- “Unruly Subjects”: American Studies from Antidiscipline to Revolutionary Praxis
What time is it on the clock of the world? If Grace Lee Boggs were here today, she would say that we live in a time of great danger but also great hope. We are simultaneously moved on local, national, and global scales to confront white supremacist, neoliberal dispossession; the commodification of every aspect of life, thought, and feeling; ecological disasters once unfathomable, now increasingly routine; the looming prospect of epochal levels of extinction; reactionary violence and exclusion to uphold heteropatriarchy; and genocidal state and corporate policies and practices.
As Trumpism has exposed the bottomless depths of white male fragility, it has also laid bare the corruption of capitalism and the limits of US power. Our theme, “Build as We Fight,” is a call to resist the destructive effects of this rotting system while acknowledging the imperative to create alternative means of survival and models of community from the ground up in order to address social problems that those in power cannot and will not solve. We must organize, and we must struggle over ideas. And there is no better place for us to learn about both than right here in Hawai‘i. I am forever grateful to the members of the ASA staff, Program Committee, and Site Resource Committee who have made this possible, especially the scholars of Hawai‘i who have patiently nurtured my ongoing education.1
In the face of a history marked by the exploitation and dispossession wrought by plantations, militarism, and tourism, those of us coming from elsewhere are blessed with a wealth of opportunities to learn from and stand with the movements for Hawaiian Renaissance and Indigenous Resurgence. We are here not just to expose the edges of empire but to unite with our Hawai‘i-based members and friends of the ASA at the center of place-based epistemologies, methodologies, sovereignties, and cosmologies. As ice caps melt and typhoons swell, we look to Native Pacific navigators for guidance to chart a path through the treacherous waters ahead.
This address consists of three parts roughly organized into my assessment of the past, present, and future. First, I trace the emergence of the ASA as an [End Page 307]
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antidisciplinary home for those coming from outside the institutional history of American Studies. Second, I seek to define the openings created by the seismic political and epistemological ruptures marking the crisis of liberal capitalism and contested transition to a new system. Finally, I provide examples of scholar–activist work that seek to build the revolution toward a new social order as we struggle with the degeneration of the existing one.
From the Few to the Many, or Subaltern Pathways to the ASA
My first connection to the American Studies Association nearly two decades ago was entirely fortuitous but simultaneously a product of emerging and prevailing trends within the field. In 2000, I completed a dissertation and started a tenure-track job in the University of Michigan’s Program in American Culture. Both were unplanned given that my primary aim during my years as a graduate student was to do socialist organizing connecting student and community activism. Scarcely a month after I began working in Michigan, the ASA’s annual meeting came to Detroit. I honestly do not remember knowing anything about this association before colleagues at work advised me to attend that conference.2
The most exciting aspect of my move to Michigan was the opportunity to work with Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit.3 Although I remain deeply indebted to my academic mentors and influences, my primary intellectual life and home have been among community-based activists and organic intellectuals, especially those rooted in working-class communities of color. Despite earning her PhD in 1940, Grace saw a career in academia precluded by racist and sexist structures. In her trademark way, she discovered opportunity in the midst of crisis, doing groundbreaking revolutionary organizing and theorizing with C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, through...