Contested Mobilities in U.S. History

Contested Mobilities in U.S. History: Annual Conference of the Historians of the German Association for American Studies

Rebecca Brückmann, Carleton College, Northfield; Silke Hackenesch, Universität zu Köln
Akademie für Politische Bildung
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
05.05.2023 - 07.05.2023
Viviana Acuña Azuaje / Max Gaida, Abteilung für Nordamerikanische Geschichte, Historisches Institut, Universität zu Köln

The annual conference of the German Association for American Studies (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien, DGFA) commenced with an invigorating opening address by Silke Hackenesch, looking back on the thought-provoking genesis behind the conference’s theme. Despite the conception of this idea occurring just before the COVID pandemic struck, the ensuing crisis heightened the significance of mobility, as it starkly contrasted with the prevailing immobility experienced by many during that period. Thus, the conference aimed to explore the intricate entanglement of mobility with other histories, investigating how the United States is often regarded as a realm of mobility, be it through immigration or from a social perspective, but also a site of immobility and forced displacement, most notably exemplified by the harrowing legacy of slavery. Rebecca Brückmann continued the opening remarks by addressing the new mobilities paradigm which stresses perspectives such as the importance of power relations, forced mobilities, and also introduces new social and cultural perspectives to the topic. She concluded by stressing that the analyses gained by historians are an essential tool for understanding mobilities.

The first panel explored mobility’s connection to gender and empire. Seeing the bicycle as a technology of mobility NATHAN CARDON (Birmingham) examined how this enabled adventurers to delve into imperial possessions. Using Fanny Bullock Workman’s travel writing as a case study, he argued that traveling by bicycle allowed Workman to venture off the beaten path and have what she considered a more authentic experience. Workman’s travel encompassed both spatial and temporal dimensions, moving from colonial cities heavily influenced by their imperial rulers into supposedly “untouched” places that she believed needed reform, contrasting them with supposed Anglo-Saxon superiority. Thus, Cardon demonstrated, the bicycle opened new imperial spaces geographically and politically. Fanny Workman as travel writer-cum-imperial booster highlights the role of women in the late 19th century imperial project, which has been understudied by American historians in comparison to those studying the U.K.

BRITTA WALDSCHMITT-NELSON (Augsburg) investigated how 19th century women’s rights activists created connections across national, religious, and racial borders, stressing that these networks began to intensify from the 1840s onwards and have been heretofore understudied. Although the women came from diverse backgrounds their shared dedication to the independence of women allowed them to connect. Central to the success of the women’s campaign was their transnational movement, due to travel but also emigration or exile, which deepened their relationships with each other and eased collaboration. Thus, mobility was essential for the women on both a personal level and in the wider sense of empowering the successes of their campaign.

A roundtable that discussed digital history and digital teaching during and after the COVID-19 pandemic concluded the first day of the conference. ANDREAS HÜBNER (Lüneburg) critically exposed the "crisis-driven” approach to distance teaching in Germany during the pandemic, which did not lead to the development of digital or online teaching concepts. Hübner also compared recent panicked reactions to the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT in German academia to that of Deep Blue defeating chess champions in 1997 and then later to IBM Watson competing successfully in Jeopardy in 2011.

JANA KECK (Washington DC) commented on Hübner's point, emphasizing that German discourse around the use of AI in academia focuses on downsides while in the U.S. students view and employ ChatGPT as an augmentative tool rather than as a replacement for academic writing. Keck's talk focused on the pitfalls and possibilities of working with digital archives, drawing on her experience with advanced search in a digitized newspaper archive. She shed light on several projects working on making newspaper archives more searchable and accessible to other researchers. This point sparked intense debate at the conference, with some expressing fear of losing serendipitous in person discoveries, while others recognized the importance of online access and the benefits of filtering, unavailable in analog form.

CHRISTIAN WERNER (Wolfsburg) argued for a more pragmatic approach to digital work choosing between digital or analog methods when best suited. Werner also pointed out that students are already “deep” in the digital world, and thus it would be foolish to simply dismiss digital tools from teaching entirely. For him, the digital and analog can coexist together in these spaces, arguing that it is a matter of perspective and cooperation. Some listeners challenged the meaning behind students being “deep” in the digital world. Questions such as, if they actually understand the programming behind all these tools, or if they are just passive users with no functional or critical knowledge of these tools, were raised.

The second panel on social mobility and the claiming of space began with a talk by JAN LOGEMANN (Göttigen) on the transnational perspective of US border construction during the first era of globalization, both in the physical and discursive sense. Logemann viewed borders as "sorting machines" for both people and goods. For example, travelers crossing the US border for leisure may see it as a nuisance, yet these borders are impenetrable and often even deadly to marginalized groups. Logemann compared the US border to Canada and Mexico.

