October 12-15, 2022, the American Folklore Society will reconvene in Tulsa, Oklahoma for its 134th Annual Meeting.
In 2020, the American Folklore Society laid plans to gather in Tulsa. The theme of that conference was to be “Re-Centering the Periphery,” examining the connections, tensions, and fluctuations of marginalized and centralized entities within the folklore discipline and within the larger environments in which we exist and act. The original meeting was postponed in observation of pandemic safety measures. In the intervening time, there have been enormous changes in the world. Peripheries and centers have shifted in unexpected ways. Now, as we prepare to reconvene in Tulsa in 2022, conversations about re-centering the periphery are more important than ever.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, is located where the South, Midwest, and Great Plains regions meet. Tulsa, like Oklahoma in general, is often seen as being on the periphery of something else. But Tulsans have always narrated a different history: one in which they are at the center. Tulsa was once home to Black Wall Street and was for a time the Oil Capital of the World and a vibrant thoroughfare of Route 66. Today Tulsans organize the Center of the Universe Festival, host the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, celebrate extensive historic Art Deco architecture, and are proud to see their spectacular new Gathering Place and many cultural treasures celebrated in national venues like the New York Times. On a deeper level, the ceremonials of the Muscogee, Euchee, Shawnee, and Cherokee people that are held around the Tulsa region re-center the universe anew each year and keep the world in motion, not only for the benefit of those native people who participate in such traditions but for every living being on the planet. As our field has long shown, all peoples are at the center of their own universes. Tulsa continues to be an excellent place for us to rethink centers and peripheries as well as routes and roots—particularly how individuals and groups carry culture and identity with them as they move to, and actively make, new homelands.
Tulsa—the 45th largest city in the United States—is today home to a diversity of peoples and varied cultural traditions. Tulsa’s history reaches back to thousands of years and spans hundreds of miles of geographic space. The Muscogee people who refounded Tulsa on the banks of the Arkansas River did so after surviving the Trail of Tears, the brutal ethnic cleansing that forced them from older homelands in present-day Georgia and Alabama during the 1830s. Located on the northern edge of the Muscogee Nation’s new lands, Tulsa’s location bordered on, and now extends into, the relocated homelands of the Cherokee and Osage peoples. All three native nations have long been multicultural, socially diverse societies, and thus we will meet in a special place that is (now) home to Euchee (Yuchi), Shawnee, Delaware, and Quapaw peoples as well as for Muscogee and Cherokee Freedmen. Muscogee and Cherokee peoples of both native and African heritage were joined by wave after wave of newcomers, including African Americans who came to the region to form so-called all Black towns. The story of European settlement in Tulsa and the region is nearly as complex and varied as that of the area’s native and African American peoples. Those stories of rooting and re-centering in a new place continue. The state is home to 39 different federally-recognized Native Nations and to large and varied Native American, European American, African American, Latinx, Asian American, and recently growing Middle-Eastern communities. Questions of continuity and change continue to be front and center in this place, as is evidenced in the last 2 years of protest against racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the national spotlight on the community commemoration of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The conference theme “Re-centering the Periphery” calls us to focus on the intersections of what is marginalized and centralized both in our field and in the larger public debates about national identities in 2022. The multiple perspectives, peoples, communities, and histories that make up the story of Oklahoma intersect with and challenge many of the tropes we often use to symbolize the nation. While some of these tropes have played out nationally in the past few years of global unrest, reflecting the growing dichotomy between authority and individualism in spaces such as public health regulations for the global pandemic, and attempted regulation preventing “racial guilt” in the classroom, there continues to be movements to recenter these peripheral spaces. Historically, Tulsa is the location of some of the most important drivers of national economic prosperity—petroleum production, agribusiness, and aerospace manufacturing—and also some of the worst excesses of colonialism and westward expansion; racial violence, and environmental degradation. Oklahoma’s populations of relocated Native Americans, freed slaves, and immigrant communities have been the sources of centering and in recent years, recentering as important symbols of national identity even as they themselves have been displaced, marginalized, and otherwise pushed to the periphery.
This geographical backdrop can also serve to reflect on and engage in deeper discussions of what is on the periphery and the margins of our own field. What are the productive intersections of theory and practice, particularity and generalization, advocacy and analysis? In what ways is the field of folklore, via an important attention to the unique features of communities, uniquely suited to bring attention to larger social and environmental issues related to the places in which those communities are formed and re-formed? Not just in theory, but how can we infuse the pulse of the cultural confidence for our geographic host into actioning these collective ideals?
We invite participants to reflect on this moment in our national discourse and disciplinary development. How might folklorists contribute to larger conversations in productive ways? We invite work that highlights the interplay between theory and practice, the representation of the marginal as centering symbols, the complications of advocacy and analysis, the cultural and rhetorical mechanics of marginalization, and exploration of counter-narratives that elucidate how marginalized communities have turned the tables on the powerful.
By situating Tulsa and Oklahoma in a wider geographic context, the organizers also invite folklorists to address the dynamics of neighboring regions and old homelands of special relevance to Oklahoma and its communities. Similarly, the processes and transformations being experienced in Tulsa and Oklahoma are linked outward to global scale. Wherever folklorists live and work, their concerns and engagements can almost certainly be re-centered or fruitfully rethought when we gather in Tulsa. From the sociologist Max Weber and the historians Angie Debo and John Hope Franklin to folklorists Benjamin Boktin and William Jones of the Sac and Fox Nation, Oklahoma has long proven to be an excellent place to deepen and reconsider one’s thinking about the human condition.
Of course, in addition to this topic, we encourage participants to explore the full dimensions of their scholarship regardless of topic.