Wednesday, October 23, 2013
October 23, 2013: Book Talk Thoughts: URI Diversity Week
[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, I wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
On two panel conversations that challenged and strengthened my ideas, in two very different ways.
Earlier this month, I was honored to take part in the University of Rhode Island’s 17th annual Diversity Week, and more exactly to be able to give my book talk as part of a day of events coordinated by my New England ASA colleague and good friend Nancy Caronia. Talking about immigration and diversity in one of the nation’s oldest university Multicultural Centers was an exciting and profoundly inspiring experience, and a good reminder for me of why academic as well as public spaces and conversations are important places to share this kind of public scholarly project. And moreover, before I gave my talk I had the chance to hear two distinct and equally potent panel discussions, each of which forced me to think about my own project from additional and crucial angles.
The first panel featured seven URI community members—a mix of undergrads, graduate students, and faculty members—sharing some of their experiences with and perspectives on diversity. Each story was compelling and affecting; together the panel was almost too much to hear and process at one time, in the best of senses. But among my many takeaways, I was struck by a shared idea that represents a complex challenge to one of my book’s central arguments: at least a few of the speakers discussed ways in which the United States is perhaps less tolerant of diversity than other nations, a direct challenge to my second chapter’s argument that we have been defined by diversity since our origin points. Hearing this perspective has, along with other responses I’ve gotten at my book talks, helped me begin to develop an idea that America has been always defined by a multi-layered conflict between inclusive and exclusive attitudes, between a communal openness to such diversity and a concurrent set of fears, prejudices, and legal and social discriminations toward it.
The second panel, organized directly by Nancy, featured four Native American speakers, powerful voices who were both responding to the university’s Common Read (Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing) and sharing some of their more overarching perspectives and identities. Once again, I was impacted in many ways by each speaker and by the foursome overall, but will focus here on one complex and important challenge to my book that their talks highlighted for me. To put it bluntly, in order to focus on the foundational multi-national diversity that I see as largely absent from our national narratives, I almost entirely elide either Native American or African American communities and identities. Since much of my Redefining American Identity focused centrally on those communities, I’m certainly not suggesting that I don’t see them as central to our national community; but nonetheless, their absence from this book is troubling for me to think about. That’s perhaps especially true because this book ultimately argues for inspiring American histories and stories—and of course it’s fair to say that it’s easier to be inspired if we leave out slavery, Native American genocide, and all the related histories and issues. I don’t want to leave them out, though, and this panel reminded me that as I move forward I’ll need to find ways to bring my different book focuses together.
Next talk tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?