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Saturday, March 31, 2012

March 31-April 1, 2012: Race, President Obama, and Us

[The sixth post in my series on race in contemporary America. The final post in the series for now, and one that asks for, nay demands, your input as well! I’d also love to return to this series down the road, so please still feel free to share other ideas or guest posts on these topics.]

American Studies and the elephant in the room when it comes to race in contemporary America.

The early 2008 Reverend Wright controversy and Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in response, as well as the responses on the right that Obama had “thrown his grandmother under the bus” in part of that speech. The competing visions of the election itself: as a triumph of a “post-racial America,” as the culmination of the Civil Rights movement, or as an election stolen by ACORN. The literally untold numbers of racist images, jokes, slurs, and narratives created by Obama’s opponents. The books, whether attacking Obama’s identity (such as one on his “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview”), highlighting its symbolic power, or simply analyzing its racial and ethnic contexts. It’s no stretch to say that race has been the single most consistently defining aspect of Obama’s national presence over the last four years, and no long-shot to say that it will be just as defining in the upcoming election as well.

Yet aside from the more complex, scholarly engagements provided by books like the last two linked in that sentence above—and possibly by other books by up-and-coming young American Studiers—it’s also fair to say that we haven’t, in our collective conversations about the issue, analyzed race and Obama so much as deployed narratives in that general direction. Perhaps that’s a given—certainly much (all?) of our politics these days consists of deploying narratives rather than analyzing—but us American Studiers can and should work to push those conversations in more analytical and meaningful directions. Take, for example, the 2010 moment when Obama self-identified on the census as “black/African Am”: it might be impossible for our current racial narratives to deal with that moment with any real complexity; whereas an American Studies perspective could connect that complex choice to the long histories of mixed race Americans’ self-images and identities, to literary and cultural representations of those identities, to questions of passing and racial definitions and community in America, to David Hollinger’s emphases on “voluntary affiliations” as a new defining 21st century category of identity, to the evolution of the census itself (which had in 2000 for the first time included a separate category for “mixed race,” one checked by 6.8 million Americans; yet which had cut that category for the 2010 census), and more.

That’s one example; it will come as a significant shock to you all, I’m sure, that I could go into another half-dozen or –million more. But as I have tried to do in the past, and will of course keep trying to do, I’d rather turn the American Studying over to you guys instead. So tell me: to what American histories, questions, issues, images, ideas, debates, figures, or stories would you turn to develop American Studies analyses of President Obama? Obviously that can and should go well beyond race, and wherever your American Studies perspectives take you and us will be very welcome; although I’d certainly be interested to hear your connections through this specific lens of race as well. In any case, I’d much, much rather end this week’s series by adding some more voices and perspectives into the mix than by continuing to simply feature my own. So have at it! If you don’t want to log in to post a comment, email ‘em to me (! Or Tweet ‘em (@AmericanStudier)!

More next week,


PS. You know what to do!

3/31 Memory Day nominee: César Chávez, the Mexican American activist and labor leader whose efforts on behalf of farm workers and migrant laborers changed the face of American politics, society, and community in the 20th century and beyond.

4/1 Memory Day nominee: Scott Joplin, the son of a slave and sharecropper who helped create a new genre of distinctly American music and profoundly influenced both his own era and the next century of national and world culture.

Friday, March 30, 2012

March 30, 2012: Race and Technology

[The fifth post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guest posts, are still very welcome!]

Three angles on a particularly tough and important contemporary question.

My first angle on the question of how and where race plays into our 21st century world of technology is also a guest post of sorts, and the reason for this piece: my fellow American Studier Jen Rhee read some of my other blog posts related to race and contacted me to share a graphic that focuses on the question of race and technology. The graphic is here: and largely speaks for itself: it introduces in relatively quick and broad strokes many complex questions, each of which could be investigated and analyzed further (which is, I believe, precisely the graphic’s fundamental point and goal); but even in its brief space it makes a compelling case that technology is not nearly as color-blind as we might like to believe.

