This week, the graduate students in my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” course will explore how culture figures into the ways in which oppressed groups survive their difficult moments. We will do as much by watching the ending of the 1964 motion picture “Nothing But a Man,” which features Motown music on its soundtrack; discussing the 1973 documentary on Wattstax, a California concert memorializing the 1965 Watts riots; and reading an excerpt from Robin Kelley’s study on African American working class resistance and Lynda Barry’s The Good Times are Killing Me, a novel about a friendship between a black girl and a white girl in Seattle in the late 1960s.
I first discovered The Good Times Are Killing Me, which Barry wrote and illustrated, in the bookstore at the University of Miami, my undergrad alma mater. The year must have been 1989 as I graduated that year. The book was not on any reading list for any course. I must have been drawn to Barry’s wonderful painting on the cover (around this time, I began enjoying her cartoons in The New Times, an alternative newspaper).
Today, I am drawn to how a white house seems to center/divide the friendship between two girls who float above it, one carrying 45-rpm records, the other carrying a tiny turntable. And yet the girls seem to be connected by confetti to a 33 LP, which itself hovers above the white house. The house is inside the belly of a yet another house, this one orange. That house is flanked by other houses, suggesting a neighborhood under attack.
What was Barry trying to illustrate with this painting? I see in it the urban displacement of people. I also see the impact of such displacement on friendship. By the end of the story, Edna Arkins – the white girl who remembered a time when “the houses went White, White, White, Japanese, White, and White” – will find herself having to say goodbye to Bonna Willis, her black friend. Bonna used to lived in Washington D.C. until her brother got shot (they moved to Seattle “just to get away from trouble”).
Historian Robin Kelley’s study on the everyday politics of the black working class provides a framework to help us understand the experiences of Bonna and Edna. Edna and Bona live in a working class community undergoing “white flight” except Edna’s family evidently does not have enough money to flee anywhere. Their experiences, shared and unshared, might be seen inside the “history from below” scholarship that appeared in the 1960s even though W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James had started writing such histories, albeit then unsung, about thirty years earlier.
To be clear, this week’s readings display the oppression that black and white people experienced together or separately in the postwar period or even earlier. Kelley’s reading in particular helps us see the ways in which people of African descent resist can be very complicated. They don’t necessarily have to agree with one another and they don’t even have to belong to groups that seem to represent their interests.
Kelley is also invested in showing that everyday acts like how a McDonald’s employee stylizes his or her dress or asks a fellow employee to clock him in early can be seen as political.
Our job this week is the same as every other week: making connections between the materials in front of us.
How is everyday resistance seen in “Wattstax,” a film recovering a concert memorializing a riot? Is it in the film’s soundtrack? Is it in the ways in which the audience and the performers dance? I love how Rufus Thomas gets the crowd excited, doing the Funky Chicken, a dance my brother and I used to perform for our grandparents in the early 1970s. Thomas goes on to get them to peacefully return to their seats, too. Such dancing and the recording of such dancing is very political. If you don’t think so, check out the movements of one young woman dancing at the Wattstax concert below.
It’s worth it to think it all through and discover why that mini dress she wears is a multi-layered statement. We might now think of women’s issues being discussed in the 1960s and 1970s.
There is also something very political about Edna and Bonna’s friendship. Who were they defying in simply being a “friend,” a word we take for granted in the age of social media? Was their seeming misbehavior a separate or joint cause? Indeed, is there anything political about the ways in which Edna, the white girl, tells the story of “three-hour kick ball games …until it was too dark to see”? Was that darkness a metaphor for something else? Maybe her parents’ own politics?
How do we bring Duff and Josie, the couple in “Nothing But a Man” back into view? Duff, a former railroad worker who belonged to a union, certainly resists the politics in his Alabama mill town. But how do we find meaning in his life when he seems to be on the outside looking in to old ways of being that the locals – black and white ones – refuse to discuss?
How does Duff’s self-consciousness mirror those of the L.A. rappers who, by the 1990s, critique repression in ways that seem a bit different from the people in 1970s Watts? Same neighborhood. Different music. Or not?
How can misogyny surfacing in the hip hop lyrics Kelley discusses be mapped onto Duff’s encounters with Josie?
This week, the imagined and the real meet in meaningful ways. And “postwar” narratives are on display all up and through very different “texts.”
Notably, in Barry’s novel and Kelley’s study we see the arrival of “the teenager,” a group that advertisers began to see as a market by the 1950s. The pre-adolescent Edna and her kid sister Lucy can form what they call the “Record Player Night Club.” They basically tapped nails into the wall of their basement – away from adults – and hang 45s from the nails and call it a nightclub. Edna even hung a red light bulb in the room.
The Good Times Are Killing Me became an Off Broadway play, drew the attention of many, among them Quincy Jones and Danny DeVito, for producing in other genres. Little wonder. It is a recognizable story.
I recently saw a photograph of my kid sister in my childhood bedroom. At the time the photo was taken, I was a teenager. While studying the photo, I was most drawn to not the books on my shelves, but the record player. I remember the days of sitting very close to that record player, listening to albums bearing lyrics my preacher-daddy probably wouldn’t like. Music in this way was a rite of passage, a way that young people seemed to separate their interests from those of their parents. Berry Gordy saw this dynamic when he marketed Motown as the music of “young America.” Dick Clark did, too. “American Bandstand,” the show Clark introduced that aired from 1952 to 1989, also featured young people, initially only white ones, dancing to popular music. The same was true of Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train,” a 1960s Chicago-based dance show initially featuring mainly African Americans that aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.
But is there a monolithic black or white community dancing and singing in this week’s texts? Are the communities under review and the political economies presented in their stories filled with contradiction? Still, is there some persisting truth about the lived experience no matter the contradictions?
Last week, we were invited to think about white working class struggle in the Tri-Cities area in Virginia and Tennessee via Tom Lee’s scholarship and black working class struggles in Oakland via Robert Self’s scholarship. There are opportunities to return to those scholars’ thoughts about how the state and private sector participates in oppression. The places where folks eat, sleep, dance and play – things they do when they are not working – are more visible this week though.
I look forward to seeing how we talk through all of these narratives and sources as the semester winds down (and as I prepare to return to many of these sources next semester with “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music,” now an undergraduate lecture course).