Sitting in the audience of the MLA Convention volunteer orientation, the mention of a graduate student lounge caught my attention. In the Hyatt Regency hotel, it was in du Sable, a room named after the Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the Haitian founder of Chicago. Our volunteer coordinator’s pronunciation came out DOO-sable, and the written version above the room’s door was vague–all caps with no space–DUSABLE. It may seem a small detail, but the MLA may have missed an opportunity to give members and visitors important information about the city bearing the burden of our convention.
Is it important to know the name of a host city’s founder? In the study of the language arts, we learn that whether in creative writing, literary analysis, technical research, or any other manifestation, the choices made about what to include and what to leave out send messages about the values of the decider. That none of the many non-conference subjects on the convention’s website, du Sable’s legacy isn’t mentioned anywhere is telling. It isn’t like there aren’t any opportunities. The African American history museum named for the first non-Indigenous Chicagoan is mentioned in ways to explore to Chicago–that might have been a perfect place to mention the settler’s important place in American History. Having an excursion organized by MLA in the vein of those to the Newberry Library and the American Writer’s Museum might also have been especially appropriate this year considering the rich Black history of Chicago and the current spotlight on Black representations in all of our established institutions, the academy included.
The Hyatt certainly thought it important enough to name a room after. Other rooms were named after major cities, states, and presidents. Du Sable was the only name I hadn’t seen or heard before, hence the inquiry that led to the opening information of this post. No one will accuse the MLA of not doing their research due diligence by not learning and sharing du Sable’s legacy, and that, perhaps, is the most unfortunate part of all of this. In a related oversight, a colleague mentioned during the conference that the MLA had offered no acknowledgement of the Indigenous lands that Chicago is built on–another convenient and generally unquestioned blind eye.
A tone is set when these seemingly small details go unaddressed. Graduate students at this year’s convention sitting in du Sable, not knowing or even thinking about the significance of the room’s name are taking the lead from our professional body, and most of us will probably perpetuate these values in our own professional activities. In addition to expanding knowledge bases in our respective disciplines, graduate students are also becoming acclimated to the conventions of our profession, both those written out plainly and those more subtle. These reflections may very well be the result of the high expectations I have for my own scholarship. I always want to be as thoroughly researched as I can, ensuring that I’m making assertions based in a complete understanding of the material I’m working with. Sometimes this means extra time finding small details or finding pronunciation videos on YouTube, but a few minutes searching might have afforded the MLA an opportunity to show graduate students just what due diligence can really look like and show Chicago our gratitude.
This is a guest post by Lida Colón, MA student in English at Long Island University Brooklyn.