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Thursday, March 28, 2019

March 28, 2019: NeMLA 2019 Recaps: My Second Af Am Panel

[This past week we held the 50th Anniversary NeMLA Convention in Washington, DC. It was a great time as ever, and this week I’ll highlight a few of the many standout moments and conversations for me. Lemme know if you’d like to hear or chat more about the NeMLA Board, the American Area, next year’s convention in Boston, or anything else!]
As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, I got so many great abstracts for my “African American Literature and the Ironies of Freedom” call that I was able to create two panels. Complementing the Morrison panel was this trio of wonderful papers that looked at other African American lit and voices from across literary history:
1)      Emma McNamara: Emma, a Washington, DC high school English teacher and independent scholar, started us off with a linguistic and structuralist analysis of Walter Dean Myers’s ground-breaking YA novel Monster (1999). Emma’s paper highlighted four different languages/codes in the course of Myers’s novel, and used them to analyze issues of race and culture, mass incarceration and the justice system, and other vital American and 21st century themes and threads. But she also made a potent case for two crucial literary threads alongside those historical and cultural ones: the role of narrative in creating and contesting images of such themes; and the role of audience (and thus reader response theory) in engaging and interpreting those texts. All questions that helped shape the rest of this great panel as well!
2)      Pearl Nielsen: Pearl carried those conversations forward a couple decades, looking at two complex and crucial works of contemporary African American literature: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s autobiographical and political Between the World and Me (2015) and Teju Cole’s novel Open City (2011). Her multi-layered analyses of these texts nicely laid out the complicated relationship between collective and individual identity, a frame that of course relates closely to members of a racial and ethnic community like African American (already complicated here since Cole is the son of Nigerian immigrant parents while Coates’s American roots go back many generations) but that has implications and meanings for all American audiences. But she also and crucially introduced 21st century global connections and contexts into the mix, particularly through the topic of cosmopolitan patriotism, a middle ground between both individual/collective and American/global dualities. Pearl’s paper gave me a lot to think about with both these vital works/authors and every aspect of our current moment.
3)      Rod Taylor: Rod took us back a century, looking at the late 19th century through the lens of anti-plantation literature (a term of his own from his dissertation studying this era). This is of course an era and broad set of literary and cultural histories I know well, and indeed Rod was kind enough to name-check my first book as part of his great analysis of the genre and period. But Rod’s paper focused on an in-depth analysis (including wonderful work with rare archival materials) of an author and figure about whom I knew very little: Daniel Webster Davis. Rod analyzed both Davis’s published poems and his unpublished lecture notes (held in a Richmond, VA collection) at length, making the case for both the challenges/limits of Davis’s perspective and voice and yet his potent revisions of plantation tradition and Lost Cause mythologies. But he also simply and crucially reminded me that there’s always so much more to learn, which remains one of the most powerful and inspiring lessons I take away from each and every NeMLA convention!
Last recap tomorrow,
PS. NeMLA reflections to share?

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