On behalf of the 2019 conference committee for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, I’m pleased to announce some delightful news: author, actress and activist Ally Sheedy will be joining us at our conference in New York City this November. We have planned a plenary session featuring a conversation with Ms. Sheedy covering a range of topics, followed by audience Q&A. Our indefatigable conference chair, Natalia Petrzela, is working with The New School to make sure that this event is accessible to as broad an audience as possible.
Our conference theme this year – “Intellectual Traditions of Protest, Power, and Patriotism” — is a perfect setting for a conversation with Ally Sheedy. In the history of American thought and culture, Ms. Sheedy has a unique perspective as a “participant-observer” whose professional work in film shaped and channeled the sensibilities of an era, sensibilities that she is now in a position to examine and critique as a public intellectual and a college professor. Among her recent projects is a stage adaptation of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, the remarkable story of Civil Rights activist Lynda Blackmon. Indeed, Ms. Sheedy began a career in writing before she began acting professionally, and she continues to write, act, and teach, most recently as a professor at CUNY…and as a voice of kindness and critical engagement on Twitter.
I don’t remember when I started following Ally Sheedy on Twitter, or when she started following me, though I think it must have been some time in 2015. We were commenting on some of the same issues and shared some of the same views, and some combination of mutual followers or a chance retweet or an algorithm flagged our feeds for one another. Throughout the 2016 presidential election, I saw something take place again and again in Sheedy’s twitter feed and her mentions. She would express her views on an issue of public concern or public debate, and some random man – right-wing, centrist, or left-wing – would hop into her conversation and tell her to “stick to acting,” or some variant thereof. Sometimes these dismissive calls for Sheedy’s silence would come wrapped up in a bow of aggrieved masculinity – I thought you were great in X, and now my adolescent fantasy is ruined by finding out you are a grown woman with ideas of her own. How dare you.
Beneath the self-importance reflected in these censorious comments from complete strangers ran a current of meanness, a meanness of mind regarding the place of public discourse and the idea of who deserves to engage in debate in the public square. “Stick to acting,” “shut up and dribble,” “shut up and sing” – these are all expressions of a peculiar kind of entitlement. Those who live vicariously through the performances of highly talented people are allowed to have opinions on anything and everything; the talented people themselves must stick to their day job. This ethos of instrumentalism – “you exist for my use” – seeks disproportionately to silence or dismiss Black voices, women’s voices, feminist voices, queer voices. How dare any creative or talented person use the platform afforded to them by the patriarchy to critique or challenge the patriarchy!
Ally Sheedy dares. She is a thoughtful and gifted and interesting public intellectual, of a kind that those of us in academe sometimes don’t take seriously enough as interlocutors or as thinkers or as fellow truth-seekers and truth-tellers.
But ideas are everywhere, and even famous people have them, and those ideas – and people – are worth our interest and attention.
So, in this week’s installment of sentences I never expected to write, I’m looking forward to a wide-ranging conversation with Ally Sheedy in New York this November. Hope to see you there!