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Gwendolyn Brooks Panel, Callaloo Anniversary — Just a Few Highlights of the  Conference.

While everyone else is making Christmas lists and checking them twice, language and literature professors from around the country are planning for their annual post-Yule ritual — the Modern Languages Association conference — a huge annual gathering of scholars, job-seeking graduate students, publishing representatives and departmental functionaries of every stripe.
Upwards of 8,000 attendees are expected to descend upon New Orleans Dec. 27-30, where they’ll have a dizzying menu of 800 panel presentations, 80 division meetings, 40 discussion group meetings and 32 public programs.
Dr. Charles Rowell, editor of the renowned literary journal Callaloo and professor of English at Texas A&M University, is ready to go. Callaloo will be celebrating the anniversary of its 25th year of publication with a reading and a panel featuring both poets and critics.
Dr. Hortense Spillers, the F. J. Whiton professor of English at Cornell University and the senior scholar on the Black Literature and Culture division’s executive committee, is ready for MLA, too. While divisions are allotted only three panels each, there are in fact upwards of 25 panels being offered on African American literature and culture this year — eloquent testimony to the degree to which “African American studies has taken hold in the academy,” Spillers says.
“I think of it as a measure of the degree to which our discipline has succeeded in making its political point.”
The 25th anniversary of Callaloo might be seen as another measure of the maturity of the discipline. “If you took a glance over the various issues of Callaloo since 1976, you’d see a veritable record of some of the best literature published in Black America as well as across the African Diaspora — in Brazil, Martinique, in Curacao, in the United States and Canada, in England and France,” Rowell says.
Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, who just made full professor at Columbia University at the tender age of 38 — and author of Who Set You Flowing: The African American Migration Narrative — vividly recalls how it felt attending MLA when she was a graduate student, and then a junior scholar.
“Horrible!” Griffin remembers.
Griffin, who serves on the Black Literature and Culture division executive committee as well, explains: “The MLA is … difficult. It’s such a large conference. Because the primary focus is the job fair, it has a kind of tension in the air. Even when people are presenting panels, they’re often people on the market who are aware that their future colleagues are examining them. Also, everyone is overworked and exhausted from the end of the semester.”
Of course, there are moments that can only be described as magical. One of those occurred last year, when Spillers asked for a moment of silence in memory of Gwendolyn Brooks at a Black Literature and Culture division event.
Afterwards, Spillers invited people to make comments. “It was the most moving thing, seeing and hearing all of the scholars who had been touched by (Brooks) and her generosity,” Griffin says, noting that this year’s Gwendolyn Brooks panel, sponsored by the Black Literature division, may well be one of the most highly anticipated panels of the convention.
Another event, according to Spillers, which will likely be of the word-of-mouth, invitation only variety, will bring together the nation’s Black feminists, in an informal gathering, to discuss the status of Black women.
“We haven’t done that in a while — not since 1994 when Black women met at MIT for a program called ‘Defending My Name.’ The title had been taken from an advertisement that had appeared in The New York Times a few years before that in support of Anita Hill,” Spiller says.
If you’re attending the conference, past MLA attendees offer the following advice: Pace yourself, eat, and get enough sleep so you can attend the early morning panels. 

— By Kendra Hamilton



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