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Past events and conferences 2014

The Eccles Centre for American Studies regularly organises and supports conferences, seminars, lectures and other events on North American and transatlantic themes, often in partnership with other institutions and organisations.


Prisoners of the Blob: Why Most Educational Experts Are Wrong About Everything

When Tuesday 9 September 2014, 18:30-20:30
Where British Library Terrace Restaurant

For the 2014 Eccles Centre/Fulbright Commission Lecture, Toby Young discussed the ‘pernicious influence’ of romantic ideas on the public education systems of Britain and America, particularly in the last 50 years, and made the case for a more traditional, knowledge-based approach to teaching.

Toby Young is a journalist and author. He is also the CEO of the West London Free School Academy Trust, an educational charity which has set up a number of free schools, as well as the author of a forthcoming book about the new primary national curriculum, What Every Parent Needs to Know.  Young is a follower of the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, the former Professor of Education at the University of Virginia and author of Cultural Literacy. Young is a member of the US-UK Fulbright Commission’s Board of Commissioners.

The talk was followed by a wine reception.

This event was co-sponsored by the US-UK Fulbright Commission.


Alan Rusbridger – Reflections on Press Freedom

When Monday 8 September 2014, 18:30-20:30
Where British Library Conference Centre

In this Benjamin Franklin House Symposium, Alan Rusbridger, Editor-in-Chief of Guardian News & Media, shared his views on freedom of the press. During his editorship The Guardian has fought a number of high-profile battles over press freedom and libel, including cases involving Neil Hamilton, Jonathan Aitken, the Police Federation, Trafigura, and Wikileaks. In 2013 The Guardian broke world exclusive stories by publishing NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, for which they were jointly awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service with the Washington Post.

This event was organised in collaboration with the Benjamin Franklin House.


Summer Scholars 2014: Ireland and Irish America in the First British Empire

When Monday 11 August, 12:30-14:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Benjamin Bankhurst (Postdoctoral Fellow of North American History at the Institute of Historical Research) talked about his book Ulster Presbyterians and the Scots Irish Diaspora, 1750-1764, which examines how news regarding the violent struggle to control the borderlands of British North America resonated among communities in Ireland with familial links to the colonies. The book was awarded the 2013 Donald Murphy prize for Distinguished First Books by the American Council for Irish Studies.


Summer Scholars 2014: The Brooklyn Bridge and its Beginnings: Across America in the Steps of Washington Roebling

When Friday 8 August, 12:30-14:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Erica Wagner (Eccles British Library Writer in Residence) discusses her research on Washington Roebling, the engaging and articulate engineer who built the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.


Summer Scholars 2014: Food Diplomacy, Victual Warfare, and the Revolutionary Atlantic

When Monday 4 August, 12:30-14:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Rachel Herrmann (University of Southampton; Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) discussed her book No Useless Mouth which asks how Native Americans, free blacks, and slaves used food to wage war and broker peace during and after the American Revolution.


Summer Scholars 2014: Semiotics of Foodways and Identity in American Movies

When Monday 28 July, 12:30-14:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin; Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) examined how food practices and beliefs reinforce and resist the constructions of ethnic, racial and class identities in American movies.


Summer Scholars 2014: Gertrude Stein: Suffragist Librettist, Modernist, or Nazi Collaborator?

When Monday 21 July, 12:30-14:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Mary Chapman (University of British Columbia) discussed Stein’s opera The Mother of Us All, putatively a portrait of suffragist Susan B. Anthony in postbellum America but, Chapman argues, the opera also gives Stein an opportunity to consider her own political role in Vichy France prior to the enfranchisement of French women.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Its Historical Legacy

When Monday 7 July 2014, 18:30-20:30
Where British Library Terrace Restaurant

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is arguably the single most significant measure enacted by the US Congress in the twentieth century. It swept away the Jim Crow system of Southern segregation and established the legal and political equality of African Americans. Whether it also established their social and economic equality is less clear-cut. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Act, Professor William P. Jones addressed the historic circumstances of its enactment and considered its meaning for today's African Americans in modern America.

William P. Jones is Professor of History at University of Madison-Wisconsin. He has written extensively on African American history notably on the struggle for jobs and economic equality. His most recent book is The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: Norton, 2013).

This event was organised in collaboration with UCL Institute of the Americas, KCL Institute of North American Studies and the US Embassy, London.


