Conference Review: ‘Protest: Resistance and Dissent in America’


BAAS Postgraduate Conference

PROTEST: Resistance AND Dissent In America
15th November 2014, University of Sussex


Review by Bianca Scoti (University of Glasgow)

To a student like me who has a background in American Labour history, no topic could sound more interesting than one that goes by the name of ‘Protest: Resistance and Dissent in America’. However, the conference went far beyond the ‘classic’ interpretation of dissent. It was only when preparing to submit my abstract that I realized how protest and dissent in America history and culture have hidden under many guises.

Attendees showed a great deal of commitment as reaching Brighton for the one-day conference proved a challenging task thanks to the sink hole on the M25. Once we reached our destination, our two hosts, sisters Sima and Shima Jalal Kamali, provided a warm and welcoming environment for all. Together with the BAAS postgraduate representative Rachael Alexander, they succeeded in putting together a vast array of engaging panels that explored the theme from every possible angle. Presenters addressed instances of protest and dissent in America through sound, visual culture, history of art, clothes and colours, written and spoken word.

Heuy P. Newton

Heuy P. Newton

The morning’s plenary lecture set the mood for the whole conference. With ‘The Shadow Of The Soul Breaker: Understanding Huey P. Newton’, Dr Street illustrated how insight from other fields such as psychology can help correct short-sighted interpretations of historical events and figures based on simplistic assumptions or moral judgement. He engaged with the previous literature on the leader of the Black Panther Party arguing that such interpretations have tended to ‘pathologize’ Newton. Therefore, Dr Street proceeded to analyse Newton’s behaviour employing evidence from medical literature, to highlight the importance of environmental factors , rather than pathology, on his mental health and, which ultimately led to his tragic demise.

Turning to the panels, the importance of a multidisciplinary approach is perhaps most evident in Vanessa Zidros’ paper, ‘The Examination of Anne Hutchinson by the General Court (1637)’. Vanessa’s presentation is an example of the variety of approaches that we can apply to the study of American history and culture. She investigated Anne Hutchinson’s trial in Puritan New England, exploring Hutchinson’s religious dissent through the prism of Historical Pragmatic. It took an interdisciplinary approach to linguistics that investigates language in past contexts and the intentions and meanings hidden beyond the speakers’ utterances. Thus, Vanessa unveiled the linguistic strategies that both parties involved in the trial deployed against each other highlighting how Hutchinson’s language appears clearly as a political rebellion. This approach can be useful as it provides us with a deeper understanding of the unequal power relations in Puritan New England and of the subtle ways in which language can be deployed to challenge authority.

'Jazz', Toni Morrison (1992)

‘Jazz’, Toni Morrison (1992)

Several presentations tapped into the concept of language as weapon of dissent albeit from different perspectives. I was lucky to have the privilege to chair a panel ‘The Sound of Protest’, that stimulated a long and stimulating discussion, which also revolved around the idea of art as a form of political resistance. Both presenters talked about jazz. In his paper, ‘African-American Cultural Entrepreneurship in Twenties Boston, Massachusetts’ Craig explained how, against a backdrop of heightened racial discrimination, Boston saw the rise of a national, rather than simply local, jazz scene. In the same panel, Ellen O’Donoghue Oddy, investigated the reinvention of language in Toni Morrison’s Jazz. Beginning from the assumption that history is made by conquerors, Ellen discussed the linguistic creations that Morrison uses as a device to reclaim Black history. Thus, in the book the written word is reinvented to echo the creative impulse of Jazz, suggesting that history is only real when is felt.

Other panels covered the concept of the written word as instrument of resistance and medium to understand dissent. Mark Walmsley’s paper focused on the role that newspaper coverage plays in our understanding of history and particularly of social activism. In discussing the coverage of the Stonewall riots in 1969, Mark highlighted the media’s focus on the spectacular and sensational, thus illustrating the necessity to be cautious when approaching these sources of information. For instance, by portraying the above mentioned riots as representative of the whole LGBT movement across the country, media offered a radicalised, and ultimately limited image of the movement.

Shaun Wallace’s paper on black literacy and slave rebelliousness in the US South at the turn of the nineteenth century, tapped into the concept of literacy as a weapon of resistance that empowered slaves as well as exposing slavery. The presentation also provided an interesting methodology as Shaun analysed the language used in runaway advertisements for literate slaves to illustrate the role literacy played in the decision that led to the slaves’ escape. The words in these articles showed an awareness on the part of the slave owner of the power of literacy, not only because the ability to read and write helped slaves to make informed decisions and pass as free men, but also slaves used it as an instrument to forge a new identity for themselves in order to adapt to their environment.

