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My Day In Baltimore: Notes On The 2008 Annual Meeting Of The Historical Society

June 10, 2008

Since my subsistence work operates on a Monday-Friday, 9-5 schedule and vacation days are limited, time available for the 2008 meeting of The Historical Society was also sparse. Nevertheless, I believe I saw enough to compose a limited report. I hope my observations will help others planning to attend, or considering, future THS meetings.

I arrived in Baltimore around 12:30 pm on Friday, June 6. Traveling by light rail and bus (two transfers total), the Johns Hopkins University campus came into sight around 1:30. Since I could not check in until 3 pm, and the hotel (the Inn At The Colonnade, part of the Doubletree chain) was further along the bus route, I stopped to check in at the conference. All panels were held at the Charles Commons Conference Center. The Commons Center was quite nice: it appears to have been constructed within the last ten years.

My arrival time coincidentally occurred at the start of the afternoon’s panel sessions at 1:45 p.m. After a short refreshment and restroom break, I attended Session IIIA. Here are the details:

——————–

SESSION IIIA: THE STATE OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY AND STUDIES, PART I, Banquet Room Sloan B

Moderator: Charles “Pete” Banner-Haley, Colgate University
John Higginson, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Bobby Donaldson, University of South Carolina, Columbia
Mark M. Smith, University of South Carolina, Columbia
Louis Prisock, Colgate University

——————–

Although I’m not a specialist in African-American history, I love historiography and the interdisciplinarity of studies programs. Also, this panel interested me the most among my three other choices that day. Also, because some have noted that THS was founded by older, conservative white guys, I wanted to see demographics of this particular session. How would the panel square with what others say or expect about the THS? (I wondered if “feminist guy,” who recently solicited Tenured Radical for advice, was talking about THS? Hmm…)

The panel was modified somewhat in that Bobby Donaldson and Mark M. Smith were not in attendance. That aside, the audience consisted of about 15-20 listeners—varying through the session. Because of the THS stereotype mentioned above, I will note that the panelists were either African American or of dark skin, but the majority of the audience was white—excepting two or three attendees. There were 3-4 women in the audience. I can’t confirm their politics, nor that of the panelists, but I can tell you that everyone was well-behaved. 😉

I should note that my comments on this panel are limited by the fact that I was not able to attend prior African-American history panels and the directly related one that immediately followed, Session IVA. The latter conflicted with the panel in which I was presenting.

Professors Charles “Pete” Banner-Haley of Colgate University, John Higginson of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Louis Prisock, Colgate University performed admirably. I was unfamiliar with Professor Higginson’s topic, related to South Africa, so it was Professor Prisock’s that resonated.

Prisock spoke on the historical roots of today’s African-American conservatism. Since he is a sociologist by training, he used the language of the present while attempting to move back and forth between 1900-1920 “conservatism” and the black conservatism that has made itself apparent from the 1980s to the present. Prisock made a familiar “cyclical argument” with regard to conservative commonalities attributed to some black intellectual and cultural figures today, particularly Thomas Sowell, Walter E. Williams, Bill Cosby, etc. Prisock’s contention is that the self-help versus acceptance-of-help dichotomy that exists among today’s African American thinkers dates to middle-class black thinking at the turn of the century (as well as those later opposed to New Deal help programs). While Prisock did not argue that today’s dichotomy is directly rooted in the tensions between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, he at least noted that some in today’s community still refer to those with regard to the two traditions. The larger point of Prisock’s paper is that black conservative thought today needs to be both properly historicized and linked to any transcendent streams that may exist.

As an historical aside, Prisock mentioned a 1980 meeting of African-American intellectuals in San Francisco where Thomas Sowell sought to build up, or support, anti-Civil Rights thinkers. I’m sure I’m butchering this reference, but Prisock noted that Reagan administration officials sought to pluck African American participants in this event to populate their administration. It sounds conspiratorial, but I’d be happy to learn from readers who know more about the 1980 event and Sowell’s intent.

