Archive for April, 2013

  • Affirmation: BAAS

    This time last week, I was taking in the delights of Wiltshire as I made the journey via South London to Exeter for the British Association of American Studies (BAAS) annual conference. It was quite a trek, and I was naturally fretting about the kind of reception that my paper would get in front of an audience of my peers. Really, I knew what I could expect, and had little reason to worry. This is because I had already delivered a paper at the previous year’s conference. At that time I was still working a full-time job and my holidays were being eaten up by PhD applications, funding proposals, and trips to the British Library. I didn’t mind it; it was a welcome release. Though I loved my job, my passion has always been further study, and it was such a great opportunity to be able to meet the people working in my field before I had even embarked on my academic journey. More than anything, it helped to reaffirm why I had decided to make that leap into the unknown and leave behind the corporate world in which I felt so at ease and in control.

    Since starting my PhD in October, I have had to relearn my attitudes towards everything, and accept that control is something that is peculiarly elusive in the doctoral world. That’s okay though, because I have realised that I like to live a little on the edge, and I’m excited about the prospective uncertainty that I will face in my career, because the people that have touched my life over the past year have helped me to see that the possibilities are endless. The life of a researcher can be quite isolating, and I can see why it would be easy for a lot of people in my shoes to become reclusive, but I have always thrived in a communal environment, and am always seeking out opportunities to attend seminars, conferences and meet up with like-minded friends who I can bounce my ideas off of. BAAS, for me, is the culmination of all of this. With such a thriving community of Americanists, it is hard not to find someone with whom you share some kind of intellectual overlap. When I arrived at the second panel of the morning last Friday to deliver my paper, I was amazed and overwhelmed by the number of people who had come along to listen, and engage with the arguments being presented (last year, I had an audience of about 9, which included the other two panelists and the chair). It was thrilling, and truly enlivening, and I met some wonderful people who were able to offer me some great advice off the back of it.

    A week before the BAAS conference, I went out with my mum, and we spoke about the recent work that I had been doing in the archives. I was happy to see her taking an interest in my work, and she gave me some important things to take away and consider. It also reminded me why communication is so vital to research; when my research, in particular, considers how phantoms of the unconscious have been channeled throughout history, there is no way that I can conceive of exorcising these phantoms without bearing them out publicly. What we bring to light must be shared with the world – and not just the familiar world, but the world in its entirety.

     

  • My Vesey Street, Lower Manhattan

    Lower Manhattan

    Around 6 months ago I took a trip that I will never forget; I went to New York City for the second time in my life. It was the marker of so many wonderful things – my mum’s 50th birthday, mine and Julian’s engagement and my parents’ 28th wedding anniversary. It’s a city that means a lot to us as a family, and to Julian and I in particular, but I won’t go into that here (it’s not long after lunch and I really don’t want to make you hurl).

    While we got to revel in NYC’s manifold delights, and although we got to see most of the things that we hadn’t been able to on our previous trip, I was sad that I still didn’t manage to see it all. For me, the trip was no ordinary jolly. Though I only had five days, I wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to pillage the resources of the NYPL and to seek out the ‘ghosts’ that form the foundation of my American-oriented research project. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture came up trumps here. There were some real gems. It’s a shame that my time was so limited, as just as I found myself having to leave, the material started getting more interesting (and legible!)

    Just before I left London I attended a fantastic seminar hosted by Celeste-Marie Bernier at King’s College London as part of their ‘Race Matters’ seminar series. I don’t remember how, but during the Q&A that followed, the African Burial Ground cropped up in conversation. For a long while, I had wanted to visit the national monument in Lower Manhattan, and had hoped to be able to do so on my trip. I considered it necessary in helping me to build an understanding of how burial (and by this I mean white burial of black history and culture) is imbedded in America’s cultural memory. That aside, I wanted to pay homage to a resource that has been so great an inspiration to me over the past year or so that I’ve been following them on twitter.

