Friday, 24 October 2014

“Feast of the Mau Mau: Christianity, Conjure and the Origins of Soul Food”

On Wednesday 24th October, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Dr Anthony Stanonis (Queen’s Belfast University) for the fourth seminar in the 2014-15 series. Stanonis is the author of Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Tourism, 1918-1945 (2006) and editor of Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South (2008). His forthcoming book is entitled Faith in Bikinis: Politics and Leisure in the Coastal South Since the Civil War. The topic of the discussion was the religious origin of soul food and the centrality of conjure in African-American foodways.

Dr Stanonis began his presentation by playing Louis Jordan’s 1949 song ‘Beans and Cornbread’, which offered a commentary on American race relations, using black and white food staples as a metaphor. Stanonis argued that the song celebrates togetherness and abundance in its final call for interracial unity: ‘We should get up every morning and hang out together like sister and brothers/
Every Saturday night we should hang out like chitterlings and potato salad.’ What connects each food pairing in Jordan’s song is the magical element of conjure or, more specifically, the belief that certain foodstuffs could elicit a supernatural effect, often to the benefit of racial harmony. With this introduction, Stanonis stressed the importance of examining African American music alongside African religious studies in order to fully understand the origins of soul food.

Central to Stanonis’s argument was the notion that, with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the concept of soul food was reconfigured as the black culinary aesthetic was used to promote cultural nationalism and racial pride. In doing so, Stanonis stated that the important legacy of soul food, with its roots in conjure practices, was obscured, as indicated in the apparent void of references to conjure in scholarly analysis relating to African American foodways and culture. In the context of the 1960s, black leaders thus distanced themselves from conjure and, more generally, voodoo – in an effort to demonstrate African American respectability and dedication to Christianity. Soul food thus achieved popular status in the 1960s as it came to denote togetherness, shared heritage and cultural assimilation within a rapidly changing racial landscape. However, in this form, it was stripped of its supernatural folkway traditions.

Dr Stanonis also indicated that conjure practices in the United States had often been stigmatised and, by default, surrounded by secrecy. Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her anthropological study of conjure Mules and Men (1935) that, ‘Nobody knows for sure how many thousands in America are warmed by the fire of hoodoo because the worship is bound in secrecy. It is not the accepted theology of the nation, and so believers conceal their faith. The practice is shrouded in profound silence.’ In order to understand how this came to be, Stanonis turned his attention to the religious origins of soul food and conjure. African slaves brought with them to the New World their own food customs and spiritual traditions. In the popular and national imagination, religious practices such as conjure and hoodoo, which blended African folk belief with Protestant folk belief, became synonymous with voodoo – a more organised religious practice that mixed Catholicism with African religious traditions. White Americans thus conflated African American folk practice under voodoo and increasingly viewed such practices as savage, often highlighting the cannibalistic impulse of both religions, from transubstantiation to records of African trade in human flesh for consumption. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, white representations of African Americans as savage and superstitious led black leaders and the black middle class to disavow conjure while embracing more mainstream and hegemonic forms of Christianity.

In what proved to be one of the most illuminating aspects of the discussion, Dr Stanonis turned his attention to the role played by jazz and blues musicians in giving voice to spiritual beliefs often denied by racial spokesmen. Stanonis stressed that the ‘soul’ celebrated by black musicians had much in common with soul cooking – both were improvised and possessed a mixed religious heritage. Jazz and blues thus became an important platform in the expression of African American foodways. As the twentieth century progressed, both black and white performers embraced conjure with the aim of subverting the traditionally negative associations. These artistic references to conjure paved the way for a closer examination of the supernatural dimension of soul food, as found within recipes. Stanonis recounted several recipes which claimed to ward off police or to win at cards and dice. Interestingly, some foodstuffs received particular attention amongst conjurers, as indicated by one believer: ‘‘When you peel onions in your home, your supposed to put sugar and salt on the peelings and put in the stove and burn it. That’s keepin’ down the fuss in the house. And if you have any fuss there, put salt on the onion and burn it up.’ Ultimately, Stanonis argued of the importance of conjure at the grassroots level in providing an emotional bulwark against poverty and discrimination. Whilst these conjure practices may on the surface seem like mere superstitions, they were in fact powerful remedies for the African American community during slavery and later, in post-emancipation periods of racial discrimination and unrest. 