My second angle connects to one of the graphic’s first main focal points, the question of how much support and opportunity black entrepreneurs in the tech industry receive (particularly as compared to white entrepreneurs). This past fall, as part of a series entitled “Black in America,” CNN aired a documentary entitled “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley.” The film’s vision of Silicon Valley’s racial hierarchies and limitations produced a series of debates and conversations that have continued, such as at a prominent recent SXSW panel on the aftermath of the documentary and its questions and stories. It has also helped bring attention to organizations such as, an online community that features its own technology focus and that certainly illustrates how any American community can utilize the 21st century’s digital and social media developments to help advance that community’s opportunities and connections, and to push back against whatever structural or institutional discriminations the tech world includes.

If those questions of entrepreneurship address the upper levels of a world like tech, my third angle connects instead to questions about the tech world’s base. In one of my Steve Jobs-inspired posts, I wrote about what I called there the messy, troubling, democratizing machine; my interest was in how technological advances have long offered Americans greater access to the world around them while at the same time threatening that world in various ways. As the graphic argues, and as various other analyses and studies have illustrated, our most recent technological advances definitely have the potential to reinforce or even exacerbate racial divisions or hierarchies, and certainly can’t be viewed simply as the marvelous panaceas that they sometimes appear to be. Yet on the other hand, analyses such as this one have found Twitter (for example) to be strikingly open to African American and other minority voices, an open-ness that could parallel the liberating role that Twitter played in Iran’s Green Revolution of 2009. Messy, troubling, and democratizing indeed.

Next in the series this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

3/30 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Mary Whiton Calkins, the pioneering psychologist and women’s rights activist whose concept of “self-psychology” fundamentally altered the study of human identities; and Countee Cullen, the hugely talented and unique Harlem Renaissance poet (and W.E.B. Du Bois’s son-in-law!).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

March 29, 2012: Racism in Contemporary America

[The fourth post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guest posts, are very welcome!]

The difficult but important task of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to charges of racism.

Most of the time I give virtually no credence to the idea that “political correctness” has been a force for ill in our contemporary society—perhaps because I almost always hear that idea advanced by bigots who miss the ability to express their bigotry without fear of the consequences—but a couple recent cases have illustrated that worries about perceived racism can indeed reach a silly and yet destructive level. In addressing the New York Knicks’ first real losing streak of the Jeremy Lin era, three different sports journalists used the clichéd phrase “a chink in the armor”; it seems as clear as it can be, to me, that in all three cases the journalists did not think for a moment about the racist version of that first word, and in fact no public outrage or even offense was expressed in any of the cases. Yet the journalists’ organizations took extreme steps in response, not only apologizing for the potential offenses but punishing the journalists—ESPN fired the young website producer who had written its headline and suspended the host who had used the phrase, while MSG “disciplined” the broadcaster who used it.

The real problem with these incidents isn’t just that the figures in them were harshly punished (at least in the case of the fired ESPN producer) for, at best, questionable mistakes; it’s also and especially that such over-reactions on behalf of perceived (or even hypothetical) offenses can make it seem as if the concept of racism has indeed become simply a matter of over-sensitivity and “political correctness” run amuck. And that perspective, in turn, can make it easier for actual expressions of racist beliefs to return to our public discourse, framed for example as the harmless views of “non-racist racists.” That phrase is precisely how a Rutgers University graduate student described herself, in a December 2011 letter inviting fellow students to a viewing party for the Walt Disney film Song of the South (as subsequently reported by some of those students to the University newspaper); the student went on to express a desire for her attendees to bring their own “Darkeyisms,” and warned potential guests that she “might yell racist things at the TV.” After the newspaper article appeared, the party itself apparently never happened, Rutgers apologized for the letter, and the whole incident could be seen as another case of making a mountain out of a relatively non-existent molehill; yet I believe that phrase “non-racist racist” is instead a very telling one in our contemporary culture.

