Doing Southern Studies Today

Friday, January 15


11.00 a.m.-12.15 p.m.: Keynote Lecture


Martyn Bone

The Scales of Black Southern Life and Death in Jesmyn Ward’s Writing


With reference to the conference theme, “Doing Southern Studies Today,” this talk partly emerges from my sense that, two decades after the emergence of the New Southern Studies (NSS), some younger scholars (not least in Europe) are renovating regionalist approaches to “the South” and “southern literature.” This turn after and against the NSS sometimes seems premised on the problematic claim that the NSS’ transnational turn involved a wholesale repudiation of region as a “useful scalar unit” (Jon Smith) for “doing” southern studies. This talk, then, considers Jesmyn Ward’s three novels to date in order to rethink the “scalar unit” of “the South” in southern studies today. I will consider how Ward’s work “jumps” scales--from the corporeal via the local, regional and national to the global—to explore three interrelated themes: 1) the historical continuities of racial violence in the U.S. South; 2) environmental racism and “natural” disaster; 3) economic globalization and its impact on black southern life.

Ward’s understudied debut novel Where the Line Bleeds (2008) tracks its black southern characters’ confrontation with what environmental racism scholar Robert Bullard calls “economic blackmail”: these characters face few options in a deindustrialized, neoliberal economy dominated by low-paid service jobs. Their only other “choice” (a loaded keyword in neoliberal discourse) is to deal drugs to friends and neighbors. While Where the Line Bleeds takes place at the local scale of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, it subtly dramatizes the impact of what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow terms the “new global economy” in which blue-collar blacks are “deemed disposable.” 

In Ward’s National Book Award-winning second novel Salvage the Bones (2011), the intertextual reworking of William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston’s “environmental ethics of place” (Susan Scott Parrish) dramatizes both spectacular “natural” disaster (Hurricane Katrina) and older forms of environmental racism and “slow violence” (Rob Nixon) experienced by black southerners. In doing so, Salvage the Bones writes back against the “biopolitics of disposability” (Henry Giroux) exposed by Katrina, linking it to a much longer history of black southern life and death being treated as waste. 

Ward’s most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)—another National Book Award winner--depicts racial and environmental exploitation in the U.S South as a prime site of what Donna Haraway dub the Plantationocene. Sing, Unburied, Sing depicts the Mississippi state penitentiary (the notorious Parchman Farm) as a post-plantation: a microcosm of black southern incarceration from slavery, via Jim Crow in the 1940s, to the New Jim Crow today. Like Salvage the BonesSing, Unburied, Singalso depicts a spectacular “natural” disaster—the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—while situating it within the longer durée of environmental racism, and at the global scale of energy capitalism (Big Oil). 


1.30-3.00 p.m.: Transnational Trajectories


Hilary Meuter

The Defeated Versus the Victors: A Transatlantic Comparison of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery 


Confederate monuments have garnered attention in mainstream media, particularly as a component of the #Blacklivesmatter movement. The monuments themselves represent arguably more than the myth of the Lost Cause and the parting from the “old” south to the “new”. War monuments and memorials are not associated exclusively with the American South, and are found worldwide. Monuments and memorials have a shifting value, reflective of the collective memory associated with them. For Confederate monuments, the collective memory voiced in the media has shifted over time from southern pride to southern shame. A shift in value is not limited to Confederate monuments which allows them to be grouped in the larger category of “war memorialization.” Therefore, I propose Confederate monuments and memorials be utilized as a means to study the South with a transatlantic perspective, which would allow for a shift from studying the South with the lens of popular culture and media to one with a focus on international historical comparisons. The talk will focus on two monuments, the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery (Virginia, USA) and the Soviet War Memorial in Treptow (Berlin, Germany) to demonstrate the impact of transatlantic comparisons on Confederate monuments in regards to aesthetics, monument construction and criticisms of each respective memorial. Such a comparison will allow for similarities and differences to be distinguished between the memorial of the victors and that of the defeated, thereby placing the South in an international context.