Focusing on the theme "claiming of space" SUSAN ECKELMANN (Tennessee) examined the connection between U.S. White teenage youth and Cold War politics during the late 1950s and 1960s. She argued that White youth self-identified as victims of the Civil Rights Movement by claiming that Black mobility automatically caused White immobility. These young people fought to defend their White rights and White spaces through letters, grassroots movements, and protests. During the discussion, the audience inquired about the current whereabouts of the former teenagers and Eckelman revealed that while some had remained conservative, others experienced a surprising shift in their views, such as supporting Obama.

FELIX KRÄMER (Erfurt) discussed social immobility with the example of student loans. He showed how indebtedness is socially contingent and does not affect everyone equally. The neoliberal turn meant that investment into human capital was no longer seen as the state's responsibility. Instead, individuals were responsible for "choosing," resulting in student loans becoming an individualized risk that fueled the wealth gap. Krämer pointed out that there is still little discussion of this type of financing on the broader debate where disempowered groups are left paying more debt for smaller financial returns, that is the income they will receive after finishing their undergraduate studies will not suffice to be debt free.

The third panel broadened the conference’s scope by analyzing America’s history through the media produced therein. RALPH POOLE (Salzburg) and ROBERT WINKLER (Salzburg) offered a film studies perspective on mobility. Seeing the road movie as a quintessential American myth, the speakers examined how this male gendered symbol has been subverted in two movies, Barbara Loder’s Wanda (1970) and Unpregnant (2020) by Rachel Lee Goldenberg. While the road is traditionally associated with male freedom and mobility, the two movies challenge gender norms by depicting female characters' pursuit of liberation through travel, highlighting the genre's potential for reimagining narratives. However, the speakers noted a distinct tonal contrast between the two films: Wanda's somber perspective questions the road's liberating potential for women, whereas Unpregnant, a comedic feminist road trip, explores the ways in which traveling America's roads can also provide freedom for women.

ISABEL KALOUS (Erlangen-Nuremberg) further broadened the conference’s scope by making a valuable contribution from the field of literary studies. Using prominent examples from African American writers she showed how Black travel writing could function as a political genre and an act of resistance. From Frederick Douglass over Ida B. Wells to Colleen McElroy, Kalous stressed that mobility and immobility need to be thought together, as the authors detailed their experiences in the contrast of unfreedom in immobility and freedom in movement. A striking commonality shared by many authors was that they felt freer in their movement outside of the U.S. than inside.

HELEN GIBSON (Erfurt) demonstrated the importance of cars to Black world-making in the early twentieth century through the example of the writer, orator, and NAACP activist William Pickens. His endeavor of crowd-funding a car illustrated the importance he saw mobility would have on his campaigning and the subsequent freedom he gained once this funding had worked underlined this point. Gibson’s presentation examined how Pickens remained an advocate for motor vehicle mobility despite being imprisoned for an accident that led to the death of a white hitchhiker. Pickens’ legal struggles ultimately saw him acquitted, but more than this Gibson stressed that cars beckoned to Black drivers despite the risks, not in the least because they offered an obvious alternative to the torturous humiliation of Jim Crow public transport.

The annual conference also featured four “Young Scholars Forums” in which early career scholars discussed their works. The first group discussed their projects on twentieth-century liberation movements and their opponents. GLORIA FEARS-HEINZEL (Frankfurt) is investigating the supposed irreconcilability of Black power and gay liberation activism and how homophobia, racism, and sexism interfered with coalition building. Although attempts were made at cooperation, in theory most stayed on the level of shared interests level, with only few, relatively unknown, moves into practice. MAX GAIDA’s (Cologne) work examines the resurgence of antiurbanism in the wake of the mid-twentieth century sexual revolution and how suburbanites endeavored to retain influence over the city’s sexual politics even after leaving, using Philadelphia as a case study. By looking at anti-communism and the repression of Marxist based criticisms of racial capitalism, DANIELE PUCCIO (Leipzig) is exploring how technologies of anti-radicalism functioned.

The second young scholar's forum focused on the mobility experienced by women pioneers. STEFANIE SCHUSTER (Munich) is investigating the paths of women's college alumni to the top of US diplomacy, focusing on those few women who graduated from women's colleges and succeeded in obtaining diplomatic office in the US in the 20th century. VIVIANA ACUÑA AZUAJE (Cologne) is examining the challenges and struggles of Women of Color working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields between 1980–1999 at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Furthermore, researching the institutional efforts to implement and support diversity policies and programs at NASA. Lastly, TATJANA KLEIN’s (Munich) project aims to explore the representation of women in U.S. presidential primaries since 1972. Her focus lies on the roles and regulations of the Democratic and Republican parties.

