Reflections on ISAS 2017 and a Call to Action

This post is long overdue, and therefore very long, but since the end of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists Biennial Conference 2017 at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in early August, I’ve had a “babymoon” with John in Maui, had my last NYC doctor’s appointment, said goodbye to beloved friends in the NYC area, finished packing up our lives, and then transported us to our new home in Tennessee (all without getting sick–well, not counting the few times I coughed so hard that I vomited). Our new home is still in the process of becoming “home,” but my office is unpacked–I’ll just ignore the three small stacks of books and unpacked “Carla’s book research essays” box for a bit longer… So now is the time for some ISAS reflection, particularly with an eye to the International Medieval Congress 2017 (Leeds, UK) debacleMedievalists of Color statement and tragic and disturbing current events in the United States.

Before I continue, I’d like to add a few points of context: I did not attend IMC Leeds; I am a member of the Medievalists of Color (and thus was quickly updated on all the IMC Leeds things not just through social media but through our own list); I am a white half Puerto Rican; I am a cis-gender bisexual woman married to a man; and I am an early career, independent scholar. While I enjoy a lot of privilege in life and in academia–I’m white, able-bodied (and tall), cis-gendered, assumed heterosexual, my religion is not immediately questioned (although I’m not Christian), and have financial stability although unemployed because John has a good, stable non-academic job–I am also in a precarious position in speaking out against the status quo, because I’m an early career, independent, non-Christian, bisexual Latina scholar. One of the things that became immediately clear at the ISAS conference was that, first, it was still overwhelmingly white–or at least light-skinned as a few of us Latinx and Asian scholars were scattered about the largely white American and Western European scholars–and, second, those of us speaking out the most, the loudest, and with the greatest urgency were mostly junior scholars–graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, young independent scholars–queer, and women.

Prior to the first day of the conference, Adam Miyashiro wrote an incredibly important piece titled “Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu.” If you have not read it, I encourage you to read it before continuing here. Miyashiro called attention to the glaring problems of hosting a conference with the theme “Global Perspectives” without having anyone from Hawai’i, like himself (who is also multiracial with Asian and Polynesian heritage), on the program of speakers, not to mention not having hardly any visible scholars of color on the program, thus demonstrating the colonial violence that the conference was unwittingly perpetuating. That is, by holding a conference on “Global Perspectives” and inviting white scholars from mainland U.S. and Western Europe to “the most militarized, colonial space in the US to present,” as Miyashiro points out (although this makes me think about how overlooked Puerto Rico and other smaller “territories” [read “colonies”] are in these conversations, but that’s a conversation for another time), the conference organizers and the conference itself were continuing the long history of colonialism that Hawai’i has been subjected to without reflecting on the significance of the location. Which is ironic and yet somewhat unsurprising–the lack of reflection–for a society of early medieval scholars.

I myself was in Honolulu the Friday before the start of the conference on Monday because I had been accepted to participate in the CESTA Early Career Workshop in Digital Humanities, the provided funding for which was the only way I could afford to present my first paper at ISAS. Because Miyashiro’s piece on In the Middle was first posted as a Facebook status update on July 28, the organizers of this workshop, as well as of The Jerry H. Bentley Graduate Student Workshop: The Global Anglo-Saxonist, were able to read it prior to the start of the workshops on July 29. I cannot speak for the graduate student workshop, but Executive Director Martin Foys, who was one of the CESTA workshop leaders, informed us immediately, encouraged us to read Miyashiro’s post, and asked us to not only keep his critique in the front of our minds but to actively discuss these issues during the conference.

Come Monday’s first keynote speaker, Michael W. Scott, whose talk was titled “Eliciting Anglo-Saxon Histories via Pacific Pasts, and Vice-versa: Comparison as Anamorphic Analogy,” I was excited but also wary. The talk began with promise: Scott referenced Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, especially Latour’s “irreducible complexity,” and others in relation to the dangers of comparison in and of itself without contextualization (Eric Weiskott quotes Scott in a tweet as saying, “Decolonization cannot proceed as purification”–see tweets in the Storify #ISAS2017 in Honolulu, Part 1; it was tweeted July 31). When he moved to present his comparative analysis of the Melanesian mission and its mission school in the 1800s with St. Boniface (and eventually Cædmon), however, things sort of fell apart because he fell into exactly what he’d warned–not slowing down to present new voices and perspectives by not acknowledging the dehumanization and erasure of the Melanesian people in the process of their conversion by English missionaries, which cannot be disconnected from British imperialism. Thus, the kickoff to the conference came across as tone-deaf, especially because of Miyashiro’s timely In the Middle piece.

