Amy Sopcak-Joseph checks in with another dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. To read Sopcak-Joseph’s previous post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home click here. –JF
This conference has been such a whirlwind of activities – scoring some $5 books, trying to cram in food and sleep between panels and good conversations with old friends and new. I was so exhausted when I wrote my first post that I didn’t mention that this is my second time at AHA. I attended about a day and a half of the 2015 conference in New York. This year I’m all in, here in Atlanta for the whole thing.
As John mentioned in my first post, I’m primarily attending AHA this year because I serve as one of the co-liaisons from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) to the AHA. You may have noticed sessions in your program with the “affiliated society” designation. There are more than a hundred organizations that are affiliated with AHA – whatever your subfield, this list probably includes the appropriate organization.
So what does being a liaison entail? The work consists of two phases: the prep before the meeting and activities at the conference. I’ve been working with my co-liaison for the past year to connect SHARP members to AHA activities. We organized an affiliate panel, “Exploring Race and Ethnicity through Book History.” After choosing the papers, we spread the word about it through the SHARP at AHA social media accounts and through the SHARP email list. Stephanie Kingsley of the AHA also discussed it in her blog post about book history panels.
At the conference much of my Friday revolved around SHARP things at AHA. Each year the affiliated societies are given a chunk of time for exhibits to recruit members and talk to current members. You may have noticed a number of tables set up on Friday outside of the registration area where liaisons were touting the virtues of membership in their organization. If you didn’t stop by the affiliate displays here in Atlanta, you should think about doing so next year! The liaisons love to chat with people, and you never know what kind of cool swag you can add to your AHA tote bag.
The SHARP panel, “Exploring Race and Ethnicity through Book History,” featured an eclectic group of papers on topics ranging from pre-Columbian Mexico to twentieth century book agents. But all four of the papers made the case that book history methods – paying attention to the development, production, content, and dissemination of texts and images – can bring new insights on the formation of racial and ethnic identities.
In “ Erasure and Reinscription in MesoAmerican Divinatory Almanac: The Curious Case of the Codex Vaticanus B,” Jamie Forde discussed the complicated history of the Codex Vaticanus B, a document created by indigenous peoples but so named because it now resides in the Vatican. Forde and his co-author, Elodie Dupey Garcia, traced where the Codex was edited – images were erased and repainted with designs that were not commonly found in the area where it was created. They linked these new designs in the Codex to common designs from other areas of Mexico, showing influences of other ethnolinguistic groups.
Kathryn Schwartz’s paper, “‘Civilization’ and the Idea that Print Catalyzes Progress, Late Ottoman Cairo,” explored the meaning ascribed to Cairene textual production. Europeans, oddly enough, saw printing as a sign of “civilization” that placed them atop a hierarchy of groups. The introduction of printing in Cairo could be interpreted as both a civilizing influence and a threat – what if Egyptians eventually outpaced Europeans? Joan Bryant took her first foray into book history with her paper, “Agents Wanted: Kelly Miller’s Book Marketing and the Challenge of Negro Progress.” Miller was an interesting figure – a writer who wanted to elevate his race and to sell publications. Bryant pointed out that book agents were often itinerant and moved on to other professions, but these agents were crucial to Miller’s distribution of his works.
Aston Gonzalez presented the paper most relevant to scholars broadly interested in early America. “Reforming the Reader: Seeing Race in The Narrative of James Williams and The Slave’s Friend” compared two uses of a portrait of an escaped slave. Gonzalez walked us through the how the original 1838 engraving from Williams’ narrative provided visual cues of his respectability. The way that light hit Williams’ face, the nice clothing that he wore, and even his non-caricatured facial features didn’t conform with the stereotypical depictions of African Americans that circulated in the 1830s. Gonzalez was able to identify a second use of the portrait of Williams’ in an 1839 issue of the children’s periodical The Slave’s Friend, produced by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) The AASS began publishing the periodical in 1835, and it saturated the market with 200,000 copies in its first year. The Slave’s Friend did not include the specific details of Williams’ story or identify him in any way. But his portrait was paired with text that clearly touted his freedom and humanity: “This is a picture of a freeman! … Either he or his forefathers were once slaves. He now breathes the sweet air of liberty, and looks like a MAN.” The use of Williams’ portrait in both of these publications taught readers how to see, how to read, and how to understand race. I particularly appreciated this paper because I was already familiar with The Slave’s Friend. In a previous life I worked on K-12 teacher education programs at the American Antiquarian Society. I used The Slave’s Friend in workshops on abolition. If you’re interested in the periodical, you can see some of it (including Williams’ portrait) here.