This blog post is the second in a series of posts supporting the UHA’s inaugural Membership Drive. These posts will introduce you to some of the many amazing scholars, activists, teachers, and others in the UHA’s membership community, as well as highlight the role played by the UHA in the lives and careers of its members. We hope they’ll inspire you to deepen your involvement with the organization by joining the UHA or renewing your membership. The UHA is only as strong as its members, who make possible our efforts on behalf of our discipline. Please visit urbanhistory.org/membership today to join or renew.
Join UHA Membership Director Kara Murphy Schlichting and members Ato Quayson and Constanze Weise in a conversation about the role of international scholars and international scholarship in the UHA and the necessity and benefits of growing the UHA’s global presence. The following interview excerpts have been edited for space.
How did you get involved with the UHA?
Ato Quayson: My first involvement with the UHA was when I was co-winner of the Best Book Prize (Non-North American) in 2015 for my book Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2014; Editor’s note it’s featured, in part, in our overview of the city for the Metro of the Month in November 2019). I became a member and have also been on the Book Prize Committee.
Constanze Weise: I have been a long-term member of the UHA and got involved through the UHA awards committee for the Best Book (Non-North American) in 2015. When attending the last UHA conference in Columbia, SC, I realized that there was a focus on North America and discussions about Africa’s urban past were very peripheral to the UHA. This made me get involved more with the organization. I became a board member and, in addition, currently serve as the co-chair of the UHA programming committee together with Rachel Sturman. Furthermore, I am part of the membership committee and serve on the current UHA awards committee for the Best Book (Non-North American) as well the board.
One of the big goals of the UHA is to become more inclusive and diverse, and therefore themes that deal with issues of urbanity and and urban history outside of North America can help achieve this goal.Constanze weise
What would your “pitch” be to encourage other UHA members who are either of international origin or who work on international topics to become more actively involved in the UHA?
Constanze Weise: One of the big goals of the UHA is to become more inclusive and diverse, and therefore themes that deal with issues of urbanity and urban history outside of North America can help achieve this goal. An organization is always shaped by its membership, and if we have more international members on board, we can bring themes into the focus which are relevant for urban histories outside of the United States but can, at the same time, enrich the theoretical and methodical framework of research focused on North America. By joining the UHA we have a unique chance to make the organization very international.
The most important [topic] is to take a broadly comparative approach to Euro-American urban questions. For example, most people do not know that Minneapolis hosts the largest number of Somalians outside of Somalia itself. This makes Minneapolis a “Somali” city in a way that needs to be studied and properly documented.Ato quayson
Ato Quayson: The UHA has members working across fields and regions from a diverse range of disciplines [that are] not always visible at the conferences. Furthermore, The Metropole offers endless opportunities for featuring international work and has in fact become one of the most useful sources of information on urban studies outside the Euro-American focus. The only way to make this feature visible is for more international scholars to take an active interest in both the Association and in The Metropole.
What do you see to be the UHA’s relevance to issues of the urban past and present regarding urban space, design, architecture, politics, socio-cultural developments and/or communities outside of the United States, Canada, and Europe?
Constanze Weise: I think the UHA has a very central place as an organization strengthening the interdisciplinary collaboration of scholars. The ongoing pandemic, city-wide quarantines, and national lockdowns have reminded us of the centrality, importance, and fragility of urban centers and of the complexity of global interconnectedness and urban biopolitics. It has also brought to the forefront discussions about government regulations and how we use the built environment. The current pandemic has also highlighted questions inherent to urban spaces across the world, such as issues of access to resources of marginalized communities but also the rural-urban dichotomy. The UHA has a unique chance to use this momentum to build bridges across disciplines and regions.
What topics would you like to see taken up by UHA members who study regions outside of the United States, Canada, and Europe?
Ato Quayson: The most important is to take a broadly comparative approach to Euro-American urban questions. For example, most people do not know that Minneapolis hosts the largest number of Somalians outside of Somalia itself. This makes Minneapolis a “Somali” city in a way that needs to be studied and properly documented. Akron, Ohio, has over 25,000 Nigerian immigrants, many of whom consider themselves dedicated to the United States and yet also firmly Nigerian in their emotional attachments. There is also the fact of gastro-nostalgia and the ways in which ethnic food stores in the Global North act as switchboards of identity. Thus, on entering an Indian food store, do not be surprised to find not just canned Indian foods, but the latest Bollywood movies and various newspapers (often dated) from across the subcontinent. And so the Indian food store performs the function of sustaining a form of affective attachment to the homeland while also facilitating the Indians’ navigation through the Global North, be this in London, New York, Oakland, Amsterdam, or Sydney. The point is [to support scholars] adopting a fresh starting point to understanding cities, that is to say, to start from their peripheries and to cross-reference these peripheries to various elsewheres across the world.
What benefits have you gained from being a member of the UHA?
Ato Quayson: The most important benefit really came from co-winning the Book Prize in 2015. That simply launched a completely new trajectory to my career that I had not anticipated. Not only that, it also gave me access to an entirely new cohort of interlocutors in urban studies, and also placed me firmly on the path of literary urban studies. Both my research and teaching focus have been majorly impacted by that development.
The current pandemic has also highlighted questions inherent to urban spaces across the world, such as issues of access to resources of marginalized communities but also the rural-urban dichotomy. The UHA has a unique chance to use this momentum to build bridges across disciplines and regions.Constanze Weise
What are your hopes for the future of the UHA in general and in terms of its international presence?
Constanze Weise: I am hopeful that more scholars working on themes outside of North America will join the UHA, and that this will also lead to a larger production of work on non-North American themes. As an Africanist, I am particularly hopeful to have a larger presence of scholars working on urban issues in Africa. In the UHA’s new programming committee, we are already planning events dedicated to non-North American themes, such as the upcoming author discussion series/ book forum during Urban History Month.
Ready to join or renew your membership? Learn more about UHA membership online or by contacting membership director Kara Schlichting at firstname.lastname@example.org. Memberships purchased after August 1st will be good for the remaining portion of the current calendar year plus the next calendar year (e.g. a one-year membership purchased on September 15, 2021, will be good until December 31, 2022).
Ato Quayson is the Jean G. and Morris M. Doyle Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies and Professor of English at Stanford. His most recent book is Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Constanze Weise is Assistant Professor of History at East Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on the pre-nineteent century and early colonial cultural and political history of West Africa with special emphasis on the intersection of politics and religion as well as urbanization. Her current project is entitled “Kingdoms of the Confluence: Ritual, Politics, and Sovereignty in the Niger-Benue River Valley Regions of Nigeria, to 1920.”
Kara Murphy Schlichting is Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York. She is the author of New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore (University of Chicago Press, 2019).
Featured images (at top): Church St. and Town Hall–Maritzburg, South Africa (ca. 1900-1930), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.