Fortunately, the rest of the talks that day had clearly been revised to address the complex issues that Miyashiro raised, and he was thanked numerous times by presenters for bringing such problems to the forefront of the conference. Catherine Karkov, Elaine Treharne, Kathleen Davis (in her keynote talk on Thursday, “Archipelagos of Historiography,” which was everything we could have hoped it would be–I won’t do it justice by trying to summarize it; please find the tweets from the morning of August 3 in the Storify #ISAS2017 in Honolulu, Part 2), and many more, including my own presentation on Tuesday afternoon. These talks, combined with the urgent conversations we had with each other during the receptions between sessions and the highly successful #PublicMedievalism workshop Tuesday evening, didn’t make the conference any less white, but for those of us who identify as medievalists of color or precarious scholars in some other form (LGBTQ+, women, grad students, contingent faculty, independent scholars, etc), it was the first glimmer of hope that, maybe, the society and then the field at large could be entering a new age of change and progress.

Now I’m going to segue into my own personal experience presenting at ISAS for the first time as well as the strangely emotional reaction I had to all the discussions we were having there and online. My talk was titled “The Recipe for Longevity: The Alchemy of Twelfth-Century English Verse,” and it was specifically about looking for the remnants of Old English in Early Middle English verse, which boasts a multiplicity of forms, genres, and influences. Just three lines at the end of “The Grave,” for example, could have been influenced by three different sources in three different languages: Old English, Anglo-Norman French, and Anglo-Latin, ranging from the tenth century to the twelfth century. I wanted us to think about late twelfth-century English verse not as another instance of degenerate Old English verse–many Old English metricists tend to have an apocalyptic view of the “evolution” or “devolution” of English verse after the Norman Conquest–but rather, as in a stage of metamorphosis due to the increased multicultural and multilingual literary environment in England at the time. And instead of thinking of the typical linguistic hierarchy–Latin, French, and then the “lowly” English–we should consider the interrelations of devotional texts and entertain the possibilities of especially lateral influence among the vernacular languages, French and English.

My opening, however, began with Miyashiro’s piece, thanking him for giving voice to a nebulous feeling I was having and not understanding what it was. His pointing to Hawai’i’s militarized, colonized presence in the U.S. made me think more deeply about my own background and relationship to language, which is one of the reasons why I’m so drawn to the texts that I’ve chosen to study. In thinking about Hawai’i, I couldn’t help but think about Puerto Rico and my family. I grew up as a Spanish heritage speaker and not a fluent Spanish speaker because my parents divorced when I was young, and I spent much of the earlier years living with my dad (white non-Hispanic who does not speak Spanish) until we (my sister and I) were able to split time equally between my parents’ houses. There are still certain words that come to me faster in Spanish than in English, like I will always call a mortar and pestle a “pilón” even though the latter is a very specific thing with a distinct history–I didn’t even know the English word for it until I moved in with my husband (then boyfriend) when I was 19–and my mom was bewildered when I told her several years ago that I didn’t realize that “mi hija” (pronounced “MEE-ha” with the syllable of the first word eliding with the first syllable of the second word) was two words and meant “my daughter” until I took a formal Spanish class in 8th grade. I just knew that I was her “mi hija,” as was my sister, and considered it just a term of endearment. As with most of us who grow up with languages and accents other than English in the household, we take them on readily, but I was trained out of pronouncing Spanish words correctly, including Puerto Rico (“PWER-toh REE-coh” with trilled r’s), by my Anglophone peers. My best friend in elementary school asked me when I was nine years old why I changed the way I talked when I was excitedly telling her about my summer trip to Puerto Rico, the first time that I would not only get to visit my mother’s country but also meet a lot of my family, most of whom still live on the island. To this day, I have to consciously pronounce it correctly to undo the peer conditioning of elementary school.

But aside from the linguistic side of things, which is always at the forefront of my mind–as well as wondering where all the Latinx people are at conferences, in movies, at political events, etc–Miyashiro’s piece really made me think about the colonial past of my family. As far as I know, based on conversations with my mother, there is little to no Taíno (the indigenous people of the Caribbean, not just Puerto Rico) in our heritage, and one of my great-grandmothers was actually from Spain. I am light-skinned not just because my father is white (Welsh/English by way of Texas) but because my mother’s family is heavily Spanish and many are fair-skinned as well, including her. My brother and sister have the gray-blue eye of her side of the family, not my father’s, and the freckles along the bridge of my nose come from both sides of the family. My grandmamá was mistaken for a French woman in Puerto Rico, and my mother was mistaken for an American tourist in the Old San Juan when she was younger. The fairness of our skin, however, just further emphasizes the history of Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico, and my father’s side emphasizes the British and American imperialism that has victimized the world, including Puerto Rico. My mother told me once that her grandmother could remember the American seizing of Puerto Rico from the Spanish, so the American colonial violence is still held within my Puerto Rican family’s memory even while their own participation in Spanish colonization has faded, just like many white Americans’ distancing themselves from the colonization of what we now call the United States of America and from the genocide and slavery that came along with it. Thus, my heritage speaks to a plethora of complacency within colonial violence and power while one side also experienced a more recent version of such violence. It’s complicated, to say the least, especially for someone who self-identifies as Latina but is also white. I call myself an “invisible Latina” because I’m often asked, or demanded, to perform my ethnicity: why don’t you speak Spanish fluently? why don’t you like spicy food if you’re Hispanic? oh, you don’t look Hispanic! And on and on.