President Obama, White House Correspondents' Dinner (2010)

President Obama, White House Correspondents’ Dinner (2010)

Words as both instrument of empowerment and resistance were also the focus of Jamie Nixon’s paper, ‘”You Think I’m Joking”: President Obama’s Stand-Up Comedy Addresses at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the Utilisation of Comedy to Deflect Political Resistance and Criticism’. The presentation focused on US President Obama’s use of wit to undermine his political opponents. Jamie used a variety of examples from Obama’s speeches to illustrate how comedy can be used as a weapon. As comedy and satire are traditionally means of expressing dissent by minority or under-represented groups, the paper stimulated further discussion on issues of race and the relation between Obama’s use of comedy in that guise and his African American identity.

Henna Karhapaa took this further by showing how the use of wit as a political instrument is not a new expedient. In her presentation, ‘Bostonians in Distress’, Henna explored satire during the British Blockade of Boston in 1774. Approaching the subject from a history of art perspective, Henna analysed several outstanding satirical prints of that time. Such approach illustrated how the analyses of technical details as well as the narrative displayed in such images can help us understand the ways in which such vibrant and expressive media were able to reach a wider audience.

'The Bostonians in Distress' (1774)

‘The Bostonians in Distress’ (1774)

From this brief overview of some of the presentations, we have a sense of the change in the current American studies landscape. It is not only more common, but almost required to borrow approaches and methodologies from other disciplines. This conference has been particularly rewarding for me as I have started thinking of different venues I could explore to enhance my research. When I started my project, ‘Persian rugs in American homes during the Gilded Age’, I struggled to look at middle class women’s purchases of Oriental objects as an act of protest. However, this conference helped me realize that consumer culture can be an instrument of dissent and resistance.

The concept of using protest as a means to reclaim and re-write history has been the underlying theme to many of the presentations helping us look at the strategies that minority groups devised to reclaim their past and their identity. Far from being limited to ‘conventional’ forms of protest, the conference has highlighted the fact it is possible to approach this theme creatively: some forms of dissent might appear subtle but their results are long-lasting and just as revolutionary.

Bianca Scoti

Bianca Scoti is a third year part-time doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Glasgow anda member of BAAS, HoTCUS, and The Glasgow American Studies Postgraduate Research Group.Her thesis, Persian Rugs: A Touch of The Exotic in Gilded Age America, investigates the meanings behind the purchase of this class of commodities. Ultimately, she aims to illustrate how Persian rugs unveil the American middle class' tension between their quest for sophistication and the desire to express their class identity in the post-Civil War era.

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Review by Dr. Tomas Pollard (Hogeschool Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands)

Bianca Scoti

Sophie Anderson, Scheherazade c.19 Century

The British Association of American Studies postgraduate conference,  “Protest: Resistance and Dissent in America” attracted papers that redefined “resistance” and “dissent” in many ways, offering refreshing views of American culture.  In some cases there was a simultaneous resistance and embrace of the same aspect of culture.  For instance, Joanne Mildenhall’s paper, ‘“Little Things”: The Civil Disobedience of Thoreau’s “Huckleberries”’ explored how Henry Thoreau’s huckleberry picking resisted the values of capitalist ownership by taking the natural fruits of the forest.  By contrast, Bianca Scot in her paper, “American Scheherazade: Persian Rugs as Protest and Symbols of Emancipation” showed how ownership becomes a means of resistance when American women expressed their new found political emancipation by buying Persian rugs in the 1910s, an object often associated with sensuality and Orientalism in the paintings and advertising of the time.

The panel, ‘Challenging Gendered and Sexual Identities’ gave a breadth of papers that summarised the versatility of the conference. Papers focused on forgotten aspects of major protest narratives. For example, Josh Hollands explored the complex negotiations between the gay and labour movements during a beer boycott in gay bars in the 1970s San Francisco in his paper “Boycott Coors: Solidarity and the Role of Labour Activism in the Struggle for Gay Liberation,”.  Looking at more subtle forms of resistance, S. Lou Stratton handled the portrayal of ‘butch clothing’ in the novels of Ann Bannon in her paper on “Butch Gender Identity and Clothing as Dissent: 1950-1969”.  Specifically, she explored how trousers gave female characters a means to express their lesbian identity at a time of scarcity in identity politics.

A few presenters looked at ambivalence as a form of resistance to false choices. Notably in a paper titled “Poetics of Resistance in the Work of Marilyn Chin: from Protest to Dual Allegiance” Jennifer Wang explicated the subtle poetry of Marilyn Chin. Her analysis focused on Chin’s negotiation of her allegiances to both American and Chinese culture, longing for both freedom and looser family bonds. This was embodied in “Beauty, My Sisters, is not Regalia”:

I meant… Mother
I am not telling you where
I am going so that
Where I end up will always be
A surprise. The virtue of America
Is that she has no direction.