Dr Stanonis’s discussion of soul food and conjure in African American foodways was interesting and thought-provoking. In the question and answer session, issues were addressed such as the commercialisation voodoo and soul food on a national and international level. Whilst African American resistance to slavery and discrimination has, in recent decades, received much scholarly attention, Stanonis highlighted an area of study that has remained relatively untapped. By using music to illustrate key aspects of the discussion, Stanonis provided a lively and engaging structure to the presentation and maintained the interest of the audience throughout. In fusing together music studies alongside those of religion and African American society and culture, Dr Stanonis facilitated a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of foodways and conjure which, as he demonstrated, in this context came hand in hand.  

By Rebecca Dunbar
PGR at The University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr Lloyd Pratt  (University of Oxford): ‘Heroic Reading in Emerson and Thoreau’. This is in collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and forms part of the ‘English Visiting Speaker Series’, co-sponsored by the Andrew Hook Centre. It will be held on Thursday 20th November 2014 in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

‘Little Syria: Early Arab Immigrant Life in America’

 Above image: Syrian-American children whose immigrant families settled in New York’s Syrian quarter

On Wednesday 8th October, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Professor Akram Khater (North Carolina State University) for the third seminar in the 2014-15 series. Khater is the author of Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender and the Making of a Lebanese Middle Class, 1861-1921 (2001), Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East (2009) and Embracing the Divine: Passion and Politics in the Christian Middle East (2011). The subject of his talk was the immigrant experience of the first wave of Arab immigrants to the United States, with particular emphasis on the ways in which the immigrants tried to foster a sense of community and identity in their new surroundings. 

Professor Khater began his presentation with a discussion of the immigrant’s motivations for leaving their Eastern Mediterranean homeland. Even at this early stage in the immigrant experience, Khater argued, one finds the historical record plagued by inaccurate assertions of religious persecution as the chief motivating factor. This, Khater explained, belies the relatively unaffected origin point from which they sprang, and speaks more of the advice given to immigrants in Marseilles to exploit the trope of the “Terrible Turk”. Consequentially, the personal or pragmatic motivating factors of many Arab immigrants have been overshadowed by the predominant discourse of religious persecution. A great many Arab immigrants simply sought the better life promised by the economic opportunities of the United States. 

Khater then stressed the importance of early immigrant letters back home in accelerating immigration, as exemplified in the following source: ‘When people of ‘Ayn Arab saw that one man made … [sic] $1000, all of ‘Ayn Arab rushed to come to America … Like a gold rush we left ‘Ayn Arab, there were 72 of us.’ Stories of success, therefore, propelled greater numbers of Arabs to seek a new home in the U.S. For those who made it past the immigration authorities at Ellis Island (of which an estimated 15-20% did not), the reality of life in America garnered mixed responses. For some, New York, or “Nayrik” was like paradise, as indicated in immigrant Saloum Rizk’s statement that ‘“America is a country – but not like Syria. It is really a country like heaven.”’ In contrast, Mikhail Naimy was horrified by the capitalistic impulse in the U.S., describing the nation as the world’s ‘twentieth-century Babylon.’ Thus, the Arab immigrants impressions of America were varied, though Khater noted that daily life was not: For the majority, factory work came to define life in America, and this was reflected in the population dispersal in industrial heartlands such as New York, Detroit, Boston, Chicago and Worchester, Massachusetts, to name a few.

In the second strand of the discussion, Khater turned to the development of an Arab community in the United States and, more specifically, the internal and external tensions that Arabs encountered and negotiated. First, it was critical that the new immigrants retain a sense of group identity, which was achieved primarily through the establishment of multiple newspapers – foremost among them Al-Huda and Mira ‘at al-gharb. In this way, Khater argued, the community created a dialogue and, in this public forum, debated the appropriate levels of acculturation for their people in the United States. One such tension that Khater expanded upon was that of gender: Once in the U.S., Arab immigrants were forced to reconstruct the patriarchal construct of their homeland. Women, who had been expected to remain indoors and adhere to rigid gender roles, found this a difficult prospect in America, compelled as they were to make money for the maintenance of their family, which often involved interacting with men who were not family members, in order to achieve the economic success so coveted. Khater argued that the result of these tensions was often of a hybrid nature, where aspects of Eastern life and customs were fused with that of the West.

