The Obama Moment of Anglo-Saxon Studies?

Reading time: 6 mins

Disclaimer: this is a hot, hot take. Straight out of the oven take. Please keep that in mind when reading.

Before you think that this is going to be an overly optimistic article full of happy slogans, think again. You remember that Guantanamo thing that was supposed to be closed? It still runs. Or how the US were not supposed to bomb people anymore? Still do. No new wars? Well, you know… Nevertheless a lot of good things happened, too. Thus, when I say “Obama moment” I mean a moment full of potential and full of hope for the future. If it comes into fruition is to be seen.

ISAS 2017 began in the shadow of a controversy. Adam Miyashiro’s post about the very problematic location of the conference, its program, and fears that it will not address the issues that are facing the field got everybody on their toes (and rightly so!). And although I do have to say that I found Miyashiro’s critique maybe a bit too harsh (the program was indeed rich in various non-conventional approaches and the #publicmedievalism session was supposed to address many of the issues that he mentioned; there was indeed also a paper about the appropriation of the term “Anglo-Saxon” by the right wingers), he was right: those were valid fears. Fears that ISAS both as an organization and as a conference was just not facing the very serious problems that currently plague medieval studies. Fears that ISAS is coming to Hawai‘i without recognising what it actually means for a conference of Anglo-Saxonists to come here. What consequences the very term “Anglo-Saxonist” can have here.

We came to Hawai‘i. We came to a place which is essentially still a colony. The fact that it is a colony of a state that boasts itself as the greatest exporter of “freedom” in the world makes it much, much worse. Should we have not come here? On the contrary, because I believe that what happened in the seven days after Miyashiro’s post was possible precisely because we were in Hawai‘i.

I still can’t believe it but ISAS listened. We all listened. There was not a day (and I would even say not a session, but I cannot guarantee that) where problems of colonialism, cultural appropriation, racism, prejudice against minorities was not addressed. Indeed Miyashiro’s statement, Medievalists of Color open letter, and the on-going critique of the conference were frequently included in the presentations by both young and senior scholars. People changed titles, reworked their texts on the spot to adapt to the points raised. It became clear that different Anglo-Saxon studies were possible. When I was preparing my submission, which included a post-colonial take on the subject of urbanity in Anglo-Saxon Britain, I was afraid that this is going to be an exception at this conference. No, it was not.

Then there was the #publicmedievalism session, which attracted almost 70 out of 109 attendees of the conference. As I was one of the organisers it is not up to me to review it. Let others judge it. I can only say that I was genuinely moved by the stories of heroic struggle against various forms of prejudice that were told there and astonished how thorough the discussion was, including real proposals to tackle real problems. Sessions like this should become a part of every medieval conference.

There were hiccups. Problematic cultural appropriations. Dubious and Eurocentric statements. Eye-rolling in the face of change. Some old-fashioned blind spots. There always will be some and we should not ignore or minimise them in any way. Some people that just tried to ignore the whole problem. Uncomfortable questions had to be asked.

Together with Marjorie Housley, Sihong Lin, Carla María Thomas and Erik Wade we have written an open letter to the ISAS advisory board pointing out the problems that were noticed during the conference, giving suggestions for the future but also the good things that happened, for those were aplenty, and should also be pointed out. This letter was not ignored. Indeed, it was supported by the organizers. Read it and share it if you can. If you have not yet done so, stop reading this blog post and read the letter, it is way more important. Engage with it. Comment on it, write about it. Improve on it.

Then came the closing statement of Martin Foys, who addressed the challenges head on and talked frankly and passionately about where we are and where we need to be. He was angry and we shared his anger: anger that prejudice still exists in our field; that it is 2017 and we still have not dealt with it; that there are still people within our discipline who deny that there is a problem.

ISAS changed its constitution during the conference, in the face of the critique, to include passages directly addressing some of the problems pointed out. The rest of the suggestions will be put to an online vote for the whole society to be implemented. Frankly, this is a speed of change that I would like to see at every medievalist gathering.

Now I have a feeling that this happened for a variety of reasons. First of all thanks to the critique that preceded the conference and that was on-going during it. For it we should be grateful, for it did not allow us to fall into comfortable slumber. There would have been no change without it. Second, I think that it was Hawai‘i. It required a bunch of medievalists to come here, where one can see the problems we are talking about, that we need to respond to them. We listened to an excellent presentation about Hawaiian Navigation in the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies by Uluwehi Hopkins. She began her presentation by saying that we are now on the land that probably contains the bones of her ancestors. I believe it helped even the most staunch deniers to see the problem.

A graduate student of the University of Hawai‘i said during the #publicmedievalism session something very important (I sadly did not write down the exact quote, all misquotations are my fault): “This is one of the most diverse universities in the US. Thank you for coming here, to this diversity, when many of us cannot come to you.” We did not ask for permission to come to Hawai‘i, so we should be even more grateful. In exchange we can only help to support change here, educate ourselves and others about the plight of the islands, help the Hawaiian movements if we can. For Hawai‘i helped us enact change in our field.

Nevertheless this is an Obama moment, and that means it can still go very, very wrong. It is full of potential, it might become an example for other parts of our field to change forever more, but it can also very easily get wasted, forgotten, marred in endless discussions that do little in terms of facts. Let this moment not conceal the problems we are facing, let this optimism not overshadow the darkness that we need to deal with. But this is also a chance. Things will be voted upon. New board members will be elected. Medievalists, this is a political moment. Enjoy it. Use it.

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Written on August 5, 2017