“From my perspective, BAAS’s 60th anniversary was a success … [as it] offered us all the chance to think about what BAAS means to us and enabled us to rededicate ourselves to the organization’s future.” – Organiser Joe Street on BAAS conference 2015
perspective, BAAS’s 60th anniversary was a success. Well, it passed off without many hitches! It opened with a stunning plenary from The Guardian’s Gary Younge. Gary wrote a special piece for the conference which covered many of the themes of his recent journalism. Focusing on recent examples of black men being killed by security guards and police, he argued that the United States might have granted citizenship rights to the African American population but injustice remained, revealed most brutally and tragically in the numbers of African American men killed by American police officers. Gary’s address offered a thought-provoking counterpoint to the opening address from Elizabeth Dibble who also examined the issue of rights in the US. Gary remained at the venue after his talk, engaging with many audience members as they dined on some quite stupendous food at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
Day two saw the regular panels kicking off in blazing sunshine. I understand that the standard was typically high, if the hashtag #BAAS2015 is anything to go by! The BAAS AGM passed without major incident, and a number of new members were elected to the Executive Committee to replace those whose terms have expired. Friday’s plenary address was given by Professor Sarah Churchwell, of UEA. Her lecture offered an interdisciplinary examination of the background to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and included numerous fascinating insights into the book’s genesis. Perhaps the highlight for me was Professor Churchwell’s discussion of New York City’s traffic lights during this period. Anarchy reigned, it would seem. Following the lecture, the delegates decamped to the delightful Laing Art Gallery for a reception sponsored by next year’s conference hosts, Queen’s University Belfast. The canapes and champagne were delightful.
Day three saw the sun coming out to play yet again, and a plethora of great panels again documented at #BAAS2015. The evening’s plenary address from Professor Dana Nelson of Vanderbilt University expanded the argument of her 2008 book Bad for Democracy to the Obama years. The book argued that the presidency has become too powerful in recent years, a state of affairs which has hindered substantive political participation among the populace. This was another provocative and stimulating lecture which provided much food for thought as delegates headed to Newcastle Civic Centre for the gala dinner. During the banquet, Doug Haynes and Uta Bablier presented prizes to the BAAS Award winners, continuing the Association’s tradition of celebrating the best in American Studies Scholarship and supporting exciting new research. At the meal’s conclusion, to the rousing tones of The Tornados’ ‘Telstar,’ BAAS’s own glitterball Sputnik was ceremonially passed into the hands of Philip McGowan, the organizer of the next BAAS conference. Phil placed Sputnik on its plinth, heralding the start of the long-awaited return of the BAAS Disco. Word has it that Dad-dancing was witnessed, although I must stress that I received no official confirmation of this sighting.
Sunday saw the hardcore delegates gathering for one final push, and the conference closed with a ‘BAAS at 60’ plenary session chaired by the current BAAS Chair, Sue Currell, and featuring former Chairs Judie Newman, Richard King, Martin Halliwell, and Phil Davies. Nick Witham offered a paper on BAAS’s Cold War origins, and Sue Wedlake, one of BAAS’s great friends from the US Embassy, offered her thoughts on her long association both with the Embassy and with us. The session offered us all the chance to think about what BAAS means to us and enabled us to rededicate ourselves to the organization’s future. I cannot think of a better way to end an exhausting but successful and most of all fun conference.
Joe Street is Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University, Newcastle. He was the chief organiser of the 2015 BAAS conference. His research focuses on African American radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s and the San Francisco Bay Area in the same period. His latest book, Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash will be published in early 2016.
Want to read more about BAAS conference 2015?
Head over to U.S. Studies Online where Rebecca Harding considers the twentieth century and twenty-first century literature panels at BAAS, and reviews Sarah Churchwell’s plenary; Hannah Murray looks at the strong nineteenth century presence, along with Dana Nelson’s plenary; and Rosemary Pearce reviews the papers on race in America and the Sunday BAAS at 60 roundtable.