Turning to external tensions, Khater discussed the increasing pressures felt by Arab-Americans (and other ethnic groups) to defend their right to enter and remain within the United States. Starting around 1906, and accelerated with the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, the immigration of Arabs to the U.S. was prohibited, threatening the immigration and naturalisation possibilities for thousands of families. In response, a series of legal cases ensued, many of which explicitly raised the issue of race. With particular reference to the landmark Syrian case Dow v. United States, Khater outlined the importance of naturalisation debates. George Dow had been denied citizenship, despite fulfilling the necessary ‘character’ requirements. Therefore, on account of his race, as a non-Caucasian, his application was denied. The Syrian community mobilised in response, aware as they were of the future threat this posed to their entire community. Dow’s legal counsel, comprised of two Jewish lawyers, presented the court with the argument that, if Jesus Christ was semitic, he would have been allowed into the country, therefore they too should be allowed. Ultimately, this case represented the reconceptualisation of race, in what could be described, in the words of Nell Irvin Painter, as an ‘enlargement of American whiteness.’ In overturning the lower court’s decision to deny George Dow citizenship on the grounds that Syrians “were to be classed as white persons”, this represented the moment in which Christianity was mapped onto race. The implications of this, Khater argued, were far-reaching, in that the assimilation of Arab-Americans under the banner of ‘white’ distorted the correct proportions of institutional/welfare support that they were entitled to receive.

Khater concluded his paper with the interesting observation that Middle Eastern history refuses easy cartographical placement. At the height of Arab-U.S. immigration, the Eastern Mediterranean lost one-third of its total population – and this Arab diaspora perforates the notion of a static national history. Thus, Khater encouraged the audience to think about the importance of revising history to include the constantly moving and fluid immigrant communities. During the question-and-answer session, Khater went on to stress that the main difference between Arab-Americans and other ethnic groups is that being an Arab-American has never been a good thing. Beginning in the 1960s, people of Arab descent were retreating from their Middle-Eastern identity, increasingly identifying as ‘Lebanese’. This, Khater stated, has gained greater momentum in post-9/11 American society. Interestingly, Khater noted the extent to which the ‘Lebanese’ identity has successfully gravitated into mainstream American culture, as evinced in one contemporary advert by insurance company Geico, featuring Count Dracula at a blood bank who exclaims, ‘“I love the Lebanese!”'

Professor Khater’s discussion of ‘Little Syria’ and the early Arab community in America was highly engaging and expansive, extending beyond the early Arab experience and into the present-day. At this moment in time, Middle Eastern politics  are in the international spotlight, with discussions over nationalism and multi-nationalism receiving heightened attention. As such, Khater contributed to the much-needed and important discussion of Arab nations and their dispersed peoples. Formulated through an American lens, the discussion also helped to facilitate a greater empathy toward an ethnic sub-set of the American population often overlooked or, as is often the case, misunderstood. 

 By Rebecca Dunbar

PGR at the University of Glasgow   

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr Anthony Stanonis  (Queens University Belfast): ‘Feast of the Mau Mau: Christianity, Conjure and the Origins of Soul Food’. This will be held on Wednesday 22nd October 2014 in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

‘Really Reading Junot Diaz: Literature of the “new immigration”’

On Thursday 2nd October, The University of Glasgow was delighted to welcome Dr Maria Lauret (University of Sussex) to the second lecture of the Andrew Hook Centre’s 2014-2015 seminar series. This lecture was co-sponsored by the English Literature Visiting Speaker Series and, as such, attracted a multi-disciplinary audience with diverse research interests and expertise.

