By Laurian B.
I left Indianapolis on November 23rd pumped to write my reflections on the African Studies Association Conference. Then the events in Ferguson and Cleveland peeled back more layers of US white supremacy and I was sidetracked. Or perhaps I got centered and focused. I’ll have more thoughts on that later…
It has been a decade since I’ve attended ASA. The African Studies Association conference is often concurrent with the American Anthropological Association meetings and usually on opposite coasts. This year I decided to skip AAA all together and attend ASA in Indianapolis even though the scheduling would have permitted me to attend both. Upon arrival, the city felt familiar. Indy was the first slice of urbanity I would experience during the 15-hour drive from Illinois to Pennsylvania. City Market and Broad Ripple smell faintly of hipsters and although I’ve happily lived away from the Midwest for almost two years, I’ve since attended several conferences in Middle America and kind of like the striving cosmopolitanism of Indianapolis.
Below are my highlights of #ASA2014:
Based on a rough count of the presenter index in the conference guide, there were about 2,000 presenters at the ASA conference. The conference theme was Rethinking Violence, Reconstruction and Reconciliation and there was a breathe of panels that spanned the humanities and social sciences. Before I arrived, I downloaded the conference app and exported panel information to my calendar. I earmarked quite a few anthropology panels, along with caucus meetings and some panels that were outside my usual interests (Black Judaism, Arab Springs, Sports and Vulnerability). When I picked up my registration materials, I received tickets for the screenings of Half a Yellow Sun and Confusion Na Wa. I already planned to see the adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel but on Friday evening on my way to my room, a group of Africanist librarians corralled me into seeing Confusion Na Wa. The Nigerian comedy showcased the butterfly effect of a stolen phone on the lives of urban strangers. The film was fantastically funny, dark and entertaining.
Check the trailer:
On Wednesday I attended the Digital African Studies workshop where the Michigan State collective presented a ‘sip from a fire hose’ introduction to digital humanities and social science as well as a rundown of Mapbox (for data visualization), Matrix (MSU’s digital humanities and social science site) and Omeka (a user-friendly platform for the construction of digital archives and exhibits of primary data). I left with scribbled notes about how I might partially flip my classroom next semester in order to digitize my pedagogy and also thinking more broadly about the access constraints that come with digitizing Africa.
The Thursday afternoon panel I attended was dope. It was Rethinking Political Economies in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives. Brenda Chalfin brought neoliberalism to the ground via trash in Ghana, Hannah Appel gave ethnographic body to the economy and the state in the Equatorial Guinean oil boom, Kristen Peterson took us on an adventure into the speculative markets of Nigeria’s pharmaceutical industry and Jatin Dua framed piracy in the Western Indian Ocean through a substantive analysis of how neoliberalism operates on the high seas. The ethnographic moments were keen, the attention to continental conditions detailed and the analysis compelling. It was Anthropology of Africa nirvana.
The Women’s Caucus Meet and Greet on Thursday evening was intimate without feeling poorly attended. During the introductions, fresh associate professors were cheered, just released books lauded and newly minted PhDs celebrated. I was also able to chat with academics whose work I admire and junior scholars who were also star-struck. If I had known I would have the chance to have actual conversations, I might have brought along my favorite books to have them signed (shout-out to Claire Robertson, Bridget Teboh and Nwando Achebe).
My Friday panel on the Aesthetics of Violence was surprisingly well attended even though it was at the same time as the Ali Mazrui memorial roundtable. I’m still thinking though some aspect of the discussion we had about the ‘pornography of poverty’ in Africa (thank you, Nathalie Etoke). I went straight from there to a lecture on representation/power and images, had coffee with my undergraduate academic adviser and mentor and then completely missed the African Theory panel. Luckily, attendees live-tweeted the panel papers which eased my loss of not hearing Achille Mbembe or Ato Quayson. Still, I I was disappointed that I hadn’t re-checked my agenda.
Overall, #ASA2014 was by far, one of the friendliest conferences I’ve attended. I wonder if this is partly because there was no demoralizing corner of the conference hotel where job seekers performed for lethargic search committees. Or that panels actually had time for discussions . Or that conference organizers scheduled lunch breaks long enough for you to buy– and actually eat–your food. The general vibe was collegial rather than competitive. I loved seeing so many academics of color. I had easy conversations with strangers as we waited in long Starbucks lines between panel sessions. I exchanged cards with fellow conference-goers after we ran into each other more than twice. People made eye contact and exchanged pleasantries before they even looked at your name-tag. Imagine that!