While seemingly being unfamiliar with the historiography of intellectual history, it is clear that Prisock wanted to cast his talk in those terms. I wondered, for instance, about whether any rigorous exploration of anti-intellectualism among blacks has been done? Coincidentally, when I checked my e-mail after returning, a colleague informed me that James Levy recently completed a dissertation on that very topic. Since I’m hoping to put together a panel on anti-intellectualism for the fall 2008 USIH conference, perhaps Levy’s work will make into my paper or another panelist’s.

The question-and-answer session on this panel consisted of comments about the varieties of intellectualism, the usefulness of the left-right/conservative-liberal terminology, and citations of Marcus Garvey, Shelby Steele, and Juan Williams.

I won’t discuss my panel (SESSION IVC: DIVERSITY AND DEMOCRACY). Although I thoroughly enjoyed the papers given by Jose Angel Hernandez and Caroline Emily Shaw, as well as the stand-in performance by panel chair Jeffrey Vanke for Florence Mae Waldron, my perspective on the session is skewed by the usual distractions that accompany giving one’s own paper. I will note that I visited briefly with Professor Hernandez (from Amherst, like Higginson above) before the session and enjoyed his company. Since Hernandez attended the University of Chicago, we shared some brief reflections on the same city.

After the Friday evening plenary, given by Ruth Iyob of the University of Missouri-St. Louis on a paper titled “Invisible Histories: Erasing Africans in the Mediterranean World,” I left to check in to the hotel. On the way there, I was accompanied by Journal of the History of Ideas editor Martin Burke. We made plans for a drink and dinner. Along the way we picked up conference attendee Robert Zeidel, from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The three of us enjoyed the rest of the evening discussing baseball, politics, and our respective institutions and backgrounds.

This completes my experience at THS’s 2008 meeting. Due to family obligations on Sunday, I had to leave Baltimore early on Saturday morning. Before finishing my report, however, I want to relay two last happenings of interest—both of which involved my cab ride from the hotel to BWI.

First, the concierge at The Inn At the Colonnade tried to rip me off. When I approached the concierge to request a cab, he informed me—in an authoritative voice—that the cab fare was comparable to that of ordering a private hotel car: $50-60. Since I was attending the conference on a tight budget consisting of my own funds, I had researched cab fares before attending. I had wondered beforehand if I might luxuriate in a direct ride for one half of the airport round trip, so I did my homework. The hotel’s own website reported an average fare of $30-35. When I told the concierge this, and he replied that the fare varies by day and by company. I was curious, but not necessarily suspecting foul play, so I offered to double-check the rate with one of the two cabs standing outside the hotel. The concierge then intervened and said he’d check for me. Upon return, he said that one driver confirmed that he could get me to BWI for the $30-35 range.

This interaction left me suspicious not only of the concierge, but also of the cab. I watched the meter intently and realized, about half-way to BWI, that the fare would be in the predicted lower range. I told the cabbie about the concierge’s attempt at subterfuge, and he was upset and shocked. He asked that I report this to the hotel manager. I will. [Update: I did. The hotel manager e-mailed me a customer satisfaction survey. I modified this passage and sent it back in an a separate e-mail reply. Maybe something good will come of it.]

Upon making friends with the cab driver, he also told me something interesting about Inn at the Colonnade. He said that a current permanent resident of the hotel is the actor who played Gomez Addams—of the Addams Family television series! The cabbie said that “Gomez” teaches at Johns Hopkins. I’m not one for remembering Hollywood names just because, but the driver also informed me that the actor’s son was “Sean Ashton” of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I replied, “Do you mean Sean Astin?” He wasn’t sure. But when I returned home and looked up “Gomez Addams,” indeed “John Astin”, who played that character, does teach theater at Johns Hopkins [per the picture, right]. Apparently Sam Gamgee’s dad received his undergraduate degree in mathematics from JHU. Most intriguing!

———-

I learned on Friday night that the 2010 meeting of The Historical Society will be in Chicago. If you come, be sure and make friends with your cab driver. You never know what you’ll learn about the city—or at least the hotel in which you’re staying. – TL

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