Dr Lauret’s lecture focused on the intricate use of language in Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), described by The New York Times as ‘an extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, [and] confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo.’ Diaz’s multi-lingual ‘immigrant’ literary style is of central interest to Dr Lauret whose research interests encompass, amongst other things, twentieth-century immigration and Americanisation and, particularly, the literature of the ‘new immigration.’ Indian-born American writer Bharati Mukherjee identifies the literature of the new immigration as inherently different from old immigrant literature, which performed an assimilatory function. By contrast, the literature of the new immigration demonstrates the powerful ideological and cultural hold of the homeland on ‘new’ arrivals on U.S. soil. Lauret, drawing on this idea, cited Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” (1883) which, engraved at the foot of the State of Liberty, reads ‘Give me your tired, your poor/ your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’ This, Lauret stated, does not apply to the new wave of Latin American immigrants whose traumatic history finds no refuge in the historically complicit North American states.

The lecture began with a close reading of the opening passage of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which Dr Lauret described as both grandiose and expansive, simultaenously highlighting Diaz’s original and important use of language: ‘despite “discovering” the New World the Admiral died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices.’ Intrigued by the word ‘dique’, Lauret discovered that in Dominican slang, the word, deriving from French-Creole, means ‘supposedly’ or ‘so they say’. In choosing this word, Lauret argued that Diaz makes a daring political statement, namely, in his implicit recognition of Haitian history and culture, so central to (though often denied by) the Dominican Republic. Dr Lauret directed the audience toward Diaz’s political message, calling to mind Toni Morrison’s assertion that racially-marked languages can revolutionise literature. Diaz, through the use of the word ‘dique’, critiques the Dominican disapproval of blackness. It is here, in the minute intricacies of the text’s language, that Diaz’s political agenda is found. 

Thus, in order to fully understand the language and meanings of Diaz’s text, the reader has to delve beyond the surface-level. Diaz does not translate the interwoven foreign words: He leaves it to the reader to probe beneath the surface, in much the same way that immigrants must learn to navigate the nuances of language in their new communities. In this way, Lauret argued, the tables are turned: English, Spanish/Spanglish and Dominican slang are given equal treatment in a narrative that denies the cultural hegemony of one language.

In what prove one of the most intriguing lines of enquiry in the lecture, Dr Lauret stressed the important role of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, alongside Diaz’ short story collections Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012) in initiating and, indeed, mastering, multilingual fusion literature. Dr Lauret noted that fear of contamination of imperial languages by Creoles and fear of miscegenation has traditionally gone hand in hand. The topicality of language discussions in relation to Diaz’s works cannot be overstated, given that, in 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that ethnic and racial minorities will comprise a majority of the nation’s population within a generation. Thus, Diaz’s hybridisation of language reflects the writer’s hopes for a post-imperial, fusion literature which treats all languages and cultures with the appropriate level of respect.

Lastly, Dr Lauret drew attention to the problematic nature of the majority of immigrant literature, as identified by Diaz himself: ‘“I feel I’m not a … [sic] native informer [who is] only there to loot them [the immigrant group] of ideas, and words, and images so that you can coon them to the dominant group.’ To the contrary, Lauret persuasively argued that the meaningful and ground-breaking purpose of Diaz’s work is to create a universal language, a language that, in its fusion of alien tongues, is deeply ‘American’. Thus, by ‘really reading’ Junot Diaz and the seamless integration of languages contained within the pages of his novel, Dr Lauret argued that the astute reader participates in the move toward a universal language. In what was a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking discussion, Dr Lauret encouraged the audience to both think about and engage with multi-lingual texts and to re-think the notion of ‘Americanisation’, which, in this literature of the ‘new’ immigration, strives to integrate the language and culture of the ‘new’ immigrant groups within mainstream American culture.

