‘“Forever Free?” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Real Meaning of Freedom’ – Dr. Becky Fraser (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 1st October
Time: 6-7:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

In the 150th year anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved peoples in the Confederate States of America, this lecture will consider the very complex and complicated dimensions of freedom for the nearly four million enslaved peoples the Proclamation applied to. In addition it will question whether Lincoln can be, and indeed should be, hailed as the Great Emancipator, given the limits of the actual declaration and its historical legacies.

Title: ‘Collection and Commemoration: Slavery in Sight and Memory’ – Nicole Willson (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 10th October
Time: 12-1:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

This talk looks at visual representations of slavery in museums and memorial sites across the United Kingdom. It considers the unseen and the unsaid in such commemorative spaces and addresses the idea that the practice of memorialisation is twinned with forgetting. Contemplating the evolution of museological practice from the birth of the modern museum in the eighteenth century, it also ponders whether such practices can offer restitution and for whom, if they do, this restitution serves. 

Title: ‘Warrior Marks: Alice Walker’s Writing’ – Dr. Rebecca Tillett (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 15th October
Time: 6-7:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

The controversy surrounding both the publication of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (1982) and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation focused on claims that Walker had refused a full focus on racism in order to discuss African American women’s experiences of sexism in the 1930s American South. Moreover, Walker’s depiction of often fraught relationships and power dynamics between African American men and women, and within black families was condemned as fuelling racist stereotypes. Taking The Color Purple as a starting point, this lecture will assess the relationship between Walker’s writing and her own  passionate and ongoing commitment to political commentary and activism.

Title: ‘The Local Dimension of the Anti-Apartheid Movement: the Case of Norfolk’ – Dr. Nick Grant (UEA)
Venue: Norwich Millennium Library
Date: 16th October
Time: 6-7:30 pm
Nature of Event: Talk
Cost: Free

This talk will address the materials that make up the Global Anti-Apartheid Movement in Norwich exhibition. It will explore the contributions of local businesses, politicians and students in Norwich to the international consumer boycott of apartheid South Africa. 

Title: Racial Profiling: The Case of Trayvon Martin – Prof. Charles Lumpkins (Penn State University)
Date: 24th October 2013
Nature of event: Talk
Venue: Fusion, the Forum, Norwich
Time: 6–7:30 pm – Talk followed by Q&A.
Cost: Free
Prof. Charles Lumpkins will discuss the recent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of the African American teenager Trayvon Martin. He will analyse the racial significance of the case in the US as well as the continued problem of racial profiling in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prof. Lumpkins is lecturer in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of African Americans with particular interests relating to the history of social and political movements, the history of the working-class. He 2008 he published American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics with Ohio University Press.

Thursday 12 September 2013

1963: A Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement

On the 14th October AMS’s Dr. Malcolm McLaughlin and Dr. Nicholas Grant will be at the British Library to discuss the significance of 1963 for the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States and for racial politics around the world.

1963 looms in American memory as a year that changed the course of the nation's history, while shaping how the United States was perceived around the world. When considering the Civil Rights movement, it is so often the events of that year that come to mind: iconic images of police officers setting dogs and turning fire hoses on peaceful marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, in full view of the press and television cameras; Martin Luther King's ‘I have a dream’ speech at the March on Washington on 28 August. 

Dr. McLaughlin will focus on the March on Washington and will ask what we can learn about the Civil Rights movement, its ambitions, and its achievements, by thinking about controversies surrounding the march at the time, and how it has entered American folklore since. Dr. Grant will then open up some new perspectives on the civil rights movement by tracing political connections between black activists in the United States and South Africa, and showing how the Birmingham campaign and March on Washington travelled overseas, shaping racial politics around the world.

This event is co-sponsored by the University of East Anglia and the Eccles Centre at the British Library.

You can book a place for the talk here.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Nicole Willson at the British Museum

In September, current AMS Postgraduate student Nicole Willson will be giving what promises to be a fascinating 'Gallery Talk' at the British Museum in London. She will be speaking on 'Curiosity, collection and memory: thinking about slavery and display in the Age of Enlightenment' - a subject that is close to her doctoral dissertation on the literature, history and culture of the black diaspora. Guiding listeners through the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) at the museum, Nicole will discuss the intersections between discovery, collection and slavery.

From Hans Sloane's encounters with enslaved people and plantation labour in his voyages to Jamaica in the early eighteenth century, to the advancement of the abolitionist movement at the century's end. this talk will consider how the Enlightenment, and the museum as its cultural emblem, struggled to negotiate the problem of slavery.

The talk will take place at 1.15pm on Friday 20th September. Click here for more information. You can follow Nicole on twitter here.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

The Battle of Gettysburg at 150

Seven score and ten years ago today, the Battle of Gettsyburg - perhaps the most pivotal moment in the American Civil War - was being fought in Pennsylvania. You can see how Harper's Weekly reported things at the time here, and the New York Times Disunion blog has a great assessment of "What Gettysburg Proved", here. Those two links are the tiny tip of a very large iceberg of online commentary and resources. So below, a selection of links that have caught our eye on Twitter. Please feel free to share your own suggestions for further reading in the comments.