“Doing the Charleston”: Performing Racial, Gender, Sexual, and Class Identities
in Multi-ethnic American Literatures and Culture

Conference website:

Call for Papers
March 3-6, 2016, Charleston, South Carolina
College of Charleston

While we invite paper abstracts, and complete panels, workshops, and roundtable proposals on a broad range of topics related to multi-ethnic American literatures of the United States, we especially encourage those that take inspiration from James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston,” the infectious 1923 jazz tune that set Broadway afire in the revue Runnin’ Wild, and became a national sensation. Johnson’s “The Charleston” is said to have been inspired by the rhythms of Charleston dockworkers, and the dance is a performative synthesis of the African juba and jay-bird. The song itself is infused with Habanera and Spanish Tinge beats that speak to its multicultural lineage. “Doing the Charleston” can extend beyond the song, dance, or geographical location connoted by its name; it can involve a performative or theatrical move that constructs and deconstructs racial, gender, sexual, and class identities.

Significantly, 40% -60% of enslaved Africans entering the United States came through the Charleston port, so Charleston served as a nightmarish Ellis Island or homeland for many Africans of the diaspora. Papers for this conference may examine how American ethnic literatures trace this historical passage, showing how the past haunts the present, much like the trace that haunts Joe Trace in Toni Morrison’s Jazz. Papers may explore the foodways of Charleston, rich with seafood, rice, and yams, and how the preparation, as well as the consumption of lowcountry food, becomes a performance of identity construction.

Papers may delve into the works of writers such as Alice Childress, Olaudah Equiano, W.E.B. DuBois, DuBose Heyward, Langston Hughes, Julie Dash, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Josephine Humphries, all who have “done the Charleston,” enacting performances of racial, gender, sexual, and class identities in their works, sometimes with the Charleston lowcountry as a backdrop.

Multicultural Charleston History

Founded in 1670 at the base of the Ashley and Coopers Rivers, Charleston is a city with deep multicultural roots. The names of Native American tribes remain inscribed on the lowcountry landscape: Wando, Yemassee, Sewee, Kiawah, Edisto, Combahee, and Coosaw. The Charleston lowcountry is the home of the Stono and Denmark Vesey revolts.The history is inextricably linked to the environmental and agricultural landscape of the area: rice, cotton, and indigo, in particular, are elemental parts of the city’s history.

The Gullah Geechee culture of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands is a vibrant part of Charleston’s heritage. Gullah peoples, descendants of slaves from West African countries such as Sierra Leone, The Gambia, and Ghana, were able to maintain vestiges of their culture, such as the Gullah language, an amalgamation of African, French, and English languages. World renowned artist Jonathan Green celebrates this vibrant Gullah culture through his beautiful paintings.

Sephardic Jewish settlers came to Charleston from Europe in the 17th century, and a provision was made for them in the charter of the Carolinas of 1660, with emphasis on liberty of conscience for “Jews, heathens, and dissenters.” Until the 1830’s, Charleston had the biggest and wealthiest population of Jews in the North America. Today, Charleston remains the number one tourist destination in the country, largely due to the rich legacy of its multicultural peoples.

Deadline for abstracts and proposals (250 words in Microsoft Word or rich text format (rtf)): November 15, 2015. Please email proposals and abstracts to Dr. Valerie Frazier, MELUS 2016 Conference Committee Chair (