I remember my first ever CLA Conference. I was finishing the final course of my doctoral degree and studying for my comprehensive exams. It was April 2005 and the good colored folks were gathering at University of Georgia that year. I had heard of CLA only the previous year, as my mentor and the other faculty of color at Florida State University were avid CLA-ers. If I was going to continue under their tutelage, I would have to be inducted into the CLA fold. I was excited and looking forward to the conference; I even chuckled at it being referred to as the “Colored” Language Association—a nod at both its cultural roots and the identity of its membership. I had no idea what I was in for.
Understanding that the study of Literature has the tendency to exclude and can be a lonely road for people of color, I was dumb-founded at the sheer number of scholars doing work in literatures and languages of the African Diaspora. It was like I had died and my spirit flew off to Willow Springs. Like Willow Springs, CLA exists between the control of two state apparatuses: the Modern Language Association on one hand and our home institutions on the other. It is a place where students, faculty, and post-docs congregate to share and exchange knowledge; participate and engage in a black scholarly community; and support and expand an ever impressive web of professional networks.
For a young, black, graduate student CLA presented a wealth of professional resources. I had a chance meeting with Professor Bernard Bell—he, being without a car, happened upon my fellow graduate students and I who obliging gave the esteemed professor a ride to the local Kroger. He, in turn, invited us to join his table at the banquet that evening. He scrutinized my training in African American literature and schooled me over dinner and a few glasses of Riesling. It is an encounter I won’t soon forget as it prepared me for the later scrutiny I would face in my oral exams, my first job search, and, hell, the countless exchanges with colleagues who are yet and still uninformed about the vast tradition of African American letters.
As a professional, I still find CLA as equally amazing as I did as a graduate student. Being of melanin-rich complexion and doing the work that I do, I am (as I find many other scholars of color are) continually faced with the challenges of being black in the Ivory Tower. Just when I am about to reach my limit of the academic fuckery that is wont to happen, April springs forward and I can find my reprieve in CLA. I escape to reunite with colleagues, mentors, and for the first time in 2013—former graduate students Shauna Morgan Kirlew and Patricia Coloma Penate who are now among the professoriate. I cannot wait to seal the deal on my Life Membership in this organization that has been so central to my career growth.
CLA is a safe haven for this colored girl. I feast upon the plethora of scholarship on black literature and culture like Thabiti Lewis’s paper on teaching hip-hop aesthetics to a majority white student body or Mary B. Zeigler’s work on Gullah Geechee lexical heritage, or an entire panel on black vampires in Speculative Fiction. I heal my professional aches and pains over tea and make new professional acquaintances at dinner. I gain new perspectives on my own work during the Q&A segment of my panels which always runs—always, always runs over time because of such engaging conversation and constructive criticism.
But this is what happens at all professional conferences, right? I suppose on some level that is a correct assumption. I would interject, however, that the difference with CLA is that many of its members describe it as “home”. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a colleague put their experience at MLA or ALA in those terms. Like Willow Springs, you have to be from there (CLA) to really understand how things take shape. If you are a scholar doing work in African American Literature or the literature and languages of the African Diaspora, you owe it to yourself to at least engage with this community once in your career. You have to put your hands in the care of CLA and believe you will be transformed. And you never know who will show up at CLA—you just may find yourself shaking hands with the greatest conjure woman on earth.