On 27 March 2009, the American Studies Department at the University of Groningen hosted the Seventeenth National Amerikanistendag, co-organized by the Netherlands American Studies Association (NASA), on the topic of “Fired Up and Ready to Go? – Envisioning Change in America’s Race, Class, and Gender Debates.” Inspired by the results of the 2008 presidential elections, which, for many observers, signified a tremendous step forward in bringing the United States closer to its democratic ideal, laid down more than two centuries ago in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men [and women] are created equal,” this conference was dedicated to an exploration of the (changes inherent in the) meanings of “equality” and “difference” in nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century America.
Daniel Morris of Purdue University (who currently holds a Fulbright Chair at Radboud University Nijmegen) opened the official part of the program with a keynote lecture on “Revisioning the New York School Social Documentary Tradition: Image-Text Relations in Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1985).” Highlighting the intersection of racial, ethnic, and class categories in Goldberg’s work, Morris demonstrated how Goldberg reinterpreted the social documentary tradition and, rather than subscribing to the progressive hope for social change, deconstructed the prevailing myth of upward mobility held by the chronically poor, migrant communities in California.
Morris’s lecture was followed by two rounds of four parallel workshops each in which 23 undergraduate and graduate American Studies students as well as five researchers from eight universities across The Netherlands and Belgium had the opportunity to present their work to a larger audience. The formal part of the day, finally, concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring seven participants (including five Fulbrighters) from the United States, Belgium and The Netherlands. True to the Amerikanistendag’s central mission to provide a platform organized by and for advanced students to take their first steps on the academic stage, the central theme of the conference was designed by the incredibly talented student members of the organizing team: Suzanne Enzerink, Ingrid Hofstra, Judith Katz and Jonathan Key. With more than 100 registered participants willing to travel all the way up to the far North (some of them flying in from the U.S. on the morning of the conference, and some even mastering train cancellations on time), the organizers are pleased to look back on a hugely successful day.
Our call for papers elicited an astounding number of 31 proposals on a wide range of topics related to issues of race, class, and gender in the U.S. and beyond, and we were able to set up eight workshops on: “Negotiating Race Relations in Politics and Society,” “Race Relations in the South,” “Hybridity and Transdifference: Transcending Ethnic Binaries and Linguistic Ghettos,” “Hybrid/Postethnic Music,” “Representations of Ethnicity and Gender in Literature and the Arts,” “Gender(ed) Politics,” “Dutch-American Relations,” and “Alternative Visions of American Society.” Almost all workshops featured speakers from different universities, and it was fascinating to see how in many cases widely different issues were approached from similar theoretical angles. It was perhaps no coincidence that the postethnic and hybridity frameworks, both of which problematize notions of difference and attempt to deconstruct the binary oppositions of “us vs. them,” reemerged in many papers as an enabling way to counteract multiple forms of inequality and discrimination.
By far the most popular workshops with standing-room-only capacities for a large part of the audience turned out to be “Hybrid/Postethnic Music” (featuring three speakers from the Universities of Utrecht and Groningen) and “Gender(ed) Politics” (featuring four speakers from the Universities of Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Groningen). As the three presenters on, respectively, American Independent music, Chicano music, and Blues were arguing, it is not surprising that, due to its popular appeal, music has been identified by several hybridity theorists as one of the tools at the forefront of dismantling racial boundaries, which makes it one of the most privileged vehicles of cross-racial identification. The Gender workshop offered highly sophisticated readings of the subtle racial and gender biases embedded in TV ads and media representations of Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign while at the same time also interrogating the significance of Obama’s presidency for the LGBT community in light of the current shift towards a more conservative form of gay activism.
Final Roundtable Discussion
The formal part of our program concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring Bart Eeckhout (University of Antwerp), Andrew Fearnley (University of Groningen), Barry Goldensohn (Skidmore College), Lorrie Goldensohn (Vassar College/Fulbright Chair at VU University Amsterdam), Gale Mattox (US Naval Academy/Fulbright Chair at the Roosevelt Study Center), Daniel Morris (Purdue University/Fulbright Chair at Radboud University Nijmegen) and Katherine Preston (College of William and Mary/Fulbright Chair at Leiden University). The discussion took as its starting point Barack Obama’s insistence, voiced during election night, that “[i]n this country we rise and fall as one nation.” By means of this statement, he evoked the spirit of the integrationist branches of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, promising to fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream by working towards an inclusive America that no longer thinks of itself as a WASP nation but one that will grant all of its racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender minorities equal chances of political participation. For this reason, we asked all of our roundtable participants to respond to the following prompt before the discussion was opened up to the audience: “In this new Age of Obama, what, in your view, is the current (relative) significance of traditional identity categories such as African-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, male vs. female, gay American, working-class or middle-class American, and to what extent do these categories still provide an accurate depiction of the stratification of American society? Has the election of Barack Obama paved the way for a more unified American identity, or is the separate classification of American identities according to race, gender, class, or sexuality still justified (or politically necessary) in the United States of President Obama?”
Responses to this prompt were as controversial and as mutually provocative as we had hoped for. While some participants were willing to grant Obama at least some of the capacity to effect social change that he is so universally endowed with, others – who focused in particular on the situation of gays, African Americans, and women – insisted that it will require a much more substantiated effort than that of just one non-white president to ameliorate at least some of the effects of (a long history of) entrenched sexual, racial, and gender inequalities in American society. Statistics about African American young males’ unemployment rates, for example, show how easy it still is for potential employers to circumvent affirmative action measures by hiring Latinos and/or African American women instead of African American males. Moreover, the fact that the Californian electorate voted in favor of Proposition 8 on election night also raised the question of how effective a progressive president’s efforts at social change can be when he is at the same time confronted with a largely conservative American public.
Our discussion could have gone on for much longer, but a borrel was waiting for us, which provided a very relaxed conclusion to a highly stimulating day before most of our guests had to rush off again to catch their southbound trains home.
Report by Marietta Messmer, University of Groningen