As we travel home this Thanksgiving, it is worth taking time to reflect on the various meanings of this holiday—personal, collective, regional, and national. A product of nineteenth-century sectional, socio-sexual, and imperialist imperatives, Thanksgiving is far from a physically satisfying celebration involving a return to an uncomplicated home.
Gina Mahalek: Very briefly, what is Liberated Threads about?
Tanisha C. Ford: Liberated Threads is about how everyday women turned getting dressed into a powerful political act that transformed the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s and 70s around the world. Often, when we study the social movements of the mid-twentieth century, we focus on policy issues, the fight to integrate public spaces, and big events, such as marches and protests. But, in Liberated Threads, I argue that we need to focus on everyday acts such as getting dressed in order to understand how everyday people engaged in movement politics. Most people were not involved in formal political organizing. They were not members of Black Freedom movement organizations. But, they were engaged in the fashion culture of the time. I wanted to explore the various ways that fashion and style connected people to the global movement for black freedom.
Judging by the sheer number of supernatural walking tours, bus tours, hearse tours, and reality TV shows proliferating across the country, America is host to manifold hauntings: at prisons, insane asylums, old hotels, historic sites and, of course, exceedingly Gothic haunted houses. It is perhaps not surprising that many of these hauntings are rooted in the South, the site of the American tragedy of slavery and the seat of the Civil War. In today’s Dixieland, enslaved ghosts join a cast of spectral characters: Confederate soldiers carrying muskets, young plantation belles in mourning, lovelorn barmaids done wrong, and profiteering pirates. But it is the ghosts of the enslaved who stand out.
If the Windsor Jazz Riot has long been lost from our collective historical memory, it provides an important moment to think about current national debates over riots, race relations, and national boundaries. Borders—be they national, geographical, social, or cultural—provide us the opportunity to blame outsiders for social ills, and for expressing collective fears. We tend to associate this most often with the U.S.–Mexico border, where inflammatory language about anchor babies, Mexican rapists, and drug smugglers dominates public debates. But there is a deep history of racial division along the U.S.–Canada divide, one that needs to be acknowledged as we debate the “American” race problem in the twenty-first century.
This enthusiasm for guest workers—temporary laborers stripped of the right to choose employers, bargain for higher wages, or remain within the United States past the expiration date of their labor contract—ignores a few basic problems. McGurn’s oversimplified history of the Bracero Program bears no resemblance to the growing scholarship on the binational contract labor scheme and its many problems.
It’s the season of blessings again. In many places there are blessings of backpacks for the new school year. Here and there, bicycles that were not blessed in spring will have another chance. In October, religious groups all over the country and around the world will hold “blessings of the animals” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. What I find remarkable is how many of these ceremonies take place in Protestant churches. It wasn’t always like this.
A variety of factors contributed to the explosion of weight loss culture during and after the Great War, and one especially potent factor was the creep of metrics into daily life. The application of calories to food in the late nineteenth century and the emerging discipline of statistics resulted in well-publicized comparisons of food consumption and body weights between individuals and across populations. At the same time, life insurance statistics were revealing new correlations between excess weight and chronic disease. More and more Americans, meanwhile, were purchasing newly affordable home scales and buying their clothing ready-made, and thus increasingly thinking of their bodies in terms of numbers and sizes instead of, say, just making clothes to fit their individual bodies. Moreover, metrics grew more prevalent in daily life just as the motion picture industry was taking off and as a visually oriented print media continued to expand. Handed the tools to make physical comparisons, Americans eagerly made them. The growing ease of numerical and visual comparisons contributed directly to the valorization of thinness. But what accounts for the moral stigma that leeched onto the idea of being overweight? The answer lies at the heart of the Progressive ideology of self-control, a value that transcended the Progressive Era itself, both supporting and thriving within the enduring associations between thinness, willpower, and beauty.
Dolezal’s purported blackness (and Indianness) was not a temporary costume, but was more like the racial shifting that anthropologist Circe Sturm and a number of other writers have outlined and it is not uncommon in the history of the United States. In Real Native Genius, I examine this phenomenon through the lives of Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil, two apparently non-Native people who remade themselves as Indians during the mid-19th century. Like Dolezal, Laah Ceil was raised as a white woman, and the two cases raise similar questions. Why would a white woman abandon the abundant privileges of whiteness to pass as a racial minority, particularly given the long and brutal histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism that did and do endanger people of color? What combination of fantasy and necessity enabled their transformation? What benefit(s) did/do they derive from their imposture?
Gina Mahalek: Jack London is well known for his adventure novels, like The Call of the Wild. But apart from tales such as the one about a dog in the Yukon, who was he? And why does he matter today?
Cecelia Tichi: Jack London (1876-1916) was the most popular U.S. writer of the early 20th century, the first to earn $1 million. In a career spanning twenty years, he published fifty books, hundreds of short stories, and numerous essays. His books sold well internationally and have been translated into several languages. He continues to be one of the most famous and esteemed writers in the world—arguably better known and respected abroad than here in the United States.