Amy Doherty Mohr

 “yuh got tuh go there tuh know there”: Zora Neale Hurston’s Literary Expressions of Migration as Testimony 


This presentation will trace the roots of the Global South through the prism of migration and testimony in the work of Zora Neale Hurston. The analysis will consider her journeys from Florida to New York and back, and her anthropological fieldwork in Haiti, where she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. I will also address Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” her 1927 interview with Kossola/Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the last trans-Atlantic slave ship, published in 2018. In these texts, Hurston represents the hemispheric and transatlantic/Black Atlantic aspects of the Global South. This investigation of cultural migration will include the observations of Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer who wrote the foreword to Their Eyes, and the writings of Hurston’s academic advisor, cultural anthropologist Franz Boas. The analysis will focus on the theme of testimony, which ties together Janie’s stories in Their Eyes and Kossola’s narrative in Barracoon. As Hurston weaves in and out of her work, writing from the positions of narrator, participant-observer, and witness, she gives voice to the experience of dislocation and the desire for freedom deeply embedded in the South’s layers of hidden stories. This focus on the transmission of stories in response to forced labor, violence, and oppression while maintaining cultural knowledge builds on new critical studies of the global South such as Martyn Bone’s Where the New World Is: Literature About the U.S. South at Global Scales (U of Georgia P, 2018).


Annika Schadewaldt

Circulation, Sickness, and the Transnational South in Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider


The topic of death and sickness looms large in Katherine Anne Porter’s writing and becomes arguably most prevalent in her novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider. While scholars such as Iuchi and Davis approach the topic from a psychoanalytic and trauma studies angle, the links between the topic and issues of circulation in Porter’s novella and other texts has not been adequately addressed so far. In contrast, my paper situates the novella’s occupation with sickness and dying in what I argue is its larger concern with questions of circulation, focusing on its treatment of the Spanish Flu of 1918. Understanding the novella’s treatment of the disease as entangled with other forms of circulation in the text, such as gossip, anecdotes of the war, and Miranda’s job as a newspaper reporter, allows us to see how, for Porter, sickness and dying functions as a way of resituating the South. In this, the South becomes a central space for transatlantic and hemispheric mobilities of, among others, people, information, and germs, instead of being conceptualized as a literal and figurative periphery. 


3.30-5.00 p.m.: Practices in Southern Studies


Michael P. Bibler

Queer and Now…in the Plantationocene?

This presentation offers a speculative meditation on the place of the history of sexuality within the deep time of the plantationocene—a division of the Anthropocene specific to the rise of plantation monocultures and racial capitalism associated with Native American removal and African slavery. Whereas we generally recognize the emergence of modern sexual categories (e.g. homosexual, heterosexual) as coinciding with the gradual shift from slavery to wage capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this presentation asks how to imagine the connections between queer sexualities and the biopolitics of racialized life and death associated with the plantation and the plantation's neoliberal afterlives. At stake in this speculative inquiry is not (or not only) the question of LGBTQ identities and rights, but rather a radical rethinking of sexuality that replaces biopolitics with alternative modes of kinship that decenter human exceptionalism. 


Gina Caison



Laura Wilson

“The History of Black Studies at HBCUs in Nashville Project”


The academic discipline of Black Studies (alternatively African American Studies/Africana Studies) emerged during the late 1960s, as part of the Civil Rights Movement, when African American students began to pressure university faculty and administration for inclusion in mainstream course offerings. While much of the history and scholarship of this struggle has focused on student activism at campuses such as San Francisco State, UCs Berkeley and Santa Barbara, and Stanford University – all Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) – little attention has been paid to the important contributions made in the emergence of the field at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The History of Black Studies at HBCUs in Nashville is a joint venture lead by scholars from Tennessee State University and Fisk University, and made possible through a Mellon Foundation collaborative faculty grant via Vanderbilt University. The project, which aims to create both a physical archival repository as well as a digital exhibition, will contain printed material such as newspaper articles, course catalogues and syllabi, as well as oral histories and videos that showcase the rich history of Black Studies in the heart of Music City, emphasizing the region’s central role in the discipline as a whole, as well as cementing its reputation as a focal point for civil rights activism.

For this presentation, I will briefly cover the historical context of Black Studies, before spending the greater part of my time demonstrating the progress we have made on the project and digital exhibition so far. The exhibition will be hosted through the open access platform Omeka ensuring that the work becomes what the team have described as “a liberatory project” without the need for “institutional affiliation or physical institutional access” – a gift for the community (17). As we think about where Southern Studies is and how we are doing it today then, questions such as whose stories is it telling? and In whose hands should it be? are the ones that should be at the forefront of our minds. By publicizing this important digital humanities project and hopefully providing a preview of its Omeka site, I aim to add an extra component of what it means to study Southern Studies, by incorporating a history of this associated discipline into the conversation.