I’ve written before about the weirdly hybrid nature of my mere existence, the middleness that I have always and will always occupy because I’m not just white but also not wholly Puerto Rican, not just because of the way I look and speak but also because I was born and raised in north Florida by a Texan father, Puerto Rican mother, Californian stepfather, and Alabaman stepmother. If I’m linguistically and culturally confused or chameleon-like, there’s a good reason. And my experience of navigating and mediating the urgent conversations of race and Anglo-Saxon studies at ISAS this summer put my own identity and experience of navigating my identity and mediating between my parents, especially during their divorce, into sharp relief. I had flashbacks to arguments that my parents had leading up to their separation shortly after white colleagues at ISAS and my colleagues in the Medievalists of Color group both apologized to me for my having to be the go-between. But that is my place in the world, and it’s no one’s fault except the funky working of genetics and my DNA. I am white, so I can reach white colleagues in a way that other POC cannot because I’m seen as less threatening, less angry (their anger and experiences of oppression are not my own, and I cannot appropriate them but I can try to communicate them). These issues, of course–that I’m a “good minority” because I’m not threatening or seen as angry (although I am)–drive at the very heart of the problem of race in medieval studies, academia more broadly, and our society at large.

shouldn’t have to mediate. I told white colleagues at ISAS that visible medievalists of color (i.e., dark-skinned, not light-skinned Latinx or Asian scholars) had left the early medieval field because of the unwelcome and often violent (figuratively and literally) experiences they had had, such as being mistaken for wait staff at an academic conference at which they were presenting just because of the color of their skin or being asked to justify why they study Anglo-Saxon history or literature (again, solely based on the color of their skin or the culturally or religiously significant clothing they wear)–a question I have never been asked even when people know that I’m Latina. Surely, these MOCs have voiced these experiences before, but the white colleagues I shared this with were shocked, appropriately appalled and outraged. Where were these reactions when the MOCs who lived through these experiences spoke up? Why did it take me, an invisible Latina, to make them see the disgusting behavior that our colleagues have had to endure? Racism–implicit, insidious, systemic. This is not the racism of white supremacy, white nationalism, the KKK, ‘Merica, etc. This is what systemic racism looks like; it eats away at POCs because it’s an accumulation of a lifetime of microaggressions and verbal assaults along with physical assaults from the institutional to the personal levels. It pushes people away; it enrages them; it depresses them; it makes it difficult for them to trust white people, even white allies and accomplices; it deteriorates their bodies and souls because why keep fighting what feels like a losing war even if small battles are won?

This is why the conversations at ISAS were important. This is why the current harassment and blacklisting of white allies and medievalists of color is unacceptable and must be confronted head-on. As I mentioned in a roundtable talk (informally titled “#FemFog, the Feminist Classroom, and Christine de Pizan”) at MLA this past January in a panel sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship titled “Medieval Feminisms in Times of Trouble,” if we have learned anything from the discovery of Allen Frantzen’s atrocious MRA-esque blog, and the ensuing fallout in the Anglo-Saxonist community, it’s that there’s no such thing as the personal/political/professional divide. Just as my own experience of middleness has led me to studying the very middleness of the English Middle Ages with an interest in multilingual verse, the personal experiences and political leanings affect every other scholar’s work, even if they have not yet acknowledged it. We need more of us to recognize the role their own autobiographies play in the formation of their scholarly lives and interests, as I wrote briefly years ago on this blog (linked above). Self-awareness, taking ownership of one’s faults, particularly as they affect one’s colleagues in a field they claim to love, and then taking action to make amends for those faults should be the epitome of what it means to be a scholar, an intellectual, and a human being. This requires a certain degree of relinquishing one’s pride, acknowledging that we are all human and therefore imperfect, and the humility to correct oneself for the betterment of all.

If ISAS 2017 has taught me anything, it’s that more white colleagues in the early medieval field than I’d realized are ready to begin this process. But it also became strikingly clear that most of these people were junior scholars (including graduate students), women, LGBTQ+, and/or American with a few European allies. The rest of you should take notice and follow suit. This is not an American problem, and it is not the work that the most precarious among us should be left to do on our own. Wake up, speak out, and be accountable.


About carlamthomas

I received my PhD in 2016, and I'm finishing up a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship at New York University this year. Next year, barring some last second postdoc or job coming through, I will be living in Tennessee with my husband, dog, and cat to save money while I go on the academic job market yet again. My concentration is Early Middle English literature, language, and manuscript culture although this stretches from Old English influences to later Middle English iterations of developments in my period. I'm also an intersectional feminist, trying to inject such theory into some of my newer work, and I dabble in the monstrous (pre-modern and modern) on occasion.
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2 Responses to Reflections on ISAS 2017 and a Call to Action

  1. ndiscenza says:

    Thanks for this rich post, Carla. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and that’s especially valuable as term is starting and I’m thinking through this issues with graduate students too. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself in this post. I also really appreciate how you kept those of us who weren’t at ISAS informed through social media.

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