How to make American Studies Association more inclusive? Mary Helen Washington’s suggestions

Mary Helen Washington, in her inaugural address as the newly elected president of the American Studies Association (ASA) in 1997, advocated for the institutional change in ASA by asking a question to her colleagues and scholars. Her question, “What happens to American Studies if you put African American studies at the center?” draws the attention towards the historical marginalization of African American cultural perspectives in traditional American Studies discipline. Her address entitled “Disturbing the Peace” calls for the increased collaborations between the African American Studies and American Studies to reconstruct American Studies institutionally and structurally. Thus, the peace Mary Helen Washington intend to disturb is very simple.

Washington, in her address, draws separate histories of American studies and African American studies emphasizing the historical and institutional marginalization of African American issues in academia. Her point is that, even though African American scholars debated on the social, political, cultural and economic issues of America, the contribution was not recognized.

Similarly, she points out the difficulty of African American scholars to institutionalize African American/Black Studies programs in American universities. Finally, she advocates for open mind towards topics and issues since, “scholarship emerges in layers and intersections” and “formerly marginal” topics are now mainstreamed”, academia should incorporate all the debates of society fairly and equally.

Washington constantly asks scholars of American Studies whether ASA is the potential home for African American scholars. She reminds that some scholars have already declared that ASA was the “home” of choice for most Chicano/a scholars. She quotes Steve Sumida, “It’s less like a home and more like being in a dormitory owned and operated by powerful others, but where you get a nice room and good treatment.”

Similarly, Washington’s own experience is not easy as she shares, “being a part of an American studies association is a contradictory experience for those of us in ethnic studies.” It is because of the “The Ghost of Classic American Studies Past” in the words of Jose David Salvivar. Further, she explains what black intellectuals over the decades and centuries have identified: “white supremacy as a systematic and central feature of American experience.”

Thus, she recommends a model for institutional change in ASA. She provides examples form Wedding Band, a 1964 dramatic production by Alice Childress, Lone Star, a 1996 film by John Sayles, and Octoroon, a 1997 CD by Laura Love and explains how institutional and structural change is possible. She suggests some strategies to make American Studies more inclusive with regard to African American literature and culture.

First, ASA should concentrate on quantitative change. Quantitative change, she argues, can eventually produce qualitative change. For quantitative change, scholars should be willing to “disturb the peace”. It means, historically marginalized issues should be included in American Studies.

Second, ASA should promote and celebrate connections with ethnic studies constituencies at an institutional level. She recommends for the greater commitment from ASA to collaborate and exchange with ethnic studies group: African American, Asian, Latino, Chicano, etc.

Third, she insists to use resources to support ethnic studies programs with the same energy, emphasis, and financial support given to traditional American Studies programs and departments. She encourages to establish the same kind of alliances with African American studies associations, with Chicano and native organizations from Latin America to the Caribbean, and Africa.

Finally, she suggests that ethnic studies people and projects should not be seen as “them”, “that” and “those people”. She advocates for the “deeper project of reconstructing the definition of America, not merely “expanding”, “including” the so called other.

In conclusion, the entire address calls for the institutional change in ASA to make it more inclusive and non-discriminatory organization by creating “a liberated and liberating institutional space.”