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Monday, 1 December 2014

British Association of American Studies PG Conference at the University of Sussex

Megan Hunt

Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the British Association of American Studies (BAAS) PG conference at the University of Sussex.  The November 2014 conference included a wide and varied programme, reflecting exciting and expansive doctoral research occurring across the U.K. and beyond.  The organizers must really be congratulated for their efforts, and the whole day was a great success. 

My presentation, entitled ‘A Monster of the South': Cape Fear, White Trash, and the Oppositional Region, was nestled between a paper on the appropriation and deployment of Native American stereotypes, presented by Sara Gray (Swansea University), and Hannah Murray’s (University of Nottingham) presentation on the ‘protesting corpse’ in the Edgar Allan Poe tale, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”  The panel therefore explored the often intersecting issues of race, class, and gender, through the examination of a number of cultural products spanning from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century: notably promotional websites, Hollywood film, and literature. 
Robert G. Ingersoll speaking, dangling from
a cord at the edge of the stage is Thomas
De Witt Talmage as a marionette, with one
hand pinned to the Bible (Puck, 1882).
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Other panels proved just as diverse.  The afternoon panel on Religious Dissent was of particular interest to me, and saw examinations of the ‘Great Agnostic’ of the 19th century: Robert Ingersoll, Rebecca Goldstein’s 2010 novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and the Book of Mormon (the original religious text, not the musical!).

Darryl Barthe (University of Sussex) later gave an impassioned genealogy of ‘African American Avengers’, blacks throughout American history who have violently retaliated against the incessant racism and suppression that marked their lives.  In the same panel, Rosemary Pearce (University of Nottingham) presented her remarkable findings on the ‘Reverse Freedom Rides’, ‘a diabolical, inhuman game of revenge,’ in which White Citizens’ Council members offered free transport for African Americans who wanted to leave the South and experience what the Council argued were false promises about greater acceptance and racial harmony in the North.  Fascinating accounts of how the first ‘Riders’ were met off the bus in Massachusetts by Edward Kennedy only added to this already engrossing and yet almost unknown backlash to the civil rights gains of the 1960s.

The conference also benefitted from two excellent keynotes, the first from our own Dr. Joe Street, whose research into the probable effects of solitary confinement on Black Panther founding member Huey P. Newton offered fascinating insights into the last years of Newton’s life and activism.  The constant FBI surveillance Newton was under certainly exacerbated much of Newton’s existing paranoia, which was also linked to his habitual abuse of cocaine.

Following the academic rigours of the day, Will Kaufman’s wonderful keynote on the radicalization of folk legend Woody Guthrie gave us a welcome transition into the more sociable element of the conference. What could have been a more fitting end to the day than a radical, sing-along rendition of ‘This Land is Your Land’?

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