Summer Scholars 2014: Symposium: The Civil Rights Act 50 Years On

When Monday 7 July 2014, 15.30-17.00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Commemorating the enactment of the US Civil Rights Act in 1964, this symposium discussed the social and political currents that helped shape the Act.  The panelists explored the divisions that were evident in every aspect of American life in the early ‘60s, from its court rooms to its motels, and the strategies campaigners used to bring these to public attention.  The discussion also explorde the legacy of this landmark legislation in the light of continuing racial protest in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and finally addressed how far the Act’s aims have been achieved and which remain unfulfilled, half a century later.

The event began with a special screening of excerpts from the PBS documentary 1964, which was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A.

Chair, Professor Iwan Morgan (UCL); Panelists: Dr Dan Matlin (KCL), Dr Althea Legal-Miller (UCL) and Dr Cara Rodway (Eccles Centre); Respondent, Dr Uta Balbier (KCL).

The symposium launched the daytime Eccles Centre Summer Scholars 2014 programme.

This event was organised in collaboration with UCL Institute of the Americas, KCL Institute of North American Studies and PBS America.


Bolivar: American Liberator

When Monday 16 June 2014, 18:45-20:30
Where British Library Conference Centre

Drawing on her new biography of the revolutionary leader, novelist and journalist Marie Arana discussed the colourful and dramatic life of Simon Bolivar. In 1813, he launched a campaign for the independence of Colombia and Venezuela, commencing a dazzling career that would take him across the rugged terrain of South America. From his battlefield victories to his ill-fated brief marriage and legendary love affairs, Bolivar emerges as a man of many facets: fearless general, brilliant strategist, consummate diplomat, passionate abolitionist, and gifted writer.

Marie Arana is a biographer, essayist, novelist, and former editor in chief of Book World at The Washington Post. Currently, she is a guest columnist for the New York Times, Writer at Large for The Post, and Senior Advisor to the US Librarian of Congress. An active spokesperson on Latin America and biculturalism, she is also a specialist on the book industry.

This event was co-sponsored by the UCL Institute of the Americas.


I Put a Spell on You

When Monday 09 June 2014, 18:45-20:30            
Where British Library Conference Centre

Eccles British Library Writer in Residence John Burnside introduced his new memoir. In this exquisite, haunting book, he describes his coming of age from the industrial misery of Cowdenbeath and Corby to the new world of Cambridge. This is a memoir of romance – of lost love and the love of being lost – darkened by threat, illuminated by glamour.

The old Scots word ‘glamour’ means magical charm, and the first time he was played 'I Put a Spell on You', John Burnside thought he had never heard a more beautiful song – it was an enchantment, a fascination that would turn to obsession. Implicit in the song were all the ambiguities that intrigued him – love, possession and danger – and this book is an exploration of the darker side of glamour and attraction. Beginning with memories of a brutal murder, the book follows the author through a series of uncanny encounters with ‘lost girls’, with brilliant digressions on murder ballads, voodoo, acid and insomnia, and a cast that includes Kafka and Narcissus, Diane Arbus and Mel Lyman, The Four Tops and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and time spent lost in the Arctic Circle, black-and-white films and a mental institution. I Put a Spell on You is a book about memory, about the other side of love: a book of secrets and wonders.

John Burnside’s recent books include the poetry collection All One Breath (February 2014), the book of stories, Something Like Happy, the novel, A Summer of Drowning, shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Prize, and his poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, which won both the 2011 Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. He is a Professor of English at St Andrews.


White Earth to Picardy: Native American Indians in the Great War

When Monday 02 June 2014, 18:45-20:30            
Where British Library Conference Centre

Gerald Vizenor examined the conscription, deployment, and combat casualties of Native American Indians soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces in France. More than twelve thousand Native Americans served in regular infantry units with the British and Australian forces on the Hindenburg Line in Picardy and with the French Army in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Vizenor discussed the research undertaken for his new book, Blue Ravens, the first historical novel about Native Americans in the First World War, in which he portrays scenes of actual soldiers in combat (drawing on his own family's service in the conflict), crucial cultural stories, and the ironies of war.

Gerald Vizenor is a prolific novelist, poet, literary critic, and a citizen of the White Earth Nation of the Anishinaabe in Minnesota. He is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His novel Griever: An American Monkey King in China won the American Book Award and the New York Fiction Collective Award.

