In conversation: Hazel Carby and Michael Denning, winners of lifetime achievement in American studies

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Hazel Carby, the Charles C. and Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of African American Studies and American Studies, and Michael Denning, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Studies, were recently honored with lifetime achievement awards in their respective fields.

Carby, as previously announced in YaleNews, was awarded the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies from the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association. At the awards ceremony held in January, Carby was lauded for her “intellectual daring, audacity, and originality.” The citation noted that “for decades Carby has simultaneously embodied and exceeded the underpinnings of literary studies by asking what is at stake in our understanding of such concepts as gender, nation, and empire when they are telescoped through the presence of, and engaged by, black women.”

Denning received the 2014 Carl Bode-Norman Holmes Pearson Prize for Outstanding Contributions to American Studies — the oldest award given by the American Studies Association (ASA). The citation noted that “all of Denning’s work — his writing, teaching, and public engagement — conveys an inspiring optimism about the human capacity for collective social change.” In the citation, Denning was also called “a towering figure in American studies who has played a major role in shaping conversations in American studies and has left an enduring mark on the work all of us do.”

This is the first time since 1983 that either award has been won by a member of the Yale faculty, and the first time that both awards have been won in the same year.

YaleNews recently spoke to the Yale faculty members — who have been married for 26 years — about their teaching and scholarship and what winning a lifetime achievement award means to them. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Tell us about your forthcoming books.

Hazel Carby: The title of my current book is “Imperial Intimacies.” The project examines the complex and intertwined relations of race, class, and gender between Britain and Jamaica  from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to just after the Second World War. It is a story that is anchored by the story of my British and Caribbean ancestors; my mother is Welsh and my father is Jamaican, but it is not a memoir. “Imperial Intimacies” is the result of a massive amount of archival research in the national archives in the United Kingdom and in Jamaica.

I began writing about the prejudice against relations between white women and black men during WWII but, in the course of my research, I decided to go back to my grandparents’ generation on both sides, so I focused on the city of Bristol in the United Kingdom on one hand and the city of Kingston in Jamaica on the other. Then I came across the slave register for the Carby plantation in Portland Jamaica in 1817, before Emancipation. I was able to track the history of the people from that plantation to the 20th century in Kingston. I was interested in who the slave owner was, and tracking the slave owner took me back to England. My research then led me to discover that the slave owner came from a village that is two miles away from the Royal Air Force base where my father was stationed during WWII. So actually, the story begins and ends in the same village in England.

Michael Denning: My new book, titled “Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution,” is set to be released in May 2015. The story is about the brief moment from the middle of the 1920s, when electrical recording was developed, until the onset of the depression — a period of about five or six years — when there was a remarkable recording boom. It is a period in United States history that is fairly well known as the era of the early race records of early blues and jazz and of the first country music recordings. As it turns out, parallel events were taking place all over the world. These recordings included tango in Buenos Aires; son in Havana; samba in Rio; hula in Honolulu; kroncong in Jakarta; taraab in East Africa; and marabi in Johannesburg. It was a kind of cultural revolution that in some ways pointed to the political revolution that was to take place later in the century.

While I was in Brazil giving a lecture, I was scouting record stores trying to learn about Brazilian music and discovered that the earliest Brazilian recordings took place during the same time period as early recordings in America. This piqued my curiosity and led me to examine this topic further.

On one level, a lot of my work has focused on the forms of art and culture that ordinary people find powerful. Music has always been a very important part of working-class culture, and most of the music that I explored in this book was entertainment for and by working-class people.

What do you hope that your students learn from you?

HC: I encourage my students to interrogate cultural texts to ask, what is at stake in any argument or text that they have read or seen.

Some of the courses I teach are in the Yale Art Gallery in a wonderful study space there. We can have works of art on view for the entire semester for a course. Each week I ask my students to write responses to a literary work and a visual work. Many of the students who’ve taken the course will say that they haven’t been in an art gallery before, or if they had, they have never really studied a particular painting or photograph in relation to a literary work. When the course ends many of my students tell me that visiting an art gallery is something they will do for the rest of their lives and that they will no longer feel intimidated by engaging works of art. What is so wonderful about having both the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art to teach in is that these institutions take their pedagogical missions very seriously, so as a professor it is very easy to develop courses using their resources.

MD: One thing that I would like to get across to graduate students is that they are not students. They are graduate researchers and teachers who are doing most of the research and teaching of the research university. That seems to me to be a crucial thing. You are training them as if they are already teachers and encourage them to think of themselves in that way.