After all, the two most prominent late 20th and early 21st century histories related to race in America suggest that we have made great strides in achieving racial equality: the Civil Rights Movement can be rightly seen as the beginning of those strides; and the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, particularly when coupled with other noteworthy individual achievements such as Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, can and has been read as a culmination of those strides, as what Civil Rights leader John Lewis famously called “what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” It was in part in response to this link that former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett said after Obama’s election that “you don’t take excuses any more from anybody who says, ‘The deck is stacked.’” Yet Bennett’s assertion can be framed instead as precisely an example of this non-racist racism, as a statement ostensibly in support of an equal, post-racial society that in fact directly attacks all those African Americans (and other minorities) in whose lives institutional racism and other discriminations continue to play significant roles. It would be the deepest of ironies if some of the most ideal and hopeful progressive America moments contributed to a backlash of bigotry and hatred, to a return of the kinds of divisive perspectives that were the national norm before those advances; but America is no stranger to ironic turns of history, and the worst thing we American Studiers could do is to pretend that such racisms have not returned, and are not worth combating.

Next in the series tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

3/29 Memory Day nominee: Enea Bossi, Sr., the Italian American immigrant and aviation engineer who co-founded the American Aeronautical Corporation (AAC), built the first stainless steel airplane (the BB-1) in 1931, and invented the pedal glider, among other significant achievements.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

March 28, 2012: Race and The Hunger Games

[The third post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guest posts, are very welcome!]

Trying to make sense of the latest version of the racist ugliness that seems to bubble up so frequently in our collective online consciousness.

It’s one of our most common and accurate truisms that there are few places more discouraging and unsettling than the comment threads on virtually any web article or piece. In point of fact, those rare blogs or sites where the comment discussions operate at a typically high quality, both in tone and in substance—such as at Ta-Nehisi Coates’  and Joe Posnanski’s blogs, to cite two writers I’ve referenced before in this space—are unique enough to merit notice; at the rest, vitriol and garbage reign supreme. And while there are various factors to which we could attribute that trend—especially the anonymity and freedom that online commenting allow—such arguments would explain only why the vitriol is being shared, not its source; that is, the kinds of racist garbage that constitutes (for example) a significant percentage of comments on many of the articles on the Trayvon Martin case, including this beautiful piece by an African American mother on raising her son, may be enabled by the anonymity of the web, but it’s obviously present in many Americans’ perspectives in any case.

It’s tough to say whether another contemporary, indeed very recent, explosion of such racist hatred—the racist responses offered by many fans of The Hunger Games to the casting of a young black actress to play one of the film’s characters—is more or less surprising than that inspired by the Martin story. On the one hand, rabid fans of a work tend to react with vitriol to any perceived changes when that work is adapted or represented; those of us who witnessed the collective fan-boy horror at the concept of “flames on Optimus” in the first Transformers film can attest to this phenomenon. Yet on the other hand, this particular outburst is still surprising for at least two distinct reasons: the character in question, Rue, is explicitly describe in Suzanne Collins’ book as having “dark brown skin” (as is another kid from the same region/community later in the novel); and even if Collins’ dedicated readers had missed those details, the film apparently portrays the character’s actions and plotline identically to the novel, making the perceived “change” in race seemingly a superficial shift. Yet instead (as the linked article above details), many fans have responded to it as a change that “ruins the film,” and some, as represented by the fan who Tweeted that when he “found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” have gone much further still.

There would be many ways to analyze those responses, but for me they’re particularly interesting, and saddening, as examples of why empathy, particularly across racial and other communal lines, can be such a tough connection for us Americans to make. Identifying with, and often even (as in the case of a seemingly beloved character like Rue) loving, a fictional character is a definite act of imaginative connection; and the responses to Rue’s cinematic race illustrate just how much such imaginative connections require, for many of us at least, that the character in question feel identical to us in key, defining attributes such as race. While I’m sure that some of the angry Hunger Games fans are explicitly racist in other ways as well, my guess is that many—perhaps even the aforementioned Tweeter, who appended the phrase “I hate myself” to his response—surprised themselves with the recognition that the race of their beloved character mattered as much to them as it did. And while seeing their racism in that light might seem to be letting them off the hook for its ugliness, I would argue instead that it simply repositions that racism as something more shared and communal, in our (and especially white Americans’) tendency to identify with, and thus care about, those who look like us. Until us white Americans can all see Rue, and Trayvon Martin, as both black and just like us, we’ll all share in this collective vitriol far more than we might like to admit.