The third young scholars panel presented work on women’s activism throughout American history. PIA HERZAN’s (Erfurt) work on early-republic Philadelphia analyzes the variety of voluntary involvement by women during Yellow Fever epidemics and the effects this had on the city. TED RICHTHOFEN (Bonn) examines women’s roles in the suffrage and temperance movements and how these intersected, highlighting the archival research he has done, particularly in Colorado. CAROL GROSE (Sussex) is researching how women in the Southern Baptist church conveyed their ideas on race and gender from the 1920s into the early post-war period.

The last young scholar's panel discussed the theme of mobility and transcultural entanglements. MARKUS DIEPOLD (Regensburg) works on food practices' role in 18th-century diplomatic interactions between Haudenosaunee and European representatives in the American Northeastern woodlands and how the presence or absence of these practices impacted their alliances. ALINE ZELLER (Erfurt) is investigating the practices of Trachtenvereine, Bavarian and Tyrolean customs associations, in the USA between 1880–1930. Moreover, she analyzes how they created and enacted ideas of "Germanness,” and the difference to the Austrian members of their community. Lastly, FENJA HEISIG (Osnabrück) presented her project on the writings of Francis Lieber within the context of the nineteenth-century debates surrounding questions of literary property, authorship, and international copyright, using published works and unpublished primary source material.

The conference contributions revealed the diverse intersections and impact of mobility on American history, offering exciting prospects for future research. Notably, the significance of examining both mobility and immobility emerged as a key takeaway. Multiple presenters emphasized the gendered aspect of mobility through exploring women's history, suggesting a promising avenue for investigating how mobility can be male gendered too. Overall, reconnecting in person at the conference was truly gratifying, marking a return to a world characterized by increased mobility.

Conference Overview:

Welcome Address: Anja Opitz (Tutzing), Rebecca Brückmann (Northfield), Silke Hackenesch (Cologne)

Panel 1: Mobility, Gender, and Empire

Nathan Cardon (Birmingham): Fanny Bullock Workman, Transimperial Mobility, and the Temporal Politics of “Anglo-Saxon” Subjectivity

Britta Waldschmitt-Nelson: “Sisters Unite!” Transnational Mobility of Women’s Rights Activists in the 19th Century

Roundtable: Andreas Hübner (Kiel), Jana Keck (Washington DC), Christian Werner (Wolfsburg)

Panel 2: Social Mobility and the Claiming of Space

Jan Logemann (Göttingen): Raising Walls around America: The Construction of U.S. Borders before World War I

Susan Eckelmann (Chattanooga): Young Stalwarts of Immobility: Anti-Civil Rights Youth and the Defense of White Childhood

Felix Krämer (Erfurt): The Price of Freedom? Student Loans, Debts Difference, and Social Im/mobility in the United States from the 1960s to the Present

Panel 3: On the Road Again

Ralph Poole and Robert Winkler (Salzburg): On Her Road Again? Representing Female Empowerment in 20th & 21st Century American Road Movies

Helen Gibson (Erfurt): Beyond Teleology and Eschatology: The Stasis of “Taking Flight” in Cars

Isabel Kalous (Erlangen-Nuremberg): “I Carry My Past with Me”: Im/mobilities in Black Travel Writing

Young Scholars Forum I: Race, Sex, and Movement(s)

Gloria Fears-Heinzel (Frankfurt): Black/Gay/Power/Liberation – Conflict and Cooperation, 1969-1977

Max Gaida (Cologne): The Sexual Politics of Antiurbanism

Daniele Puccio (Leipzig): The Original Cancel Culture

Young Scholars Forum II: On the Move: Pioneering Women

Stefanie Schuster (Munich): Entering State: Women’s College Alumnae as U.S. Diplomats

Viviana Acuña Azuaje (Cologne): “Don’t Stop Me Now!”: The Perseverance of Women of Color in NASA during the 1980s through the 1990s

Tatjana Klein (Munich): “Good Candidates” for Democrats and Republicans? The Representation of Women in U.S. Presidential Primaries since 1968

Young Scholars Forum III: Conservative Movement(s)

Pia Herzan (Erfurt): Governed by Voluntariness: Voluntary Civic Engagement and Political Practices during the Yellow Fever Crises in Philadelphia’s Early Republic

Carol Grose (Susses): “The Golden Path of History”: Interracialism, Internationalism, and Southern Baptist Women

Ted Richthofen (Bonn): White Feminism, Anti-Psychoactive Substance Movements, and Middle-Class Capitalist Hegemony

Young Scholars Forum IV: Mobility and Transcultural Entanglements

Markus Diepold (Regensburg): “No Knife Near Our Dish”: The Material Culture of Food, Hospitality, and Commensality in 18th Century Haudenosaunee-European Diplomacy

Fenja Heisig (Osnabrück): Of “Paper Bridges” and Social Immobility: Overcoming Distance in Francis Lieber’s Transatlantic Network

Alina Zeller (Erfurt): German Trachtenvereine in the U.S.

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