UPDATE: "In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney"

deadline for submissions: 
November 1, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
University of Tennessee Humanities Center
contact email: 


"In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney"

Date of symposium: February 19-21, 2020

Deadline for Proposals: November 1, 2019


Confirmed Keynotes:

Frederick Moten,

Professor of Performance Studies, NYU Tisch School of the Arts & Professor, The European Graduate School

Hilton Als,

Associate professor of writing at Columbia University, staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker magazine


Confirmed Plenary Speakers:

Stephen M. Best, University of California, Berkeley

Mary Campbell, Art, University of Tennessee

Michelle Commander, Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery

Brent Hayes Edwards, Columbia University

Michele Elam, Stanford University

Douglas Field, Manchester University; editor, James Baldwin Review

David Leeming, biographer

Walton M. Muyumba, Indiana University Bloomington

Robert Reid-Pharr, Harvard University

Magdalena J. Zaborowska, University of Michigan


Location: University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Knoxville Museum of Art

Host: The University of Tennessee Humanities Center

Contact: Amy J. Elias, Director, UT Humanities Center <humanitiesctr@utk.edu>



The UT Humanities Center welcomes proposals for 20-minute presentations concerning the arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney. “In a Speculative Light” will be a symposium held in Knoxville, TN that will use the optic of the Baldwin/Delaney friendship to explore new genealogies of postwar Black arts. The framing idea for the symposium will be the idea of “speculative light.” Alluding to the obsessions with light and color in both artists’ works, the phrase also builds from the notion of “speculative arts,” redefined in Africana studies to connote artistic techniques and values specific to Black diasporic peoples.

The symposium will include an opening-night reception and visit to the spring 2020 Knoxville Museum of Art's Baldwin/Delaney exhibition "Through the Unusual Door." The KMA is currently the holder of the largest collection of Delaney materials in the world and works with the Delaney estate.

Showcasing work in art history, film, literature, and music, the symposium will facilitate new conversations about the importance of such ideas as sound and music, ethics of care, queer aesthetics, and the Abstractionist use of light and color in and after Baldwin's and Delaney's works and lives. Baldwin and Delaney will be positioned as models, forebears, instigators, prognosticators, debunkers, and perhaps even failed experimenters, to examine how they, their arts, and their collaborative friendship altered, shaped, or foreshadowed Black arts today.

Presenters are asked to explore intersections between the work and lives of Baldwin and Delaney; we are less interested in single-artist papers though will consider these if they address the following research questions in important ways. We welcome presentations on visual art, music, queerness, ethics, and aesthetics as well as literary perspectives.  Presenters will be asked to explore the following categories of inquiry:

  • Art History and Black Aesthetics: How should we understand the delight in, and despair with, the exploration of light and color in Baldwin’s and Delaney’s works and lives? What frame is needed to understand their fascination with and withdrawal from pellucidity? In what ways do expressionism and abstraction contend for voice? In what ways do their uses of light and color harbor the self, the body, the arts of the future? How might the works of Baldwin or Delaney be seen to presage new definitions of Black aesthetics, such as new definitions of synesthesia or opacity or contemporary re-visionings of Black abstraction? Whom did they influence, and how? In what ways might emerging theories of Black aesthetics and creative existence today re-form our understandings of their works or the late modernism that they operated within and without?
  • Music and Sonic Arts: How might we reconfigure our understandings of the arts of these two mid-century artists—or the aesthetics of their artistic surround—in relation to the sonic arts, specifically jazz and blues but also other kinds of sonic signification? In what ways does “transmedial consonance” resonate through their respective works or shared aesthetics? What roles do the sonic arts play in Black modernism and postwar arts and how might these resituate Delaney and/or Baldwin historically, artistically, bodily, politically—and vice versa?
  • Ethics and Social Values: How might the friendship between these men be reassessed through the lens of Black care? In what ways might care ethics “in the wake” help us to situate their expatriation and chosen diasporas? In what ways do mentorship and love become redefined as an aesthetic relation and a relation of care? What is a formal consequence of this friendship in their works and on their philosophies of art and life? Whom do they influence, and how?
  • Style and Genre: What are the contexts and framing discourses that might allow us to reevaluate Baldwin’s and/or Delaney’s promiscuous play with genre, style, and form? How might their expatriate wanderings and their generic wanderings demand a new descriptive vocabulary? What are the stakes of their wager on a multiplicity of expression, a polyphony of discourse, or a "categorial blur"?
  • Gender and Sexuality: What can queer theory now bring to our understanding of these artists and their productions, and vice versa? On what are they speculating in their cross-generational and improvisational familial / lovers’ relation? What role does gender, sexuality, love, or the reproductive future play in the lives of these men and in their arts? In their lives and aesthetics, what is the interplay and resonance of exile as the basis for "creative erotics?"
  • Biography and Legacies: How might Baldwin and Delaney see the theory that now wishes to include them? Are our current theories congenial to them, or is a more radical revisioning of discourse and aesthetics required to merge their speculations with our own time and desires? What arts/artists today are influenced directly by their work and/or philosophies of art? What new arts, such as digital arts, have adopted their aesthetic practices or philosophies?


Proposals should be sent via email to  <humanitiesctr@utk.edu>  and should contain a title, a 1-2 page abstract and the presenter's CV of no more than 5 pages.

Deadline for proposals is November 1, 2019.

Inquiries may be directed to Amy J. Elias, Director, at <humanitiesctr@utk.edu>.