Rebecca Dunbar
PGR at the University of Glasgow

Thursday, 2 October 2014

American Impressionism: artistic networks in nineteenth-century Paris

Welcome back to the postgraduate run blog for the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies at the University of Glasgow. Yesterday, 1st October 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Frances Fowle (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery) to the first of the Centre’s 2014-2015 seminar series. In what was a fascinating lecture, Dr. Fowle discussed ‘American Impressionism: artistic networks in nineteenth-century Paris.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr Fowle’s lecture focused on the current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, titled American Impressionism: A New Vision. Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, A New Vision traces the discovery of Impressionism by American artists in the late 19th century.  On show are over 70 works produced in both Europe and the United States between 1880 and 1900, and the exhibition has received fantastic reviews from the press: The Herald called it "An astonishing show", while The Guardian deemed the exhibition as "...full of radical talent."

Having previously been on show at the Musée des Impressionnismes in Giverny, A New Vision went on display at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in July 2014. The exhibition ends on the 19th October 2014 (so there is still time to go!!) and will move on to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (Here is the exhibition information:

Dr. Fowle began by discussing the four groups with which the exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery is divided into. The first group includes major figures such as Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler; these artists lived in Paris and were close personal friends of the French Impressionists, especially Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. The second group of American artists trained in Paris and/or settled near Monet at Giverny in 1887. The third group of American Impressionists worked in the USA, and includes William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam and Theodore Robinson. The last American group, known as 'The Ten', championed Impressionist art practices in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After this introduction to the exhibition, Dr. Fowle began her talk by displaying and analyzing the sequence of women and children that shows the great Mary Cassatt at her most singular. For example, in one painting – a profoundly tender painting from 1890 of a child curled comfortably into a woman's body – Cassatt captures the domesticity of contemporary female life whilst showcasing the intimate bond between a mother and her child. Of interest for this particular painting is the fact that the mother has her back to the viewer, and as Dr. Fowle suggested, this can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

Dr. Fowle also highlighted that Cassatt objected to being described as an impressionist on the grounds that she was an “independent artist”. That vignette speaks volumes not only about Cassatt’s character but also about so-called ‘American Impressionism’ in general, a movement which never regarded itself as an offshoot of a weightier French parent. With this in mind, Dr. Fowle asked the audience to consider the question - what actually is ‘American Impressionism’?

One of the highlights of Dr. Fowle’s talk was her discussion of John Singer Sargent. Just as Cassatt had cultivated a close friendship with Edgar Degas, Sargent sparked a fruitful friendship with Claude Monet in Giverny, near Paris. Dr. Fowle introduced us to this by displaying the image below, where Sargent, who succeeded in Giverny where others had failed, paints Monet painting outdoors in the great studio of nature:

Sargent first met Monet in 1876 at the Second Impressionists Exhibit in Paris – the Impressionists had to have their own exhibits since the Salon, the official art exhibit of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, refused to display their paintings – but the two artists were closest ten years later and painted together at Giverny. Sargent admired the way that Monet worked out of doors, and imitated some of his subjects and methods in sketches such as the one above. It is characteristic of Sargent to give a human view of Monet's practice and of the patience of his wife, who sits behind him. Their friendship endured, and Dr. Fowle did a fantastic job of contrasting their works and showing the influence each took from one another to improve their works.

Dr. Fowle ended with John Leslie Breck's interpretation of the haystacks motif. These twelve small paintings each display the same vista but at different times of day. Individually one or two stand out, but their power is in their collection. They were apparently painted over the course of three days and they are a brilliant group of works to be viewed together.

To summarise, in her lecture Dr. Fowle mixed biography, art, history and criticism to create a brilliantly detailed picture of the story behind ‘American Impressionism.’ She suggested the ways in which art is both shaped and changed by the environment in which it is created, and interestingly left the audience to ponder the meaning of the term ‘American Impressionism.’ For example, Dr. Fowles made it clear that ‘impressionism’ is hard enough to pin down in art historical terms, never mind ‘American impressionism.’

Dr. Fowle’s lecture was informative, and as suggested by its attendance, was highly popular. And indeed, it certainly made this listener plan a visit to the exhibition before it concludes on October 19th, which, from the impression of those in the room who had already attended, will undoubtedly prove worthwhile.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Marian Lauret (University of Sussex) ‘Really Reading Junot Diaz: Literature of the “new immigration.”’ This is in collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and forms part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Andrew Hook Centre. It will be held on Thursday 2nd October in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!