A student enrolled in my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music” course stopped by today. He’s still thinking through how to approach his research paper on gun violence in the United States as seen in the work of two hip hop artists. I was pleased to see him recognize the reference to Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew from Concrete in a Powerade commercial. This book was one of the assigned readings in this course.
As true in most of Shakur’s poems, the images in the commercial are not pretty, but the cinematography is stunning. This oppressive urban landscape fits into the postwar narrative the students must engage in their papers.
I watched the commercial with my student. He said the persisting division between Americans that James Patterson discusses in his “grand expectations” study of American life following the ending of World War II through the resignation of Richard Nixon, the sort that are displayed in that commercial where certain bodies seem to be especially associated with the city, “feels like now.”
The challenge before him and the students will be analyzing the extent to which this seeming similarity is true. Can’t say it enough. I look forward to reading their rough drafts next week.
One aside: the graduate students in my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” course turn to Patterson this week with Robert Self’s study of postwar Oakland and Tom Lee’s look at urbanization in Tennessee-Virginia tri-cities between 1900-1950 in view. They will want to pay attention to how highways and commuter trains figure into job creation as well as how private and public powerbrokers participate in the ways in which the low-wage and low skill populations in rural and urban areas survive.
Self and Lee offer two very different communities. One has African American and white residents in various class positions. The other is primarily white working class.
How are these communities’ struggles the same? How are they different? If we look at life in the United States before and during the New Deal period, what additional insights emerge? The same question can be asked if we home in on mid-century black power and labor movements. How do spatial politics look then? Whether we’re discussing hills on the West Coast or “southern” mountains, we are ultimately talking about how power is arranged. Ultimately, how does the “era of possibility” – as Self puts it in history – feel more like the “era of limits” for some groups more than others?