Sunday, February 28, 2010

Beneatha and "Good Hair"

The issue of African American women and hair is explored in the documentary “Good Hair.” The film stars and is produced by Chris Rock. The comedian travels the country talking to people of various backgrounds, status levels, and experiences. The main idea is not a new one to anyone who has taken a Sociology class: African Americans go to great lengths and spend vast amounts of money and time to make their hair look more European, which is to say straight. It isn’t only African American women that do this, but clearly the vast majority of consumers of hair straightening products are black women. The main ingredient is sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and it is found in most of these “relaxers.” As comedian Paul Mooney proclaims (beneath an Afro wig), “If your hair is relaxed [white people] are relaxed. If it’s nappy, they ain’t happy.”

The moment that Beneatha decides to let her natural hair show is both touching and powerful in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Such a decision draws criticism and ire from her own family illustrating the pressure from even within the black community to conform to European ideals of beauty and vanity. Most of Beneatha’s character is an affront to this family who simply want to be seen and accepted as American. She rejects the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington. Even Asagai, who encourages her to embrace her African-ism, sees her as too uncompromising – an idealist with a strident attitude.

It is difficult to imagine a time when the kind of decision that Beneatha made would be an easy one. But, it would seem to be especially hard during the post-war period during which the play is set. The Civil Rights movement had not picked up steam yet. Blacks were still segregated in places like the military and had just broken the color line in the nation’s most popular sport - baseball. Although she is a fictional character, Beneatha makes a stand that pre-dates Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. Even 50 to 60 years later, African Americans still find themselves under enormous pressure to conform to norms exerted on them by an indifferent and sometimes hostile culture.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Taking the Other Woodstock

I grew up in Woodstock, GA in the 1980s and 1990s. My dad moved our family there in 1982. Since then Woodstock, like so many other places, has mushroomed in population and all kinds of development. I don't know anything about the politics, personalities, or backroom deals that made Woodstock what it is today (though it is probably safe to say that Cherokee County was run conservative Democrats until the ‘60s and by Republicans ever since). However, I do know about the narrative of Woodstock in the late 20th century. It is the story that I tell people all the time and it is probably very similar to any other Sitcom Suburb that sprang up during the same period.

The story begins with a sleepy little town far away from the big city. Slowly, but surely, the little town sees more and more development. The people welcome the convenience of having their consumer needs met closer to home, but they lament the traffic and other headaches that that development brings. Eventually, unencumbered development is accepted as “the way things are” and the little town is rendered unrecognizable in the span of about 20 years.

When we moved to Woodstock in 1982, there was practically nothing there in terms of commercial development. I remember one or two grocery stores. The intersection of Bells Ferry Road and Highway 92 was a four-way stop. If you wanted to eat out, you had to drive all the way to Marietta.

Little by little, that began to change. We started getting “bigger and better” grocery stores. Interstate 575 was completed and made the big city even more accessible and long trips easier. McDonald’s came into town. You cannot underestimate the importance of McDonald’s to a kid and I suppose that for many towns like Woodstock, having one lends it at least a modicum of legitimacy. Through the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, the growth just kept going and going. The Towne Lake development was built in what was once called the “Thousand Acres” forest which brought even more need for development with it.

The sense of progress and improvement are ingrained when telling the story of Woodstock. Much like “Second Creation,” the sense was that outsiders like my family were taking Woodstock and fulfilling its intended use – a bedroom community in metro-Atlanta. The triple dream of “Building Suburbia” is there and it delivers on home and nature for a while. Community is always questionable as like so many other people who grow up in the suburbs, we hardly knew our next door neighbors.

