COVID-19, Antiracism, and “the Journal”

My previous (and first) editor’s note opened with a mild joke about how endless the opening month or so of 2020 had seemed. Simpler times: “the beforetime,” as we all seem to have spontaneously agreed to call it.

The onset of the COVID-19-era has not made putting out a journal any easier: pretty much everything we’ve worked on from the first half of this year has been, or still is, late. The not-so-new still-not-normal has really brought to the fore that in important ways there is no “the journal”: it’s just people. That includes not only the editorial staff, but also, for example, many anonymous and uncompensated referees. For much of the past few months, the daily business of asking them to read articles and to remind them of past deadlines (“gently,” as we say in the profession) has often felt absurd if not worse. And yet the submissions kept coming in—at a faster rate than normal, in fact.

I am happy to report that the journal is, at least for now, largely back to functioning normally. The new print issue will be arriving in your mailboxes any day now, and we have a lot of great things lined up for this platform, which will be publishing new work more regularly than it has been recently. Along with some fantastic articles, we have quite a few clusters coming your way (at least four over the remainder of the year). In addition to our regular blog schedule, Alix Beeston’s Visualities will run a special series on visual archives—and we’ll be starting a new series of direct-to-Print-Plus book reviews.

While our quantity of publications may have temporarily dropped over the past few months, we’re proud of the quality. Elizabeth Outka’s painfully timely “Grievability, COVID-19, and the Modernists’ Pandemic” generated a lot of buzz, as did Rebecca Colesworthy’s “She Works Too Hard for the Money” (both for In These Times, edited by Debra Rae Cohen). We learned how to look more closely at tears with “On the Verge of Tears” (Visualities) by Louise Hornby—a contributor familiar to many readers—while the Process and Disciplines blogs featured innovative work by emerging scholars: Todd G. Nordgren’s “Modernism’s Queer Pedagogies” and Ama Bemma Adwetewa-Badu’s “Poetry from Afar.”

We also published a trio of groundbreaking full-length articles: Margaret Konkol’s “The Revolutionary Gardens of Imagism”—which historicizes and politicizes the seemingly ahistorical and apolitical gardens and flowers of imagist poetry; Kevin Michael Smith’s “Shuddering Century”—which immerses readers in the semantic, typographic, and contextual nuances of futurist-inflected Korean poetry— and Wendy A. Grossman’s “Unmasking Adrienne Fidelin,” which brings new complexities to our understanding of the Guadeloupean dancer and model, too long given short shrift as a “muse” of Man Ray or Picasso.

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As I mentioned briefly in my previous note, this one was meant to be mostly a celebration of our new editorial board. The board is indeed still something to celebrate, but in the current climate it also compels me to reflect, a bit more explicitly than I otherwise would have, on some fundamental and long-term questions about who a journal such as this is for, who it represents.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the vocabulary of antiracism have rapidly acquired a cultural ubiquity that would have been almost impossible to imagine in, well, the beforetime. With everyone from NASCAR and L’Oréal to syrup manufacturers and Instagram influencers issuing statements, even sincere statements of solidarity risk being taken as perfunctory or self-interested. Rather than a general statement of support, then, I’d like to offer some details about the journal’s recent past and possible futures.

If there is no “the journal,” then I can’t speak for it—but I can speak about it. I’ve been thinking about issues of equity around the journal since before I came on as a co-editor and have been working on them, with only mixed success, since I started. I have thought of this as a struggle on three fronts—with progress needing to be made on all three for the progress on the others to really matter.

First, there is the question of subject matter—of who is represented and what kinds of topics and scholarly debates are taken up. Our recent range of publications demonstrates some success on this front, as will a number of pieces already accepted over the past year or so and soon to be in print (including a cluster on indigeneity, articles on C. L. R. James, Langston Hughes, and Oceanian modernisms, as well as a wide range of Latin American artists and writers, from the Andes to Argentina, Puerto Rico to Brazil). Still, I’m going to work on this more aggressively this coming year, and will have some specific announcements in the next “Editor’s Note.”

Second, there is the question of whose work we publish—and this has proven to be the most difficult issue. I would of course like to think I have been sensitive to any bias, even implicit or unconscious, in the journal’s review and acceptance process—but how confident could I ever be about such a claim? And even if I have had some success on that front, it’s one thing to claim the journal is merely “not racist”; has it managed to be antiracist? Have I actively solicited work by BIPOC scholars and tried to create an intellectual environment in which they would anticipate their work being welcome and appreciated? Yes. But clearly I haven’t done enough, or haven’t done it well enough. I will remain proactive on this front, while also recognizing the burden that such outreach can put on BIPOC scholars. When is this merely the pursuit of a merit badge for the journal, and when is it something that will truly enhance and elevate the scholar’s work and career? Wariness of such outreach is more than justified, especially in the current climate.

While invitations and outreach can have good effects, then, what would be better would be a journal that more organically and spontaneously attracts a wider range of work by BIPOC scholars as well as work on race and antiracism. This calls for work on the third front: the referees, editorial board, and editors who play a “gatekeeping” role for the journal, while also projecting (whether they wish to or not) an image of what Modernism/modernity considers important or authoritative.

As one of the co-editors of the journal, I choose the referees who evaluate approximately half of the submissions. This work is, under the current system, necessarily anonymous and invisible, but I can say that I have proactively sought to diversify the pool of referees and to create a journal for which more people feel it is to their benefit, as well as ours, to donate their time and expertise. I welcome feedback and suggestions on any of these areas.

This brings me to the new editorial board, which I am only announcing now, but is the fruit of many long-term discussions. Keen-eyed readers might have already noticed the new board in the January 2020 print issue, or on Modernism/modernity’s part of the Johns Hopkins University Press website. If you haven’t already, please take a look: you’ll find a board that is by far the most diverse we’ve had in terms of fields, areas of language expertise, methodology, institutions, and, at least to a modest degree, race and ethnicity. It is also worth noting that the positions now have three-year terms (renewable), allowing for continued and regular change in the future. I’ve told each new board member that I want them to be not just symbols on a masthead, but voices actively shaping the journal’s future, encouraging their colleagues and students in their fields to send us their work, make suggestions and requests, and to take a fresh look at the journal if they haven’t read it in a while. I think it’s a good start, but it is just a start.

Finally, there are the two co-editorships. 2020-21 will be my last year as co-editor and this fall the board of the Modernist Studies Association will interview candidates to be the new co-editor of the journal (for a four-year term). It will be a truly open search. You will see the call for applications soon, but in the meantime please be thinking about whether you and/or a colleague you know might be “the journal” you’ve been waiting for.