On June 1, Elizabeth McHenry and Kinohi Nishikawa gave a joint opening keynote as part of the Society for Textual Scholarship (STS) conference in New York City. In the program booklet, their presentation, billed as STS' annual Greetham Lecture, was entitled, "A Conversation about Black Readers, Writers, and Book Design."
For the presentation, their opening slide read, "How to Read the Unremarkable." The comment referred to their approach of focusing on writers and developments outside the popular and major figures.
McHenry opened by offering descriptions of Nishikawa's work, and he returned the favor by discussing aspects of her work. Then, they both highlighted areas of work that they are currently pursuing.
I enjoyed listening to them talking through various ideas and projects. Their joint keynote was a good start to the conference, setting the tone for the panels that followed in a useful way. And in retrospect, the presentation was a cool moment in the context of African American literary studies for a few different reasons.
It's rare to see a joint presentation keynote of any kind and then, add to that two scholars of African American literature, especially with scholars in different areas in the field. McHenry produces work on the late 19th century and early 20th century, while Nishikawa specializes in the late twentieth-century and twenty-first-century.
There was a time, you know, when folks just focused on African American literature in general. However, progress in the field over, hmmm, let's say, the last 30 years has resulted in specialized work in distinct time periods.
When I applied for my job at SIUE in 2003, they were looking for someone producing work on African American literature with no specific focus. But by 2013 and 2014, when we hired my colleagues Tisha Brooks and Elizabeth Cali, respectively, we were certain that we were looking for scholars of 19th century African American literature.
Over the decades in our fields, folks have increasingly done projects (edited collections, conferences, etc.) within their subfields, many times guided by historical periods. Several scholars of African American literature participate in those C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists conferences. Folks studying contemporary authors and texts sometimes gravitate over to the American Studies Association conferences.
Alright, but the other possibility emerges with folks working on major black writers. Most notably, people working on our most major author, Toni Morrison, will show up in the same place. Back in 2020, I wrote about the Toni Morrison Society (TMS)'s "The Enduring Legacy of Toni Morrison," symposium on Zoom, where we coordinated a series of panels featuring Edwidge Danticat, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Deborah McDowell, Maryemma Graham, Imani Perry, Yolanda Pierce, Dana Williams, TMS founder, Carolyn Denard. In late March 2023, Griffin delivered a series of lectures on Morrison at Princeton.
There are some scholars of 19th century literature, who attend the annual College Language Association (CLA) conferences, but by and large, the presentations at CLA tilt toward the 20th century and 21st century. You'll likely encounter more 19th century folks at the Modern Language Association (MLA) conferences. The periodization breakdown I'm hinting at here shows up in publishing and reading interests.
But the absence of more 19th century folks at CLA isn't just about scholarly preferences. CLA folks typically come from teaching schools, which generally speaking, tend to have fewer resources. Folks doing extensive work in the 19th century need support traveling to special collections -- the kind of support that comes from more well-resourced schools. (There's of course more to say along these lines).
What else? Well, I won't do it, but I could. I mean, I won't bore you by rattling off the pockets of folks doing genre work, which would eventually lead to me highlighting those of us doing work on black poetry. For now, maybe my who've checklist on Black Arts scholarship gives you a sense of things, right?
I mention all of that to say again why it was a special and unusual moment to catch two scholars like McHenry and Nishikawa co-presenting. Well, on the surface. Truth be told, both of them really attend to the archival record. That's what really connects them.
McHenry's recent To Make Negro Literature: Writing, Literary Practice, and African American Authorship (2021) and then before that Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (2002) result from her digging deep in the stacks, so to speak. (By the way, I've been realizing recently that so much of my work with collegiate and high school black readers over the, whew, decades shares a serious kinship with the folks McHenry speaks of as "forgotten readers." They were forgotten back then and now).
A few years back, Nishikawa dropped Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground (2019). Before that and after, he's published articles on Black magazine history, William Melvin Kelley's Typographic Imagination, market forces in contemporary African American publishing, and Mumbo Jumbo's Paratextual Condition. You don't have to read that far into Nishikawa's work to realize that he's out there digging deep in the stacks, like McHenry.
Their joint presentation at STS gave a glimpse of what it means for two scholars of African American literature working in different historical periods to produce scholarship that draws on archival records. It's my sense that scholars from one sector of our field draw on Nishikawa's work while folks in another sector tend to look to McHenry. The distance between these sectors lets you know how much the field has grown.
This STS conference was my first time meeting Nishikawa. We've interacted on social media and followed each other's work. So we were off and running talking like we already knew each other.
This was also my first time meeting McHenry in person. After the talk, I got her to sign my copy of her book To Make Negro Literature. On the title page, she wrote, "How can we not have met til now?"
Right. It's the nature of our field, and the distances between our subfields.