    Two days after I visited the Schomburg, I coursed my way around the Lower East side, hitting up Greenwich Village (via Mark Twain’s house), the Highline and Katz’s Deli. In the afternoon, we split from my parents and headed down to the World Trade Center memorial (after booking tickets to visit Lady Liberty on the following day). When we got to the memorial, we were told by the stewards that we needed to collect our tickets from their gift shop on Vesey Street. Hmmm…Vesey Street, I thought. Like Denmark Vesey – the South Carolina former slave that had plotted a huge slave insurrection in Charleston in the early nineteenth century. Although I have since learned that the street was not named after this particular Vesey, I was a little excited at the prospect of this ghost of the American past wreaking its havoc in the financial district, reminding us what it was all built on: namely, greed and slavery.

    Julian and I had planned to visit the African Burial Ground after we had been to the World Trade Center memorial. It would’ve been the last stop – and rightly so – as we had wanted to have some time to reflect as we walked back from the memorial. As we meandered past New York’s municipal building, we took a wrong turn, getting lost down a sidestreet. Eventually, we found the right sidestreet, and the African Burial Ground. When we reached it, however, my heart sank. It had already closed. The sun hadn’t even set yet – it was a beautiful fall day – but we hadn’t realized quite how late it was. I admired the beautiful structure from the outside, and walked around it, reading the information boards that were dotted around at regular intervals. You see, this was, and continues to be, the site of an African burial ground. Beneath the tarmac lie numerous souls, mainly those of slaves who were brought here and buried according to African ritual and custom. It is only in the past decade that the site was declared a national monument. I was deeply upset that I couldn’t go inside and explore the site fully, and this feeling remains with me still.

    We left the memorial and walked back round to Brooklyn Bridge and, though my feet were worn after all the traipsing, Julian managed to drag me to the halfway point. It was breathtaking. We stood there and watched the sun go down on a city that was built by the displaced, the lost and the forgotten.

    Sadly, I know that however deeply I penetrate, and whatever I shore up and excavate in the process, my understanding will always be limited. Next time, however, I will make the African Burial Ground my first port of call. Until then, I hope Vesey continues to make mischief in Lower Manhattan.

     

     

     

  • Itchy Feet

    I’ve always had a vague idea that I’d like to travel, and have charted on a theoretical map in my head all the places that I’d like to see. Mexico, Thailand, Samoa, Brazil, St. Lucia and Croatia are a handful of places that have always been ‘up there’. I’ve been very fortunate to have seen many wonderful places already and I relish any opportunity to explore the unknown treasures that my own small island has to offer, but I have recently felt the urge to step up the vague notions I’ve previously had of raking my feet through foreign sands and reach out for something more tangible.

    I guess it’s only natural that these feelings should surface when I’m planning to take the biggest trip of my life. In November this year I will be jetting off to New Orleans in the name of research, and I hope to spend about a month in the Big Easy. I haven’t travelled that far away from home for that length of time for a long while, and I’ve certainly not done it on my own before. I’m really excited about the prospect, and I get a little bit squealy inside when I think of all the amazing things that I will get to explore. I’m particularly enthused by the idea of getting to see some of the tignons (headdresses worn by free women of colour under colonial sumptuary laws) in the LSM’s collection.  Of course, while I love what I do, and while the libraries and museums will certainly yield an abundance of wonderful things to keep me occupied throughout my stay, I have no shame in admitting that what I am perhaps looking forward to the most is the food.  With fare ranging from beignets, gumbo and barbecue shrimp to po boys, jambalaya and oysters served hot and cold to titillate my taste buds, I know that I’ll be in for a treat, and I might just come home looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed making the preparations for my big trip, and I know that there’s a lot more yet to do (on top of the thesis writing, conference papers, archive work, and museum talks that I will be working on over the next few months), but I am starting to think that this is really only the start of a much bigger journey – a journey that will almost certainly take me away from my familiar London-Norwich enclave for perhaps an unspecified period of time – and I’ve been starting to lay the foundations. I don’t want to say too much at this stage; although my thoughts are no longer a fog, they’re still only blossoming. I hope it won’t be too long before they start to bear fruit, however.

    I’d like to end this piece by mentioning a very dear friend who took a massive leap into the unknown this year, leaving her job, her friends, her home and most of her worldly possessions to go and live and work in France. Her journey has been an uphill struggle, but she has been an inspiration, and I can’t wait to be reunited with her in the summer for a few beautiful days. See, ma chèrie, look what you’ve started! I hope you’ve got something that I can scratch that itch with…

     

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