There is room for the counter-narrative in Woodstock, too, as I am sure that many long-time residents resented the “Yankees” and greedy developers coming into their community and “ruining” it for short-term profits. Their concerns were overlooked or ignored and for good or ill, Woodstock today looks and feels like Acworth, Norcross, Conyers, Dallas, and just about any other suburb anywhere in the Western world.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trying to Make Sense, Academically, of the "Tonight Show" Fiasco

The bizarre corner of American pop culture known as "The Late Night Wars" reached a fever pitch during the month of January 2010. Some found the matter to be so pressing that they actually took to the streets to protest what they saw as injustice. “Team Coco,” as they called themselves, rallied to support Conan O’Brien whom they felt was being unjustly fired from his job as the host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the same program hosted by the legendary Johnny Carson and O’Brien’s predecessor and successor Jay Leno. Those that found themselves siding with “Team Leno” were not quite as moved to make their voices heard in the public square (or, in this case, in front NBC headquarters in Los Angeles). It could be said that Jay Leno’s fans did not feel the need to protest because, after all, their guy won. But, there are also sociological factors to consider. “Team Coco” tended to be made up of young people – people with the energy and time to protest such a matter as a television show. “Team Leno” tended to be older and from the “heartland” of America – not the kind of people you normally find in street protests. Conan O’Brien was too weird, too Ivy League for middle-America. Jay Leno’s appeal to heartland American values is what makes him more attractive to advertisers and it is why he’ll be taking his old job back in March. From an American Studies standpoint, this is an interesting issue because it is illustrative of what is truly important to a substantial number of Americans in 2010. With two wars, a crumbling economy, a potential breakthrough in healthcare reform, and a government in gridlock, the debate over who deserves to host “The Tonight Show” might seem trivial to anyone with a firm grasp of the day’s important issues. This latest round of the Late Night Wars was just another scandal in a long line of celebrity scandals that have captivated the American attention span at the expense of those other, more pressing issues. O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Brangelina, Jon and Kate, the various Michael Jackson scandals, and many others have served as snapshots of their respective times of what matters to Americans at those times, or at least what the media says is important. That is another matter for another discussion.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What could be added to "Second Creation"?

A question was asked this week as to what we would add to “America as Second Creation.” I thought for a while on this and suddenly it became so obvious I was almost ashamed for not thinking of it right away. No other invention played a more vital role in shaping early 19th century politics and facilitating the definitive event of American history – the Civil War – than did this one. The cotton gin would make for a very interesting chapter. Perhaps it is because the cotton crop was so confined to the South that it could be argued that it does not fit into the narrative of Westward expansion. I would argue that it played an integral part in making the South economically and politically viable. Therefore, it added to the credibility and potency of the United States as a whole. The cotton gin would certainly have presented its owners with possibilities previously unthinkable – mainly the work of many done by one, thereby exponentially increasing profits. The South’s dominance by an aristocracy was probably underway by the time of cotton gin’s invention, but this new technology guaranteed that it would be formidable and long-lasting. The counter-narrative to this is that it prolonged the enslavement of African Americans and made it so that only the Civil War could free them from bondage. This delay in emancipation could also serve as an explanation for the status of second-class citizenship (which is to say no citizenship at all) that African Americans suffered and fought to erase for the next 100 years. The cotton gin also seems to fit in nicely with Nye’s position that Americans of the 19th century assumed that natural resources were abundant and created necessarily to be exploited by man. Indeed, it is a very interesting topic of discussion to consider what the U.S. would have looked like without the cotton gin.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Clarification on RIP Howard Zinn

Looking at last week's post, anyone in my small audience who has read "A People's History..." might get the impression that I missed the point of Howard Zinn's seminal work. In my post, I only talked about the "dark side" of certain U.S. presidents. While Zinn goes into such territory, his focus is really on the struggles of the poor and working class groups and individuals. The girls of Lowell, the striking miners in Ludlow: these are the kinds of stories with which he wishes to acquaint his readers. I still like what I wrote because it was honest and fit in quite well with a new discpline that I am trying to acquant myself with. But, Howard Zinn was not simply trying to air the dirty laundry of the executive branch of the federal government. As I said in my earlier post, American history is too expansive for such a narrow evaluation.

Now that this is out of the way, I look forward to expounding on topics with which I have less of an emotional connection. I'll be back some time before the Super Bowl starts to submit my newest entry in time for Monday's deadline.