Next in the series tomorrow,


PS. Once again, after completing a post I come upon a very relevant, even parallel, piece. Guess that’s what happens when you American Study very zeitgeist-y topics!

PPS. What do you think?

3/28 Memory Day nominee: Nelson Algren, the Jewish American novelist and essayist whose representations of his beloved and troubled Chicago and nation are as radical as they are realistic, as cynical as they are clear-eyed about America’s ideals and realities.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

March 27, 2012: Race and Danny Chen

[The second post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guest posts, are very welcome!]

How another tragic case can reveal some of the worst and the best of Asian American identities and experiences in the early 21st century.

As I’ve highlighted before in this space, Asian Americans have had a meaningful and complex presence in our national community for at least 150 years; but nonetheless, this American community has significantly grown, statistically and in prominence, in recent decades. As recent analyses of the 2010 census reflect, the Asian American community is the fastest-growing American population thus far in the 21st century. Such statistical growths can be connected to two recent examples of prominent, successful Asian Americans: Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese American basketball player whose New York Knicks’ star turns dominated weeks of news cycles earlier this year (and appeared on two consecutive Sports Illustrated covers); and Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the Korean American physician, global health expert, and Dartmouth College president whom President Obama recently nominated to lead the World Bank when its current president’s term is over.

Yet the story of the last year’s other most prominent Asian American, Private Danny Chen, complicates that picture quite thoroughly. That linked New York magazine article does a great job highlighting the key stages of that story, from Chen’s parents’ immigrations from China to his childhood in New York’s Chinatown, his decision to enlist in the army to his deployment to Afghanistan, and, most significantly, the torments and tortures he apparently received on a daily basis from his superiors and fellow soldiers once there; tortures that were consistently and brutally tied to Chen’s racial identity (or rather to ridiculous stereotypes related to it) and that, once again apparently (since information has been at times painfully difficult for Chen’s family and advocates to learn), culminated in the particularly brutal hazing that led to his suicide on October 3rd of last year. Chen’s story certainly has to be contextualized on multiple levels, including in relationship to the war in Afghanistan, the presence of white supremacists and other divisive figures in the military, and national debates over bullying; yet there’s also no question, given what we know about the treatment of Chen, that he was hazed and, effectively, killed, due to his Chinese American heritage, and more exactly to how much that heritage seemed to separate him from his peers, to render him (despite his having volunteered for the US Army) somehow outside of this shared American community.

On the other hand, the fact that we know any of that, and moreover that a number of Chen’s superiors and peers are now in the process of being charged and brought to trial, is due quite directly to Asian American voices and communities. Chen’s family and friends had virtually no luck getting information about his experiences and death out of the military until the Organization of Chinese Americans—NY Chapter (OCA-NY) got involved; his story has since gained in national attention and awareness thanks in large part to numerous other Asian American organizations and communities; and some of our most eloquent and talented Asian American writers, scholars and social activists, and political leaders have dedicated significant efforts to engaging with and extending the story’s questions and meanings. What this tragedy has also made clear, that is, is that the Asian American community in the early 21st century is as multi-layered, multi-vocal, and nationally engaged as any; moreover, these voices and efforts, individually but even more so collectively, have constituted a deeply inspiring representation of American ideals (free speech, assembly and protest, democratic resistance to powerful narratives, and more) at their best.

Next in the series tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? And any suggestions for the series?

UPDATE: A petition inspired by Chen's case, and sent to me by Jasmine Stephenson of ipetitions:

3/27 Memory Day nominee: Patty Smith Hill, who built on her striking Reconstruction-era Kentucky childhood and became one of America’s and the world’s foremost educational reformers, and advocates for early childhood education and kindergarten (and who wrote the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”!).

