- Broadway and Main:Crossroads, Ghost Roads, and Paths to an American Studies Future
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.Asked the Lord above, "Have mercy now. Save poor Bob if you please."-Robert Johnson, "Crossroad Blues"
As the parent of a high school student, I often find myself contemplating the Scholastic Aptitude Test (the SAT), which means jumbling together my intellectual understanding of the test's built-in knowledge inequalities with my fascination with the aesthetic beauty of its analogy questions. I want to begin with one of these analogies: Robert Johnson is to crossroads as crossroads is to (blank).
I'm going with answer C: American studies. Crossroads offers a useful trope for thinking about intersections, danger, commerce, intercourse with others, and the possibility of the new-and the figure that seems to represent these meanings best is Robert Johnson. One almost cannot hear his name without making the link to a long-lived story:
It was sometime in 1929 or 1930 that Robert Johnson began showing up with a guitar at Saturday night parties in Robinsonville, Mississippi. When Son House and his partner Willie Brown went on break, Johnson would take over, supposedly "driving people nuts" with his poor playing. But then, fleeing a brutal stepfather and the hard work of the fields, Johnson ran away from home for six months. He marked his return to Robinsonville by showing up at another party, blowing the crowd away. "He was so good!" remembered Son House. "When he finished all our mouths were standing open."1
Out of such stories-generally recounted by white music critics long after Johnson's death-emerged a particular vision of "the crossroads." How had Robert Johnson gotten so good, so fast? He had made a pact with the devil, selling his midnight soul in return for musical genius. And he'd cut the deal down at the crossroads, that place of mystery, danger, and possibility conveniently [End Page 1] marked for later listeners by the tune "Cross Road Blues," recorded in 1936.2
American studies has long offered a world of possibility for those interested in escaping the strictures of the disciplines and in stretching their boundaries, in looking for insight from other interpretive traditions and social realities, in making the new. American studies might be defined by this pithy phrase: "it's not what we choose to include, but what we refuse to exclude."3 That is a powerful statement about the antipathy to boundary setting that produced American studies as we know it: capacious, expansive, and engaged. And "crossroads"-in the form of the ASA Web site, university press series, and conference themes-has often seemed the perfect figure to sum up our practice.4
As Robert Johnson is to crossroads, so crossroads is to American studies: the smaller term in each relation allows one to weave some tangibility around capaciousness. Each gestures to the real connections that are made at meetings such as the one we celebrate tonight. And, in fact, there is a need to capture such tangibility. For as one of my favorite administrators recently sniped, "If American studies is so much everything, then how can it be anything?" It's a fair question.
Tonight, I want to remind us that there is in fact an anything to American studies and it is something to be contemplated at greater length. In making that contemplation, I want to walk through two issues in our field. The first of these is the question of disciplinarity and of the transformations of that thing called the "interdisciplinary." The second involves the long interchange between American studies and ethnic studies. These are hardly distinct questions, and they both have something to say to the practices of American studies.
This year's conference theme, "Back Down to the Crossroads: Integrative American Studies in Theory and Practice," was meant to serve as a kind of "anti-theme," a chance to open up the meeting to a wide range of work and to challenge American studies scholars to see four recent thematic interests-in race and ethnicity studies, in...