Beyond the Continent

Associate Professor Brian Russell Roberts discusses his new edited book Archipelagic American Studies.

The United States is more than just a continent—it is also made up of oceans, shorelines, and islands. Brian Roberts, associate professor of English at BYU, recently edited Archipelagic American Studies (2017), a collection of essays by scholars who are looking beyond the continental U.S. to provide a different set of lenses for how people and territories have experienced, resisted, and grappled with claims regarding status as part of the United States. “One of the ideas in Archipelagic American Studies is to undo that continentalism, to be a reminder of the oceans and islands,” said Roberts.

For examples of U.S. continentalism, we need look no further than the U.S. passport, which presents a quote from President Teddy Roosevelt: “This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities.” We may also look back to historical terms like “the Continental Congress” and “the Continental Army,” but the United States claims many islands including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Guam, and it is also spread throughout many parts of the world. There are army bases, embassies, and numerous countries where the U.S. has real political influence. Considering all of these exceptions, it seems strange to still refer to the U.S. as continental.

An important moment in American continentalism happened when American colonists expressed desire to separate from Britain. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine wrote, “Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” From this idea of the United States as a continent grew Manifest Destiny, the belief that American people had a duty to spread across the continent and rule it as their birthright. Manifest Destiny led Americans to identify with continentalism, claiming a country that spreads East to West from “sea to shining sea.”

Growing up, Roberts lived in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Tennessee. “When I heard it at school in Tennessee, the narrative of westward expansion didn’t resonate very strongly with me, maybe because I had spent years growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia,” Roberts explained. In graduate school, he began searching for other narratives that fit more closely with his experiences. His research led him to the word “archipelagic,” which turns the word “archipelago” (or a group of islands) into an adjective. “The word opened a world of possibilities,” Roberts said. “I’ve tried to follow the implications of that word.” Those implications have led to a view of the United States and the Americas more generally as places made up of oceans and islands, places that are beyond the continent.

The book cover was chosen from the work of BYU art faculty member Fidalis Buehler, whose work often challenges island mysticism through the theme of Bali Hai, the seemingly magical island featured in the 1958 film South Pacific. The painting White Cloud Caution Flasher was named and visually inspired by fishing lures. Buehler displayed White Cloud Caution Flasher in last year’s Archipelagoes/Oceans/Americas Symposium, which also included an art exhibition.

The book’s contributors were invited to participate by Roberts and his co-editor, Michelle Ann Stephens, professor of English and Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. According to the book’s acknowledgments, many of the writers spoke during conference sessions that Roberts and Stephens helped organize for the American Studies Association Convention and the Modern Language Convention. Among the contributors ispoet Craig Santos Perez, who came to BYUin 2016 for the English Reading Series and Archipelagoes/Oceans/Americas Symposium. Many of the essays reject the mysticism of the islands, moving beyond the island mystique and stereotyped views of islands as perfect vacation playgrounds, instead asking about the unique and interconnected experiences of Americans from islands and the continent, including the experiences of people who reject the label of American.

Most importantly, Roberts and Stephens’s book is about viewing America from a less land-locked perspective. “Archipelagic American Studies thinks about global connections, at the same time as it thinks about what the Caribbean writer Jamaica Kincaid might the call ‘small places’ of islands, at the same time as it thinks about what the Pacific writer Epeli Hau’ofa discusses as the large spaces of the oceans.”

—Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)


Photos from, BYU Humanities Center, and the National Park Service