This event was supported by the US Embassy, London.


The National Lampoon and US Satire in the 70s

When Friday 30 May 2014, 18:30-20:30
Where British Library Conference Centre

Now most associated with broad comedy films, the National Lampoon was originally a sharp, often coruscating, satirical magazine that captured the political and cultural transformations of the 1970s. As part of the British Library's Comics Unmasked exhibition programme, Ellin Stein, author of That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, explored its huge influence on subsequent American comedy and its continuing relevance.

This event was co-sponsored by the American Museum in Britain.


America and Britain in the 21st Century

When Thursday 29 May 2014, 18:30-20:30
Where British Library Terrace Restaurant

In the 4th Annual Benjamin Franklin House Robert H Smith Lecture in American Democracy, Sir Nigel Sheinwald discussed America's and Britain's changing roles in the world, explained why a strong transatlantic relationship nevertheless remains important, and why international engagement by both countries remains in their, and the rest of the world's, interests. Sir Nigel is a senior British diplomat, who served as HM Ambassador to the United States of America from October 2007 to January 2012.

This event was organised in collaboration with Benjamin Franklin House.


In the Land of the Head Hunters

When  Friday 23 May 2014, 18:00-20:30
Where British Library Conference Centre

In 1914, American photographer Edward S. Curtis released the first feature-length, fiction film to star an entirely indigenous cast, In the Land of the Head Hunters, made with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) people on location in British Columbia. Although a critical success, the film made no money and was quickly lost to the archive.

Based on recent archival research, in 2008 a collaborative team led by Aaron Glass (now at the Bard Graduate Center), Brad Evans (Rutgers), and Andrea Sanborn (of the U’mista Cultural Centre in BC) oversaw a new restoration of the film that returned the film’s original title, title cards, long-missing footage, colour tinting, initial publicity graphics, and original musical score—now thought to be the earliest extant original feature-length film score in America. The history of the film and recent restoration project are documented at http://www.curtisfilm.rutgers.edu. The trailer for the restored film can be viewed here.

Marking the centenary of the film’s release, restoration co-producer Brad Evans, introduced this special screening, complete with the original score.


DW Bryant Lecture: How Dismal is the Future of American Politics?

When Monday 19 May 2014, 19.00 – 20.00 
Where British Library Conference Centre

In 2012 Barack Obama became the only Democratic president other than Franklin Roosevelt to win successive presidential elections with over 50% of the popular vote. He believed he had a mandate to demand action from Congress on two issues where public opinion appeared to expect government leadership: gun control legislation and the 'fiscal cliff'. His failure to secure action on both issues illustrated his subsequent inability to translate his electoral victory into a mandate to govern.

In the Nineteenth Annual Douglas W Bryant Lecture, Professor Tony Badger, reflecting on a half a century of studying modern America, asked why is it so difficult to govern the United States, and why is the American system of politics so dysfunctional? He looked at the historic limits on the presidency and the federal government, the low level of political participation, the extreme polarisation of party politics, the loss of popular faith in the federal government, and the malign influence of both money and religion on contemporary politics. He expressed scepticism about any likely progress on the immediate policy challenges facing the United States: immigration reform, the deficit, the reigning in of entitlement spending, and climate change. He asked if the US can respond nimbly to the crises in the Middle East and the challenge of China. However, Americans have portrayed the inadequacy of their politics in apocalyptic terms many times before. Tony Badger suggested that economic recovery, energy self-sufficiency and the sheer scale of America's per capita wealth and military capability will enable the United States once again to survive the dysfunctionality of its political system.

Tony Badger has been Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University since 1992 and Master of Clare College since 2003. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians in 2012. Badger has written extensively on the New Deal, southern liberal politicians and the Civil Rights Movement. He is currently writing a biography of Albert Gore Sr.

The lecture was preceded by a reception.

Further information on the Douglas W Bryant Lectures is available here.


Music & Conversation: Devon Sproule

When Friday 9 May 2014, 18.30 – 20.00 
Where Conference Centre, The British Library

Devon Sproule is a singer-songwriter of distinction. She issued her first album at the age of 16, and in 2013 her most recent disc, Colours, a co-operation with fellow singer-songwriter Mike O’Neill was released on the Tin Angel label. Devon was born in Canada. Her family lived in a commune near Kingston, Ontario, before moving to the USA, to the Twin Oaks community, an ecovillage in Virginia. She has toured extensively in North America and Europe, and in 2007 she and her husband gave a memorable performance of her work on Later with Jools Holland.

