CCCC 2018 meant a four hour drive from Hays, the town of 20,000 where I teach. A flat drive, until it’s not: the Flint Hills, the Fort Riley military base, the hypnotic windmills, the vestiges and scars of tornadoes and fire. On I-70, especially through Missouri, there are juxtapositions in dizzying proximity: ridiculous uses of the American flag, Jesus and abortion and gun and porn stuff. More races and ethnicities on this preachy, nationalistic road than coastal measures account for.
As I awaited a decision about C’s, I wondered whether academics who live in Kansas or Missouri were part of it. I thought about the institutional hierarchies we live, relive, embody, and listen to. I thought about the queer rural youth I had recently interviewed, their harrowing and heartening stories in isolated towns in the high plains. I thought about the ways these youth reflected the mythos of metronormativity, which is not so far from the mythos of academic progressivism, as well as the queer rural ingenuity these youth revealed.
I took the survey about whether to cancel. I questioned whether boycotting Kansas City was a meaningful response to the NAACP travel advisory. I noted that the conference would be an opportunity for my graduate students to be fully funded and suggested ways the conference location would serve marginalized Midwestern academics. I inquired about who would be affected by the financial question – not a national organization but the people who would be coming to this conference as well as those who would be working in hotels and restaurants and other conference spaces.
Portland, 2017. The sheer number of homeless people, miserable in the rain, spilling into the streets. Poverty, in its nuance and starkness, its degrees of visibility, its capacity to persist everywhere, doesn’t, and didn’t, surprise me. I grew up in an unfinished basement house in Illinois; I lived in Cairo for four years. Yet the housing crisis in Portland struck a deep chord that reemerged as people denounced Kansas City.
St. Louis, 2012. I flew in from Tucson. African-Americans make up about 49% of the St. Louis population; for Tucson, it’s 4%. I listened to colleagues’ comments about how racist St. Louis was, how uncomfortable it was to fly into an international airport, check in to a conference hotel, and stay in a five block radius for four days before returning to Tucson, with its own cocoons and death.
Who works in places with the mantra that things are just fine the way they are? Who works in places where a veil of suspicion must first be punctured? Who works where there is a violent denial of the persistence of modern racism? Killjoys (thank you, Sara Ahmed) must consider how and where we have come to be in our diverse geographies, with our positionalities, our bodies, our measures of power.
Online: a swell of snapping remarks about academia, the organizations we subscribe to, the dilemma and binary of working with or against these structures. Waiting for the decision, I thought about the fear. The materiality. The bodily response to brown bodies. The mythos of the radical mover and shaker.
While I was heartened by conference revisions that responded to concerns raised about Kansas City, I do wish that scholars on the ground in Kansas and Missouri – especially scholars of color – would have been a larger part of the discussion about whether or not to hold the convention. Or, if they indeed were, that we would have known more about their presence in that conversation. From Kansas, it seemed that decisions were motivated and made from outside of the region.
Four days isn’t enough. In four years in Cairo, I just started to fathom the weight of eras of interpolary architecture that shadowed men repairing bamboo chairs and bicycling down Qasr El Eyni with a pallet of bread on their heads, women selling tissues or heel-clicking down the street on gold-plated phones. Four days, four years: only a glimmer of the deep-seated reasons for everything to seem, for everyone to act. Eighteen years in an underground house. The ripples of pain across farming and rural communities. My father’s sisyphean efforts to fix farm machinery from the mid twentieth century, the disappearance of our wooden hoghouses, the sprawl of hot, corrugated factory prisons, and the roof caving in on our barn.
Seven months after I returned to the U.S., the Egyptian Revolution. I was glued to Al Jazeera’s camera on Midan Tahrir. For days, I could do nothing more than stare at a screen and hope for my colleagues and friends. That moment of hope, when Mubarak stepped down, may have been but a fleeting break from dictatorship, but “ya masr!” was in my heart.
People asked, “Aren’t you glad you got out of Egypt when you did?”
I said: “No.”
To say why would have required more than the question allows. To say why would have been a heavier investigation of place and people than the question seeks.
To hold or not hold CCCC 2018: What did this question allow for? What did this question forget? What did this question not seek to recognize?
As I awaited the C’s decision, I was, again, ambivalent toward academia and so many of the ideologies we carry. I felt, again, the tenuousness with which I have often treated my relationship with groups and organizations. This is the most honest way that I can think to describe it.