Monday, March 26, 2012

March 26, 2012: Race and Trayvon Martin

[The first post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guests posts, are very welcome!]

Two American Studies connections, one obvious but central and one more subtle and hopeful, between race and the Martin case.

Since the shocking, unsettling, and disturbing tragedy that is the Trayvon Martin killing exploded onto the national scene last week, it’s fair to say that many of our most talented and significant journalists and social and political commentators (along with many of our least talented ones, of course) have added their perspectives to the conversation. And while those commentators have engaged with a number of important issues, from Florida’s NRA-sponsored “Stand Your Ground” law to the history and role of neighborhood watch organizations, the most eloquent and powerful takes—such as those provided by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Dave Zirin, and the Open Salon blogger Keka—have been intimately connected to questions of race; Zirin’s and Keka’s links of Martin to Jackie Robinson and Emmett Till (respectively) are in particular pitch-perfect examples of American Studies analyses of this tragic current event.

I can’t claim to have strikingly new perspectives to add to the mix, but I have been thinking quite a bit about two particular American Studies takes on race and Martin. The first is similar to the “walking while black” narratives on which Keka’s post focuses, but as seen through the lens of empathy, a vital ingredient of the ideal American community for which I have argued many times in this space. One of the most impressive aspects of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)”—a song that Bruce and his band played, with no commentary needed, in concert in Tampa this past Friday—is the way in which Springsteen effortlessly imagines himself into the perspective of Lena, the African American mother who in the second verse tries to make her young son Charles “understand the rules” of being black on America’s streets. In my suburban neighborhood, kids wander the streets by themselves for much of the spring, summer, and early fall; it’s almost impossible for me to imagine what it would be like if every time my sons ventured outside, I had to face the possibility that they could be (at best) accosted by the police or reported by a suspicious neighbor, and at worst (which is where any parent’s fears would of course go) killed for no reason other than what they look like. Yet millions of American parents still, in 2012, have no choice but to face that possibility, and to, as Lena does, try to instill it in their kids, even—especially—at an age when their kids should worry about nothing more than skinned knees. Empathizing with that family perspective, and the worldview that it necessarily brings with it, would be a prerequisite to any communal, national connections. (ADDENDUM: This poem, which I discovered after writing this paragraph, is an absolutely amazing expression of this parental perspective.)

As the conclusion to one of America’s most under-rated and important novels reflects, however, such cross-cultural empathy for the worst kind of familial loss can have even more dramatic effects (spoilers in this paragraph!). Of the many tragic events with which Charles Chesnutt concludes The Marrow of Tradition (1901), none is more horrific than the accidental murder of the Millers’ young son; the six year-old is hit by a stray bullet during the novel’s climactic (historically grounded) race massacre, an innocent victim of the brutality directed at his race by the town’s white supremacists. While this tragedy might be seen as the novel’s most pessimistic (or darkly realistic) moment, Chesnutt uses it to frame directly two of his most optimistic, even utopian, developments: his most representative white supremacists, the Carterets, each in their own way empathize with the Millers’ situation as grieving parents and experience profound shifts in their racial and communal perspectives; and the Millers, while not letting the Carterets off the hook for their racist pasts and actions, embody the best of human capability and make a final decision which suggests a potentially better future for these families, the city, and America. Similarly, many historians have argued that the Emmett Till lynching helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement, both by inspiring activists and by changing national perspectives on race and community. So too, in this very dark contemporary moment, in the tragic death of this innocent young black man, I believe we just might be able to do the two things suggested by this post, and by President Obama’s pitch-perfect first response: recognize the specific identity and community to which Trayvon must be linked; and respond to his tragedy by moving toward a more genuinely connected national community.

Next post in the series tomorrow,


PS. What are your thoughts on the Martin case? And any suggestions for future posts in the series?

3/26 Memory Day nominees: A tie between three hugely talented, unique, and significant 20th century American writers: Robert Frost; Tennessee Williams; and Vine Deloria, Jr.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

March 24-25, 2012: Race in Contemporary America

In which I hope to start a conversation about one of our most challenging and significant American Studies questions.