Asked about the influence of her background on her music Devon has spoken of the existence in the village of a desire and willingness to communicate, of a versatility of communication, and of her pride in her alternative upbringing. Her modern folk style draws on influences of blues, country and she says, ‘while I’m not a jazz guitarist, I steal absolutely as much as I can from the genre’. Neil Spencer, in The Observer, referred to the ‘refreshing sweetness’ and ‘infectious sunny outlook’ in her early albums, Jonathan Aird of AmericanaUK, called her latest work ‘essential’.

In a rare solo appearance Devon performed a selection of her compositions and discussed her life and work with the audience.


Benjamin Franklin House Science Day

When Friday 2 May 2014, 10.30-12.30
Where Conference Centre, The British Library

The Annual Benjamin Franklin House Science Day illuminates the National Curriculum through a variety of activities which demonstrate how Franklin’s work arose from a spirit of awe and curiosity about the world in which he lived, which in turn led him to ask questions, seek answers and develop solutions. The content is appropriate for Key Stage 2 children with the focus on a range of learning styles to enable all children to benefit from the experience.

This event was organised with the Benjamin Franklin House Education Department.


Michael Katakis and Michael Palin: An Evening with Two Travellers

When    Wed 30 April, 18.45 – 20.00
Where   Conference Centre, The British Library

Writer and photographer Michael Katakis and fellow author and presenter Michael Palin share a love of exploration and new human encounters, often in some of the most remarkable places in the world. At this event they discussed their experiences and read from their journals and books. Michael Katakis also introduced his polemical new book about America, A Thousand Shards of Glass.


The Secret Lives of the Hemingway Wives

When    Monday 28 April, 18.45 – 20.00
Where   Conference Centre, The British Library

Today, Ernest Hemingway is remembered as one of the most gifted writers of the twentieth century. But he was also married to four extraordinary women: Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary. Told in four parts, Eccles British Library Writer in Residence 2012 Naomi Wood’s new novel, Mrs. Hemingway, tells the story of what it was to love – and be loved by – one of the most famous writers in the world. Set against the backdrop of Roaring Twenties Paris up until Cold War America, Mrs. Hemingway recovers each woman from Hemingway’ shadow, and gives a touching and balanced account of life with ‘Ernesto’. Naomi Wood read from her novel, and explored in videos, photographs and personal testimony what we know of these women and the eras they lived in.


Puttin’ on the Glitz - Fashion and Film in the Jazz Age

When   Friday 28 March, 18.30 – 20.00
Where  Conference Centre, The British Library

Fashion extraordinaire Amber Jane Butchart transported the audience to the glitz and glamour of Jazz Age Hollywood and the costumes that took London by storm. She drew on the Library's collection of vintage magazines in this talk with Christopher Laverty, editor of the popular blog Clothes on Film, who examined the flamboyantly dressed 'Dandy Gangster' as portrayed in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.


The African-American Great Migration

When  Thursday 27 March 2014, 18.45 – 20.15
Where   Conference Centre

‎Pulitzer-Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson discussed the Great Migration, one of the biggest underreported stories of the 20th Century. It lasted from 1915 to 1970, involved six million people and was one of the largest internal migrations in U.S. history. It changed the country, North and South. It brought us John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Bill Russell, Motown, Denzel Washington, Michelle Obama -- all products of the Great Migration. It changed the cultural and political landscape of the United States, exerting pressure on the South to change and paving the way toward equal rights for the lowest caste people in the country.

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, the New York Times bestseller that chronicles the true story of three people who made the decision of their lives during the Great Migration, a watershed in American history. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, amongst many other prizes.

Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African-American to win for individual reporting.

This event was organised in collaboration with the US Embassy, London.


British Leadership in the American Revolutionary War

When    Friday 28 February 18.45 – 20.00
Where   Conference Centre, The British Library

The Revolutionary War was one that Britain seemingly should have won as a major military power. It is therefore commonly assumed that failure must have been due to the incompetence of the commanders and the politicians who are ridiculed in fiction and in movies. Andrew O’Shaughnessy challenged such assumptions and offered a very different explanation of why Britain lost the American War of Independence.