When you teach at Yale, you teach at a place where undergraduate students have already been successful, are being guided to be even more successful, and are treated as if they are elites and leaders. The fundamental thing that I want to teach them is that the real history of the world is made by the work of average, working-class people. It is really important to take a look at the world through the eyes of people who are not the elites and who are not the leaders.

One of the curiosities that I have discovered in my research is that oftentimes the art forms that we consider to be the most powerful art forms out there are the ones that were developed by people who had the least amount of artistic resources. They didn’t have conservatory educations, and they didn’t have the most up-to-date instruments. In some sense that is one of the things that I have been fascinated in and try to teach my students.

What have you learned from your students?

HC: Everything! I never stop learning from my students. Yale students are just extraordinary to teach. You spend a lot of time developing syllabi and thinking about readings and mapping out what you’re going to say to them, but they never fail to surprise you and keep you on your toes. They never fail to go even deeper than you imagine into a particular issue and sometimes even come up with questions that you haven’t thought of before. This is why I love teaching. Particularly in terms of the undergraduate courses: They work very hard; they think very carefully. And because I make them write every week before class, there is that additional stage of thought that goes into it, so the discussions are of a very high standard. I never fail to be excited when I come out of a class — not just going in — but at the end of a class. Yale students inspire you. Often I say to my husband that I’m walking on air when I come out of an undergraduate seminar.

MD: Everything! Working at a research university means that one’s students — particularly graduate students — are your main collaborators, working on related topics, raising questions, and helping to set agendas.

What is your proudest academic achievement?

HC: My son is my greatest achievement. But in terms of my career as a professor, I would say how proud I am of all my graduate students. Those I have supervised have stellar careers at major institutions. Their scholarship has made major contributions to their fields and they are talented and dedicated teachers.

MD: One of them is certainly this award from the ASA. I feel honored to have received it. I’m also quite happy with the writing that I’ve done, including the books that I have written.

One of the things that I feel most gratified about is the success of the Working Group on Globalization and Culture that I have led for about 10 years. The group is a continuing experimental collective research project — a sort of cultural studies laboratory — that is made up of graduate students and faculty from several disciplines. A number of people who joined the group while at Yale have continued to work together collaboratively in other institutions and at other places, so I am happy to see that this model has continued.

Another thing that has most marked my time here at Yale, and I have been lucky to be a part of in a small way, is the efforts of Yale’s unions, Locals 34 and 35 and GESO. I have learned much from them; it has been a kind of “case study” for my thinking in labor studies.

Why is the field of American literary studies important?

HC: American literary culture is important because the U.S. population is so diverse and so transnational, and its literary and visual culture holds all of this richness within it, in addition to engaging cultural forms in the rest of the world. Within its long history are embedded the most important questions that humanity faces. Some of these stories about injustices and inequalities are very difficult for people to hear, but they must be heard.

Yale has provided support for pushing at the boundaries of what American studies and American literary culture means. I’ve been cradled at Yale in such a way that I’ve been able to have wings. I haven’t felt that I’ve had to stay in any narrow boundaries, and so therefore I can encourage my students to be boundary crossers too. I couldn’t wish any more for them.

Why is the study of cultural humanities important?

MD: Scholars of cultural studies have always been interested in the symbolic actions of human beings. The forms of art, music, and food that shape one’s daily life are not just rational choices that people make, but they are part of a set of beliefs systems and values that are really important to understand about other cultures as well as our own.

As cultural studies became more widely known in the United States — in the 1990s more or less — cultural studies became a wider slogan for the re-imagination of what was called the humanities. Cultural studies marked a turn by which one insisted on the historical meanings of cultural texts, as well as the way they were embedded in forces that had divided humans — issues of class, gender, nationality, racialization — so cultural studies became a new model for humanities research.

What does winning these lifetime achievement awards mean to you?

HC: It means different things on different levels. I’m thrilled for the recognition for the fields within which I work. It’s an important acknowledgement that American literature travels far and wide around the globe, and it is responded to in the work of other nations. And of course I’m thrilled on a personal level. Who would not be? I began my acceptance speech by saying that the only problem with a lifetime achievement award is that assumes a sort of ending and I refuse to accept the ending! I’m finishing up one book and planning another, so my lifetime isn’t over yet. I’m thrilled that the Hubbell Medal has expanded to people who are not immediately about to retire.

MD: It is immensely gratifying, not only as a sign that the writings on labor and culture have had some resonance but as a recognition of the kind of collective cultural studies that we in American studies at Yale and in the Working Group on Globalization and Culture have been trying to cultivate.

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