For a number of reasons, many of which I’ll highlight as particular topics of posts in the coming week, I’ve decided to dedicate at least a week’s worth of posts to the topic of race in contemporary American culture, identity, community, politics, society, art, and life. I have, you will be not at all surprised to learn, lots of thoughts of my own, both on specific events (which will again form the starting point for many of the particular posts) and on contexts and connections, back into our American past and to other American issues and questions. I have, that is, no shortage of things I hope to consider in this series from my own American Studier’s perspective.

But while I obviously hope there’s value to my sharing of those things from my own perspective—certainly it helps me to develop them in the ways I do in this space, but I mean value for you readers too—it remains the case, as I have said many times and in many ways here, that I see this blog and site, just as I see American Studies and public scholarship, as at their best and most meaningful a deeply collaborative and communal endeavor. That doesn’t just mean getting responses to my own ideas, although I will always welcome those: in comments, by email (, in blog posts of your own, wherever and however you want to share them. But it also means hearing your own ideas and takes, fully and primarily.

So I’ll note, as I have before and will again, the variety of ways in which you can share your perspectives and ideas, in this case on this complex and huge topic of race in contemporary America. You can create a new thread in the Forum. You can email me an analytical piece on any related topic or question, which I’ll post in that section of the Resources page. Or you can suggest a topic for a blog post, one written either by me or (even better) by you in a Guest Post—I’ll take such suggestions in any of those aforementioned ways: comments on posts here, emails, Forum posts, you name it. I’m also on Twitter (@AmericanStudier) and on Facebook ( if you want to check in that way.

Again, I have a week’s series already more or less planned—but I’d love to make it a couple weeks because I have many takes of yours to help share as well. Let’s make it happen!

First in the series on Monday,


PS. You know what to do!

3/24 Memory Day nominee: John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran, college professor, and Western explorer whose contributions to our national awareness of and respect for our natural treasures and resources was second only to his profound respect for Native Americans and what they meant to American identity and life, a perspective which led him to push for the creation of a federal Bureau of Ethology.

3/25 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winning scientist and humanitarian whose work in Mexico, India, and around the world changed the possibilities of modern agriculture, sustainability, and human existence; and Flannery O’Connor, one of the 20th century’s most unique and talented authors of fiction, and a writer whose dark humor and cynicism were balanced by a deep and abiding humanity and faith.

Friday, March 23, 2012

March 23, 2012: The Safari Park

[This week, I’ll be blogging about some of the many interesting sites and spaces of public memory and community in San Diego. This is the fifth and final entry in the series.]
A few of the many reasons why the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park is a lot more than just a great tourist attraction, and in fact serves as a site of public memory and community:

1) The Northern White Rhino: Without a doubt the most tragic inhabitants we met at the Safari Park were the two Northern White Rhinos—two of the four to six surviving such rhinos, all of whom are apparently too old to reproduce. I’m pretty good at finding the good within the tragic—I’m writing a book about it, y’know—but there’s no way to see this impending loss as anything other than a tragedy. But thanks to the safari park, this tragedy won’t go unremarked—all those visitors who, as we did, get to see these rhinos are made aware of the imminent loss of these impressive animals, and that’s an important act of public memory in its own right.

2) The California Condor: At the other end of the spectrum is the genuinely amazing success story that is the California Condor. A couple decades ago these impressive birds of prey were down to Northern White Rhino numbers—but thanks to the efforts of the Safari Park and a couple other California organizations, the Condors have rebounded and rebounded with vigor, not only in sanctuaries like the Park but in increasing numbers in the wild as well. The Condor represents, among other things, the way in which a public site, and communal efforts and support, can change the course of history, and produce a more inspiring future as a result. Pretty good public memory lesson!

