PCA/ACA CONFERENCE, INDIANAPOLIS, IN, USA – 28th of March – 1st of April, 2018
This year, I had the fortune of receiving funding from the IAAS to attend two major events in my field of study: the PCA/ACA Conference in Indianapolis and the EBAAS Conference in London. The months of March and April thus turned out to be a very busy but truly inspiring time for me. I had just returned from academic research travels in mainland Europe when I boarded a plane for Indianapolis. There, I attended and spoke at the 2018 Pop Culture Association and American Culture Association Conference in the J.W. Marriott Hotel on the 28th – 31st of March.
With hundreds of panel presentations, roundtables, special sessions, film screenings, local tours, keynote speaker events and special awards ceremonies to choose from, and thousands of people attending, it was of course tough to make decisions about which talks to attend. Each of the many subject areas of the association represents one aspect of popular culture and was chaired by an expert in the field so there was something for everyone. As outlining and summarizing all the panels I attended during my week in Indy would go beyond the scope of this report, I want to highlight a variety of particularly salient panels and events.
On Wednesday, the conference kicked off early for me with an entire day devoted to American literature, culture and film. Our chair, Dr. Corey Taylor, Associate Professor at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute in Indiana, guided us through a seven-panel journey from Sex and Protest in Early American Literature to Modernist Reconsiderations, African American Intertextuality, African American Literature and Current Events, Reimagined Bodies, Consumerism, Labor, and Gender to Crises of Identity and Language.
The second panel, “American Literature: African-American Intertextuality”, was my time to shine. First up, before MaryLynn Saul spoke about “Man of Two Faces: Hybridity and Liminality in Sympathizer and Invisible Man”, Laura Elaine Thorp’s talk about “A black charred body on the black, charred ground: The Treatment of Black Male Bodies in ‘Going to Meet the Man’ and ‘Get Out’” and Christopher Mullin paper on “The Multifaceted Role of Silence in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues Cody”, I presented my paper entitled “The Same Old Story? Shifts in Representations of African Americans in Slave Narratives, Neo-Slave Narratives and Cinematic Slave Narratives”.
My paper was a cross-generic exploration of the shifting representation of African Americans through the last three centuries and followed the development of the form from historical manuscripts to fictional retellings to cinematic iterations. More specifically, my analysis expanded Henry L. Gates Jr.’s concept of Signifyin(g), which I combined with elements of adaptation theory and intertextuality. Intermedial/intertextual variations of slave narratives reveal the reconfiguration of different elements in different media, demonstrating the self-reflexive nature and persistent relevance of the slave narrative as commemoration of the black experience and commentary on slavery and its present-day legacy.
The talk further incorporated American literature and films, offering rich multi-layered visual imaginings of the slave narrative, which have yet to be fully examined, new perspectives on how cinematic slave narratives developed over the last 100 years, and insights into how they influence society. My discussion of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016), specifically, marked an original extension of existing research in American Studies. Moreover, the research for this talk provided an opportunity to test the value of Signifyin(g) as a model to analyze and critique African-American film. My analysis revealed that Parker’s film can be seen as a continuation of the Signifyin(g) tradition and demonstrates the self-reflexive nature and persistent relevance of the slave narrative as commemoration of the black experience and commentary on slavery and its present-day legacy. Thus, I established a new understanding of Parker’s work—as well as of the intertexts upon which he signifies—as a locus for corrective ideological expression and as a new rhetorical and experiential space. Moreover, I showed how it constitutes a powerful discursive system to invite the re-evaluation and application of Gates’ theory of Signifyin(g) to film. I demonstrated how Parker breaks with Gates’ Signifyin(g) exclusively on black texts, and showed how, instead, Parker is Signifyin(g) on and revising black and white narratives. I revealed how the film connects the deep undercurrent of racism in America’s past to the pervasive effects of institutionalized racism today.