Such a mix of obedience and rebellion is hardly seen as an option.   In a paper on “Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and a Typology of Anti-War Protest Songs” Jonathan Stewart reworked Serge Denisoff’s typology of anti-war protest songs to mark the nuances in the messaging of these two major singers of protest songs.  While Dylan became increasing less political, Lennon ended as a composer of major protest songs.

Woody Guthrie by Charles Banks Wilson (2004)

Woody Guthrie by Charles Banks Wilson (2004)

In contrast to the papers given by emerging scholars earlier in the day, Will Kaufman’s presentation was more of a performance. His keynote was the soundtrack to Woody Guthrie, accompanied by Kaufman’s own acoustic guitar.  The songs sounded like an encouraging serenade to a group of exhausted Americanists.  Kaufman showed the radical undertones of Guthrie’s patriotic ballad, “This Land is Your Land”, usually sweetly sung by American children in elementary schools everywhere.  Most Americanists will know that the song was composed in an abject moment after having heard “God Bless America” too many times, but fewer will know of Guthrie’s radical political views or his fine parodic songs.

The songs were placed in the historical contexts of the Depression, American popular song, and Guthrie’s radicalization, all aspects that are fully explored and discussed in Kaufman’s book Woody Guthrie: American Radical.  Guthrie was born in a small town in Oklahoma and may have lived there contentedly his whole life except for the fact that the town was buried by a dust storm during the Dust Bowl in 1933.  This was marked as the starting point for Guthrie’s radicalisation. It occurred as a result of his migratory experience and journalistic endeavors amongst the destitute Californian tent cities that became icons of the Great Depression.  Kaufman demonstrated how the stormy 1930s changed the song-writer. Guthrie evolved from bleak apocalyptic ballads (“So Long”), to playful parodies of hymns, to songs laced with political imagery and conviction.  Narrating how Guthrie crisscrossed the US, Kaufman included pit stops about major influences like the songs of communist Joe Hill who once said that “a pamphlet—no matter how good—is only read once but a good song is sung over and over.”   For instance, Hill’s numerous parodies of religious hymns inspired one of Guthrie’s most endearing parodies “I ain’t got no Home,” a reworking of a saccharin 1938 Carter family hit “The World is not my Home.”

Kaufman’s work has helped redden pages of the American songbook and exposed some of Guthrie’s cultural echoes.  His concluding answers to questions cast a down-to-earth evaluation of the significance of the American tradition of folk music.  The question is not if it will continue, but “What does the tradition do?  Does it change how people vote for instance?”  Guthrie created a hummable jeremiad against the capitalist system, which he liked to call the capitalist cistern, and sang protest songs against corrupt bankers, greedy land owners, and tinsel pop hits from Tin Pan Alley.  “The Land is Your Land” is emblematic of his form of resistance creating a ballad to express a new sense of ownership and defiance of the capitalist hegemony, as in this often forgotten verse:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.

Although Woody Guthrie’s dislike of capitalism has communist roots, it is hard to distance his grievances from many Americans from small towns.  Although he was an extremely talented song writer, he can hardly be seen as an intellectual, and his views may pair up well with socialist Eugene Debs and even a populist Democratic like Ralph Yarborough in the 1960s.  As he emerged from a crisis, his songs represent as much the chaos of the 1930s as the justifiable fervour of many disgruntled Americans.  However, the contribution of Kaufman to the view of Guthrie cannot be dismissed; he has clearly taken a writer of children’s and folk songs, who can appear two-dimensional and jingly at times to be honest, to an entirely new level—all the while preserving the artistry of his songs by performing them.

(For those who could not attend the conference and are interested in seeing Professor Kaufman’s talk, a longer version can be found here).

Tomas Pollard

Tomas Pollard is the coordinator of the American Studies minor at a Bachelor level at the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht (Hogeschool Utrecht) in Utrecht, the Netherlands, teaching courses on literature, American culture, and writing.Currently working on an essay on Kurt Vonnegut, he has published essays on Willa Cather, Henry James, and Joseph Heller.

About Bianca Scoti

Bianca Scoti is a third year part-time doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Glasgow and a member of BAAS, HoTCUS, and The Glasgow American Studies Postgraduate Research Group. Her thesis, Persian Rugs: A Touch of The Exotic in Gilded Age America, investigates the meanings behind the purchase of this class of commodities. Ultimately, she aims to illustrate how Persian rugs unveil the American middle class' tension between their quest for sophistication and the desire to express their class identity in the post-Civil War era.
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