The Radical of America Goes to Washington City (with Apologies to Lauren Berlant and Harriet Jacobs)

November 30, 2007, 12:17 pm

I am here in Washington D.C., getting ready to get on a shuttle and go to another city, after interviewing job candidates at the anthropology meetings — otherwise known as the AAA. The anthropology meetings are actually a lot like the American Historical Association (AHA) meetings — which will be at the exact same pair of hotels, the Omni and the Marriott, in January. In fact, the last time I came to the AHA, it was at this same set of hotels too. It is also a particularly difficult set of hotels: the Marriott is actually two different buildings, pinned together, which means that the floor numbers do not match up. I remember this vividly because — yes, you guessed it — this is where I also interviewed for jobs, ‘lo these many years ago, and where I met with the Zenith hiring committee. When I found them. Since I was on the right floor on the wrong side of the hotel.

So today, while my anthropologist colleague and I were taking a break from interviewing to go to the book exhibit and get lunch, I was having a series of flashbacks. But hotels being what they are, I was often filled with uncertainty: was my memory from this hotel, or a similar hotel in Chicago — or was it Atlanta? San Francisco? Maybe it was the ASA in Philadelphia six weeks ago — or the Minneapolis Hilton, last March? Truth be told, I have clearly been to too many professional events lately, and they are starting to run together in my mind.

But here’s another comparison: a large crowd of anthropologists looks very much like a large crowd of historians, except that there are more men wearing pony tails and facial hair. There’s the fashionable, queer pony tails and facial hair, of course, but mostly I am referring to the “I still have counter-culture values and don’t much like to shave” pony tails and facial hair. Which at least gives them a kind of rugged look. But historians (except for the French historians!) often just have that “I bought my suit off the (wrong) rack” look. I remember walking through through the lobby of a conference hotel with a queer studies colleague during an AHA one year, and she started to sing in a low voice to the tune of the old movement song “We Are a Gentle Loving People,” “We-e-e are a scruff-y, ill-dressed pee-e-ople.” And it is true. Historians, as a group, are not stylish like, say, English and Comp Lit people. Go to the Shakespeare or Chaucer cash bars at the MLA and you will be struck by how very stylish they are. Medievalists, who traverse the worlds of history and literature, would confirm this impression, I think.

But enough about fashion, or the lack thereof. The other thing I love about being in Washington is that I have spent a lot of wonderful time here, with people I loved and with work I cared deeply about. I have been coming here to do research off and on for at least twenty-five years, so I have a great affection for certain places. Like the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building, where I spent weeks doing research for my first book. Sometimes, for fun, I would take the FBI tour when I had read so many documents my eyes were spinning in my head. Or the Library of Congress, where I spent weeks doing research for my second book, and where I am still grateful to the librarians who opened up as quickly as possible after the anthrax scare in 2002, because they knew people with very little money for their research needed them to open. Or the National Archives, which I return to again and again for every project. To me, these libraries and archives represent the most uncomplicated connection to being an American citizen, because in their boxes and on their shelves are the keys to so much we still need to know. And the idea that you can actually get to know a group of archives well, over decades, and that a set of memories about my professional life can have become so located in a place not my home, is also kind of astonishing to me. I won’t ever live in this place, I am pretty sure, but the Radical of America lives in Washington City all the same.

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