The hotel’s ability to foster trust and nurture people who are otherwise temporarily homeless and dependent has been a long-standing feature of the modern landscape, and this functionality makes the hotel an irresistible magnet for those across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. Kay Thompson famously captured the hotel’s imaginative allure for the vulnerable wealthy in her 1955 fabulously popular Eloise stories, and the resulting marketing of these stories as a distinguishing feature of the hotel she—and her creator—called home attests to the hotel’s ability to incubate new kinds of identity and self-making even for those guests who seem to have it all. A ward of New York City’s Plaza Hotel, the six-year-old Eloise roams the hallways of one of the world’s finest hotels, her mother perennially absent. Without the protecting spaces provided by the hotel’s public and private venues, Eloise would be alone in a dangerous and unprotecting world, but in the generative habitus of the hotel she invents a world rich with play at self-making.
Stories such as this one about middle-class riders making motorcycling respectable were common in the early 1960s. Their arrival both coincided with and was the product of the introduction of the Japanese Honda into the American marketplace. Yet despite the enthusiasm that greeted the middle-class rider, ambivalence and frustration also surrounded him. These were serious riders, or so they claimed, yet their critics found it all too easy to dismiss them as “casual” motorcyclists. If anything, their struggle to overcome this claim made their impact on motorcycling more conspicuous than it might have been otherwise, and it brought the issue of class to the fore.
One thing World War I doesn’t bring to mind is food. But it should, because during World War I the rise of industrial food processing, nutrition science, and America’s first food aid program revolutionized American food on almost every level. World War I made food modern, and understanding how that happened is key to understanding food today.
The Siamese twins had long been used ironically as symbols of American nationalism. The earliest pamphlet about the twins published in the United States in the early 1830s featured a title page image of a flying eagle carrying a banner that read “E Pluribus Unum,” and beneath that was the phrase, “United We Stand.” This appeared opposite a frontispiece that pictured the twins as dark-skinned boys wearing queues and loose Oriental garments. The 1836 pamphlet published under the twins’ direction similarly featured a bald eagle clutching the national shield, beneath which were the words “Union and Liberty, one and inseparable, now and forever.” Analyzing the Siamese twins and American identity, scholar Allison Pingree argued that these exhibition booklets, which juxtaposed the parlance of the day describing conjoinedness—“united brothers” or “united twins”—with the symbolism of the American eagle holding an “E Pluribus Unum” banner in its beak, were playing to political concerns of the period. Even as nationalists appropriated the bond to symbolize union, proponents of states’ rights could claim that “connecting the states too closely was ‘monstrous’ and excessive.”
Gina Mahalek: What was the Manhattan Musical Marketplace that you discuss in your book?
David Gilbert: This is a term that I coined to explain the historical formation of New York City as the center of American popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. I think that many music fans, musicians, and scholars kind of take for granted that NYC has always been America’s capital of popular entertainment, and I wanted to tell the story about how this came to be. Rather than assume Broadway Theater and Tin Pan Alley song publishing just naturally developed into leading culture industries, I want to call attention to the moment in which these spaces—and their connotations—developed. And I want to emphasize African Americans’ roles in creating both New York’s unique culture markets and important facets of American popular culture.
The reason social critics and entertainers still point out white appropriation when they see it is because the American public, and its leaders, have not matured the way black music and culture have. Even though millions of whites may profess to love and respect black music, their daily decisions—and those of their elected and institutional leaders—indicate that they do not love black people.
Our decision to focus on the inner life of hotels might seem rather whimsical, but it wasn’t. The truth is, we were looking for the right instrument, for an angle on contemporary life that we could use to materially anchor our ongoing conversations about modernity, power, and release, about race, class, gender, and globalization, about a whole lot of things. Getting to the hotel—and getting to that moment of realization at the ZaZa—took us a year or two of back-and-forth in the off hours. Sitting down that day, ticking off on our fingers those points of shared concern, we finally got it; we simply looked around and recognized that we were surrounded by a weird, fascinating material object, with its own culture and politics, an object that could capture all of these dynamic points. A waitress brought us coffee with a flourish, and a small clutch of brown sugar nuggets appeared on the table, with a small silver spoon. Why not, we thought, try to write about all of that?
Musically, there continues to be a deep stylistic overlap between country and soul. Some of the biggest country stars of today utilize the sounds and songs of R&B, while many contemporary soul and hip-hop artists (particularly from the South) bring the characteristics of country onto their records. Then there are the folks in the middle—many of whom, like Jason Isbell or Valerie June, are from the triangle—who draw from both traditions and blend them together in new and interesting ways. It remains one of the deepest wells of American music.
Fatima was an adventurous designer of third space identities, a non-hijabi who was at the same time religiously devout, socially liberal, sexually conservative, and politically aware. When Fatima entered the gates of Georgetown, having newly graduated from a strictly Islamic school, she was horrified to find that some of her Muslim friends drank alcohol.
Contemporary documentary projects such as StoryCorps and Humans of New York thrive today in a spirit similar to that which led the vision of the Federal Writers’ Project and These Are Our Lives. They remind us that every life has a story, and every story matters.
Studies in United States Culture will publish provocative books that explore United States culture in its many forms and spheres of influence. Under the series umbrella, UNC Press seeks interdisciplinary work characterized by big ideas, brisk prose, bold storytelling, and methodological sophistication.