MELUS in Indianapolis: Crossings and Crossroads.
Poet: Kevin Young, Friday afternoon
Critic: Elvira Pulitano, Professor of Ethnic Studies, Calpoly University (California Polytechnical University), Saturday night
In the early twentieth century, Indianapolis acquired the nickname, the crossroads of America: it is the city where the busiest highways in the United States merge and then diverge east and west, north and south. Congruently, the city’s earliest growth and development was also a result of transportation: in the nineteenth century, trains that crossed the country refueled and replenished in a city that came to offer sustenance and entertainment to millions of travelers. The city’s early prominence in the automobile industry, represented by an internationally famous racing event, further established its link to the ideology of transport and movement.
Its longstanding reputation, as well, for being “Indiana-no-place,” an iconic white, middle-class, and homogenous polis– a reputation reinforced by recent television programming like The Middle and Parks and Recreation–belies its truer historical position, which is far more complex and at times contradictory. Indiana’s voting record can resemble its neighbors to the South, and the state became infamous in the 1920s for housing the largest chapter of Ku Klux Klan in the nation. Simultaneously, until the Great Migration, it had the largest African-American population of any Northern city, and a significant black middle-class sector best exemplified by the success and legacy of cosmetics mogul Madame CJ Walker who gave her name to the thriving jazz club that nurtured Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard.To this day, it is, in fact, the most integrated city in the Northern states with 25% of all residents living next to a neighbor of a different race, and is currently experiencing one of the most diverse influxes of domestic and overseas immigration in the country.
How can we define Indianapolis? Is it progressive or conservative? Is it Northern or Southern? How does it challenge our perceptions of homogeneity and diversity? The human desire to make distinctions and to establish boundaries is challenged by the complicated geographical and political position of Indianapolis. As we think of Indianapolis as a city of geo-political crossings, we can also explore the more metaphorical crossings of race, ethnicity and culture that the 21st century requires. In 2010, 15% of all marriages were bi-racial, a figure that is twice the percentage of ten years earlier; simultaneously, the country witnesses a resurgence of white ethnonationalism. The questions of civic identity raised by the fluid and contradictory identity of Indianapolis, in other words, are questions that reflect the fractiousness of national politics as well, and provide a backdrop against which any discussion of multiethnic US literature possesses greater clarity and urgency.
In naming this conference “Crossings and Crossroads,” then, we draw attention to two overlapping spaces of inquiry and invite papers that discuss:
- fluid, hybrid, fragmented, or contradictory identities
- mixed race and interracial interactions
- mobility and migration
- immigration and border crossing
- intersectionality as well as intersections of identity
- the geographical significance of crossroads, etc.
- the persistence of jazz and African-American music as a crossover vehicle