Over the years, I have gone to multiple conferences from the Modern Language Association (MLA) conferences where I interviewed for jobs to more specific conferences such as the Catharine Maria Sedgwick conference in St. Louis, Missouri. I like conferences because they provide a space for individuals to connect and listen to individuals present their scholarship. However, I also despise conferences for their pretentiousness and their exploitation, the latter apparent when job applicants must travel to MLA conferences for in-person job interviews, usually paying their own way. One year, I had to pay to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia for an in-person job interview that I had a long shot of getting, but I couldn’t pass up the interview. However, that trip proved fruitful because of the connections I made with other scholars, notably someone I look forward to seeing at other conferences.
For all of the problems I’ve experienced with conferences, there are organizations that have amazing conferences that are welcoming and engaging, that drop the air of pretentiousness for an atmosphere of community. The College Language Association (CLA) is the epitome of this type of conference, one that fosters collaboration and support over the idolization of name-brand scholars. I’ve gone to multiple CLA conferences over the years, and when I miss one, I feel like I’ve missed something special. With COVID, this year marked the first CLA conference since 2019, and my first CLA conference since, I believe, 2017 or 2018. While I could not attend the entirety of the conference, I went to Atlanta for the day to present my research, to attend some panels, and to catch up with some colleagues. Today, I want to highlight some of the things that stood out to me from the panels I attended.
Since I did not ask presenters about posting what I learned, I will not use their names. However, if you would like information on where to reach someone, message me and I will connect you because I want the presenters to have full credit for their work. I am not presenting the specific of these presentations because this is merely my thoughts on the topics they discussed.
During my panel, two scholars presented on Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, specifically looking at Walker’s use of dreaming and her use of floral imagery. As well, one presenter examined Walker’s “remixing” and “sampling,” as she put, of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. All of this made me think about the ways that writers use “remixing” and “sampling” in their works and specifically about the ways we need to think about influence and the ways that authors draw upon other authors in their work. None of this is new, of course, but as the scholar talked about Hurston and Walker, I couldn’t help but think about Ernest J. Gaines and his novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
I thought about Gaines’ novel because he and Walker carried on a correspondence during this period. Walker wrote to Gaines about his use of dialect and noted that she wanted to write middle Georgia Black dialect just as he wrote Souther Louisiana Black dialect. As well, I know, from my work at the Ernest J. Gaines Center, that Gaines and Walker exchanged and commented on one another’s manuscripts during this period. This knowledge has always intrigued me because Gaines’ novel focuses of Miss Jane Pittman, a former enslaved woman, and Walker’s on Grange Copeland, a Black man in Jim Crow Georgia. While Pittman and Copeland are the eponymous characters, each novel focuses either on men (as in Gaines) or women (as in Walker) at the center. The fact that they corresponded and looked at each other’s manuscripts really interests me in thinking about the ways that Gaines and Walker tell the stories of Pittman, Copeland, and others in their work.
Along with this knowledge, I am also intrigued by the fact that Gaines, while he says that no Black writers influenced him during his formative years, talks about Hurston and Jean Toomer in a positive manner, saying if he had read them during his formative years they would have influenced his work. Here, I think about the ways that Hurston influenced Walker, as he writes about in In Search of My Mother’s Garden. I am interested, now that I think about this more, in, at the very least, organizing a class that examines Hurston, Gaines, Walker, and other authors in conversation with one another, diving into the ways that literary influence, “remixing,” and “sampling” works within each of their works.
In another panel, a presenter spoke about the organization of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, notably the first section, “From Slavery to Freedom: 1746–1865.” The speaker talked about the ways that anthologies and edited collections such as this comment, through their organization, on what they deem important. In the Norton, the focus on slave narratives stands out, as the presenter said, because it limits the discussion of the period to a monolithic voice. Specifically, the presenter noted how the omissions of enslaved individuals such as Omar Ibn Said negates the diversity of religion and language and how, even with the incorporation of Victo Sejour, the absence of free people of color in New Orleans, notably the Les Cenelles poets, ignores the diversity of topics and themes. Along with these, I would add the absence of John Marrant, Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, William Wilson (Ethiop), and others leaves out broader discussions of religion, gender, history, and more. The inclusion of these authors, and others, adds to the breadth of the period, providing students with a more comprehensive representation of Black writing from the period.
Finally, a scholar presented on colonialism and the lead up to the Holocaust, specifically looking at texts about Germany’s colonization of Namibia and their genocide of the Herero and Nama people. She spoke about specific novels that focus on the massacre, and I could not hear each of the titles. However, some of them include Zirk Van Den Burg’s Parts Unknown and Rukee Tijingaete’s The Weeping Graves of Our Ancestors. Along with these novels, the presenter spoke about diaries by Afro-Germans about the Holocaust and their own incarceration. Again, I could not hear the authors or titles, and I need to follow up with the presenter here. However, the talk focused on the fact that the Holocaust did not just come out of nowhere. It was connected, as we know, to anti-semitism in Europe but also to colonialism and to racism that the Nazis saw in the United States. We need to remember these connections, looking at the interconnectedness between each of them that led to the murder of 6 million Jews and 11 million individuals in the Holocaust. That does not even include the 16 million Russians that the Germans murdered.
I want to conclude with a quote from Gordon Parks that a presenter shared during a presentation on visual essays. On his role as a photographer, Parks said, “I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or a gun, like many of my childhood friends did … most of whom were murdered or put in prison … but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so.”
As I reflect on the importance of conferences and organizations such as CLA, I think about Parks’ quote. Numerous people ask me what my role is as an educator and scholar, and I constantly think about this topic. Like Parks, I see my scholarship, my writing, my pedagogy, and more as a weapon against “racism, intolerance, poverty” and more. I see spaces such as CLA as respites from the everyday world and also as spaces to recharge and connect with others in the ongoing struggles. CLA is an important organization, one that has, from the outset, fought against injustice not just in the academy but in society as a whole.
I hope to see y’all at CLA 2024. What are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.