‘Winning Minds and Hearts: Constructing National Identity in US History’, HOTCUS Postgraduate Conference, Northumbria University, 9 September 2016.
In the second of our review series for the HOTCUS Postgraduate Conference, ‘Winning Minds and Hearts: Constructing National Identity in US History’, Natasha Neary reviews a panel featuring Simon Buck (Northumbria University) and Elizabeth Smith (Liverpool Hope University). If you missed the first in the series, you can find it here.
‘Crossing Boundaries: Challenging American Norms During the 1950s and 1960s’
Panellists: Simon Buck (Northumbria University) and Elizabeth Smith (Liverpool Hope University)
Starting the day off by challenging normative conceptions of American identity in the 1950s and 60s, Simon Buck (Northumbria University) and Elizabeth Smith (Liverpool Hope University) gave detailed papers addressing old age and black femininity respectively. With Buck considering Pete Seeger’s television show Rainbow Quest (1965-1966) and Smith discussing the plays of Alice Childress, both papers considered the performance of American identities that went beyond the traditional circumscriptions of youth and whiteness.
Produced during the peak of the American folk music revival, Rainbow Quest aimed to capture the essence of the genre and recreate the traditional, intimate style of folk performance. It was an unsuccessful series, broadcast to a limited audience on a predominantly Spanish-language outlet before being cancelled a year later due to lack of funding. Nevertheless, Rainbow Quest signified an attempt to challenge the stereotypes of old age and its representation of oldness was central to Buck’s paper. The key issues raised included the role of the elderly in the series, how their oldness was represented, Seeger’s own view of old age, and the place of the elderly in American television during the 1960s. The 1960s is most often remembered as a time of a thriving youth culture, with shows like ABC’s Hootenanny (1963-1964) focusing on young, energetic folk musicians. The older generation were subjected to negative stereotypes of oldness, both in commercials and television shows, with the character of Granny in The Beverley Hillbillies (1962-1971) being a good example. Buck argued that Rainbow Quest provided an exception to this, placing old age at the center of the series. Over half of the thirty-nine episodes featured at least one person over fifty. Additionally, Seeger’s own view of old age affected the representation of older guests in the series. To him, older folk musicians were valuable in passing down the traditional songs and customs of the genre and deserved according respect. Yet when his guests complained of the physical ailments of old age, claiming that they could not play as well as they used to due to years of hard work, Seeger awkwardly dismissed their comments. Instead, he would steer the conversation back to music in an attempt to move away from the negative stereotypes of old age. This further supports Buck’s argument that Rainbow Quest offered a break away from the norms of American identity in regards to the older generation during the 1960s.
Though the series was significant in its representation of the elderly, Buck demonstrated the ways in which Rainbow Quest reinforced traditional gender roles. Whilst Seeger’s male guests were encouraged to discuss their careers alongside their passion for folk music, the women were often questioned on their family, with particular emphasis on grandchildren. When the men attempted to talk about their families, the topic of conversation was swiftly moved back to music. Sadly, the series did little to change reductive stereotypes about women. This raises some fascinating questions about how women actually appeared on the show, for example are there instances of women attempting to talk about their careers when questioned about their families? It would be great to hear of any possible breaks from this norm. More broadly, it would be interesting to know what the folk community thought of Rainbow Quest. Was it successful in the smaller circles of the folk music genre? Addressing the show’s lack of commercial success, Buck argued that among the reasons were Seeger’s blacklisted status and the limited audience it reached. It remains unclear whether or not the reruns of the show, broadcast from 1967-1968, were popular amongst a wider audience. If so, why? If not, are there any reasons for this aside from those associated with the original run of the series? These are among the many questions generated by this insightful paper on how Rainbow Quest pushed the boundaries of American identity during the 1960s.
At first glance, the second paper of the morning seemed to be in complete contrast to Buck’s presentation on old age. Yet it quickly became clear that Elizabeth Smith’s paper included parallel themes on American identity, this time with a focus on black femininity through the plays of Alice Childress. Unlike Seeger, Childress was not a household name despite her noteworthy contributions to African American culture during the latter half of the twentieth century. Mary Helen Washington, in her chapter in Left of the Color Line (2003), acknowledges Childress as ‘the only African American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades.’ Alongside her work as a playwright, Childress also performed on stage as an actress, published novels, and established herself as a keen political activist. For the purpose of the conference Smith focused on Childress’s work in the 1950s, demonstrating the ways in which she challenged the norms of African American identity during a decade of increasing hostility.
For Smith, an important factor in Childress’s work was the emphasis she placed on the role of African American women. While working with the American Negro Theatre in 1949, she became frustrated with the lack of non-stereotypical parts for black women and began to write her own plays. As Smith argued, these plays significantly disrupted gender based assumptions and stereotypes by placing African American women ‘centre stage.’ Additionally, Childress’s work often contained themes surrounding the failure of integration and the hypocrisy of liberals during a decade that witnessed increased tensions between segregationists and civil rights activists. Examples of plays that contain these themes, whilst placing a woman in the lead role, include Florence (1949) and Trouble in Mind (1955). In particular, Smith argued that Trouble in Mind used irony, humour and anger to disrupt the racial and gendered constructs that supported the dominant white version of American identity. In this, Childress used the play-within-a-play structure to criticise the failings of integration, having the relationship between the African American cast and the all-white crew break down after the leading actress, Wiletta, questioned what she perceived to be the racist problems with the script. Eventually, the white director lost his temper when asked what he would do in her situation, claiming that they had nothing in common, ‘not a goddamn thing.’ The play is a fine example used by Elizabeth to demonstrate how Childress challenged the stereotypes surrounding black women and at the same time, criticised the hypocrisy of white liberals.
Smith made a strong case for Childress as a pioneering African American writer, and in this the paper raised several questions concerning her legacy. Most importantly, why isn’t Childress (and her work) more widely recognised? An exploration of the reasons behind the lack of attention paid to her work would be of great interest. Similarly, it stands to reason that her work would have influenced or inspired other African American writers, actors, or political activists. If this was the case, were they more popular than Childress herself? The answers to these questions will add further insight to the story of one of America’s important, yet often-overlooked, literary talents.
By opening the conference, these two papers set the precedent for the remainder of the event and spoke to the variety of ways in which conceptions of normative national identity are challenged. Although both Buck and Smith are in the early stages of their research, their work provided detailed and fascinating accounts of how two highly different individuals used their talent to challenge the norms of American identity during the 1950s and 1960s. Their findings are valuable contributions to the growing historiography concerning the deconstruction of negative stereotypes in the broader entertainment industry of the post war era.