After a full schedule of American literature and film, as a “First Time Attendee” (everyone received an attachment to their name badge signaling whether they were newcomers or long-time attendees), I soaked up every possible social event and opportunity as well. Among them, the “Grand Reception/Student Mixer and Welcome For Everyone Event.” I was able to make valuable new connections and discuss my research with international scholars from fields across all the represented academic disciplines who met in Indy to share and explore the world together.
While I attended a variety of panels from different fields, as a researcher in African-American Studies, it was of special interest to me to attend all the panels dedicated to African-American culture, literature and film. Since my research explores the representation of the African-American slave experience, including the representation of slavery, gender and identity on screen, I joined the panel track in this field on Thursday. With Dr. Elgie Sherrod, Associate Professor at Virginia Common Wealth University, as an outstanding and inspiring chair, I spent all of Thursday attending sessions on “Sanctifying Home”, “From Hip-Hop Neo-Slave Narratives to Hooping for Justice, Past, Present & Future”, “Queering Masculinity in African American Culture and Representation of Black Men”, “Body Image Politics: Disrupting oppressive representations of Black Women and Girls” and “Survival Songs: African American Music Remixed and Repurposed”. Together with an excellent group of dedicated researchers, I discussed my own work in the context of the tragic events and racial tensions that have begun to characterize our times. These talks included deconstructing and reflecting on police brutality and discrimination of minorities in the US, voter Suppression (J. Rozema), the policing of African culture and communities, accountability, James Baldwin’s work and ‘The Technology of the Self ‘ (Tyrone Simpson), ‘The “Other” American Life: African-American Media Gaze (Chih-Ping Chen), ‘Queering Masculinity in African American Culture, American Cinema and Television’ (David Mood), Blaxploitation films (D’Ondre Swails), African-American stereotypes, black identities, the representation of the body and black women, Beyoncé (Aquila Campbell) and so much more. Apart from excellent scholarship, what inspired me most was the atmosphere and passion of these scholars and their willingness to engage, share and open up dialogue about such difficult topics as, among numerous others, the shootings of black teenagers. Thursday was truly a different conference experience and a day that ended with lots of hugs and the continuation of conversations we had all day over wine and food.
On Thursday evening, the conference team had arranged for me to meet with my mentor Michael Mardsen, former Dean of the College of Arts and Science, at Northern Michigan University and former Academic Vice President, and his wife Mary. The PCA/ACA’s mentor program is a brilliant idea, as participants are very compassionate and encouraging. New presenters and attendees like myself were paired with more seasoned veterans like Michael to help make my experience at the conference more fruitful, productive and enjoyable. For me, as a mentee, the program provided me with the opportunity to network and provided a friendly face throughout my time in Indy. After dinner, we attended this year’s keynote together, which was less academic but incredibly entertaining: Paula Poundstone, one of America’s best-known contemporary comedians, authors, actors, special correspondents and commentators. With her famous sharpness, observational humor, criticism of society and culture and her spontaneous interaction with the audience, she poked fun at academia and academics, interweaving the dialogue with her routine featuring anti-Trump sentiments and a discussion of life in our fast-paced world.
On Friday, after another full day of conferencing, I met again with my mentor and his wife to visit the Eiteljorg Museum’s “Reel West Exhibit”. We joined a tour of the new exhibition as the conference coincided with the opening of the exhibition of the Hollywood West—only one of the many activities organized for the attendees by the PCA/ACA conference team.
This conference was indeed an excellent opportunity for me to publicly reflect upon the work of eminent scholars in my field, while ensuring that my own research establishes its place in this field. My participation at PCA/ACA thus helped me establish dialogue with interdisciplinary and international researchers in the US, meet new colleagues and expand my international network. The feedback I received has encouraged me to engage in further critical reflection on and development of my PhD project.
My sincere thanks and appreciation go to the IAAS for their financial support which enabled me to attend this truly thought-provoking conference.
Caroline Schroeter is a final year PhD candidate and recipient of the UCC PhD Excellency Scholarship. Her upcoming publications include “From Griffith to Parker: Constructing race and the history of the US South” (Kentucky UP, 2018). She is the Editor-in-Chief for Aigne Journal and an Editor for Alphaville.