3) The Baby Giraffe: This is a much more personal moment, yet still a deeply public one. Our visit to the Park happened to coincide with a special addition—the Park’s youngest inhabitant, a three-week old baby giraffe (our younger son’s favorite animal), was spending his first day out in the Park with his Mom, siblings, and extended giraffe community. Obviously a cute and powerful moment, and we could feel how much our various tour guides and park keepers shared in it. But it was also, for me, an inspiring reminder in miniature (well, miniature-ish) of the Park’s most central purpose: to remind us of the larger world of which we’re a part, a world that is as fragile as it is enduring, to which each of us, small as we are, is deeply and significantly linked.

It was a great trip! More this weekend,


PS. Any interesting or inspiring public sites you’ve visited (in any place)?

3/23 Memory Day nominee: Bette Nesmith Graham, the Texas high school dropout, single mother, and long-time bank secretary who invented Liquid Paper, became one of the 20th century’s most successful inventors and entrepreneurs, and mothered one of the Monkees; if there’s a more distinctly American story than that one, I’ve yet to hear it!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

March 22, 2012: The U.S.S. Midway

[This week, I’ll be blogging about some of the many interesting sites and spaces of public memory and community in San Diego. This is the fourth in the series.]

Trying to make sense of the two very different, and even opposed, public roles served by San Diego’s most unique historic site.

Floating in San Diego’s harbor, just a few hundred yards away from the city’s downtown, is a hugely singular and compelling public space: the U.S.S. Midway, a formerly operational aircraft carrier that has (since 2004) served as a naval and aviation museum. The museum offers visitors at least three distinct visions into the lives of naval sailors and aviators: on the flight deck, a number of actual planes and helicopters, many of which the visitors can sit in; in the hangar beneath (alongside a few more planes), flight simulators and other re-creations of piloting and wartime experiences; and below-decks, an elaborately preserved and re-created vision of everyday life aboard the carrier for its officers, aviators, and sailors. My boys were particularly struck by the laundry room, with loads of fake clothes tumbling in the giant washers and dryers, and detailed depictions of the sailors whose job it was to carry the hundred-pound bags of laundry around the ship.

That laundry room illustrates what is to my mind the most significant and inspiring public role of the Midway museum: to help 21st century visitors understand the experiences and identities of those men and women who served aboard the carrier and its many sister ships, at all times but most especially during times of war. As I wrote in my first Veteran’s Day post (in analysis of the post-World War II film The Best Years of Our Lives), when it comes to American Studiers and our connections to the American past, there are few acts of empathy more important than such understandings of what the experiences of war and military service have entailed; obviously such experiences are hugely varied, both in different periods/wars and for different individuals, but nonetheless a museum like the Midway offers a very striking and effective means to create those connections with past servicemen and women. I’ve visited a number of battlefields and other wartime historic sites, and would rank the Midway (and particularly its below-decks exhibits) among the most effective such connection-creators I’ve encountered.

There’s another side to that connection, though, and it’s one that is to my mind much less historical and more propagandistic. On the Midway I found it illustrated most succinctly by the placard in front of one of the flight deck planes; the placard was describing the plane’s role during the Vietnam War, and noted that it was frequently used for “close-in bombing” in the war’s later stages. Which is to say, although the placard was careful not to say this: these bombers almost certainly participated in President Nixon’s often secret, likely illegal, and thoroughly despicable carpet-bombing campaigns of Cambodia and Laos; even if they didn’t, they most likely dropped napalm and other weapons of mass deconstruction indiscriminately on North Vietnamese villages. Such bombings are quite possibly, as I wrote in my post on Dresden, an inevitable part of war; but that inevitability does not in any way elide their horrific brutality, and it most definitely did not make me view the plane being connected to such bombings with anything other than horror. But in the context of the Midway, with its stated motto of “Live the Adventure, Honor the Legend,” Vietnam and its bombing raids are folded into that adventurous, honorable, legendary history—which is perhaps just as disturbing as the bombings themselves.

A multifaceted, complex, and vital American Studies, public historic site for sure! Last San Diego one tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

3/22 Memory Day nominee: Greta Kempton, the Austrian Jewish immigrant whose compelling portraits of Harry Truman and his family, among many other prominent and iconic Americans, led her to be known as “America’s Court Painter,” and contributed some of the more lasting images of American political and social life in the late 20th century.