In Woodrow Wilson’s Shadow: America’s Great War, 1914-2014

When    Friday 21 February 18.30 – 20.00
Where   Conference Centre, The British Library

In the second Sulgrave Manor Watson Chair lecture to be hosted by the British Library, Professor David Reynolds. reflected on America’s role in the World War I and how it has been remembered. At the centre of his story is the protean figure of Woodrow Wilson – variously seen as hero, villain and far-sighted prophet, lionized in turn by liberals and conservatives. But equally important is the conflict itself – successively re-interpreted through the lenses of the Depression, World War II and especially Vietnam.

This event was co-sponsored by Sulgrave Manor.


Thomas Jefferson in Another Light

When Monday 17 February 18.45 – 20.00
Where Conference Centre, The British Library

When Thomas Jefferson was nearly 66 years old he retired from the American presidency, trading in his hectic public life for a tranquil private one. He envisioned his days spent outdoors overseeing the operations of his farms, and his evenings devoted to reading and enjoying the company of family and friends. But what Jefferson imagined for himself in retirement was often quite different from the reality of his life at Monticello, his Virginia plantation home. While some of the details of various events and issues can be extracted from his own writings, he remained characteristically reserved, sometimes completely silent, on others. What was Jefferson – father, grandfather, and friend – like in these last years of his life? What was his life like at Monticello? What effect did living with him have on his extended family and how did they perceive him? Lisa A Francavilla, Managing Editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, used family letters and other documents to enable her audience to view Jefferson from a far different perspective than that which he carefully crafted in his own correspondence.


Let’s Talk about Sex: Femininities and Masculinities in the Americas

When   Friday 14 February 2014 11.30-17.30
Where  Conference Centre, The British Library

This half day symposium provided a space to discuss ongoing work in detail, to receive peer feedback, and promote interdisciplinary and transnational dialogue. Through cultural and socio-historical lenses participants came together to explore the ways in which the embodiment and performance of femininities and masculinities have created and contested our understanding of identities in the Americas. This symposium promoted new thinking about the ways that language and performance have challenged prevailing cultural paradigms and affected change by empowering those who struggle to find a voice. The symposium schedule may be viewed here.

The symposium was organised by Eilidh A B Hall and Morwenna Chaffe from the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. Read more about what took place on the day.

This symposium was supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the University of East Anglia, and was organised in association with the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW).


A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste: African American Higher Education and Social Change

When   Monday 3 February 18.45 – 20.15
Where  Conference Centre, The British Library

From the end of the American Civil War until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, exclusively black colleges and universities were at the centre of African American educational and intellectual life. Many significant black figures were graduates of these institutions, including Ralph Ellison, James Weldon Johnson, Edwin Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr Michael Lomax, President of the United Negro College Fund, will discuss the rich history and ongoing significance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

The UNCF is the largest minority education organisation in the United States. It provides scholarships for students, financial support for HBCU member organisations and advocates nationally for the importance of higher education. Dr Lomax has led the UNCF since 2004. Previously he was president of Dillard University in New Orleans and a literature professor at UNCF member institutions Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. He served as chairman of the Fulton County Commission in Atlanta, the first African American elected to that post. Dr Lomax also serves on the boards of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of African American History and Culture and the Studio Museum of Harlem.

The talk was followed by a Q&A and wine reception.

This event was supported by the US Embassy, London.


Forward Ever: The Killing of a Revolution

When   Friday 17 January 18.00 – 20.30
Where  Conference Centre, The British Library

The 1983 US-led invasion of Grenada was widely criticised. The United Nations (UN) called for a cessation of the ‘armed intervention’. While, the UN Security Council stated that it ‘deeply deplores the armed intervention in Grenada, which statutes a flagrant violation of international law.’ What were the circumstances that led to this extraordinary chain of events? This comprehensive, gripping and revealing documentary tells the story of the Grenada revolution as never before. The film features extensive, previously unseen file footage, as well as old and new interviews with many of the key players of the time. The film’s director, Dr Bruce Paddington, University of the West Indies, was present to discuss aspects of his film with the audience.
This event was convened by Karen Hunte (The Political Studies Association) and is sponsored by the Eccles Centre.


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