From Civil War Memory.
Cross-posted at The Lakefront Historian.
An unexpected media and political discourse has emerged as the Federal government nears a second week of being ‘shutdown.’ Access to sites under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS) became a political football. The conversation started almost simultaneous to the actual shutdown, when a squad of octo- and nonagenarian Mississippians stormed the barricades of the World War II Memorial in the middle of the National Mall. An irresistible media story, for certain. Politicians–as they do–seized the spectacle. The next day a GOP Congressman berated an NPS ranger charged with manning the barricades, in truly a pathetic display even for Washington politics.
NPS closures became highly visible, with signs, barriers, and traffic cones juxtaposed against heritage sites and natural treasures. GOP congressmen offered the President a “compromise” that would have reopened the NPS sites while budget talks continued. President Obama turned down the proposal, and his rivals immediately attempted to seize the moral high ground. Some pundits ran with the idea that preventing access to “open-air monuments” was unconscionable, if not outright illegal.
Let’s turn to a bona fide, PhD’d historian for further discussion on the matter:
An animatronic exhibit based on the infamous hillbilly intruders, at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.
“A Christmas Story” (1983) has achieved iconic status that belies its initially modest critical and commercial reception: selection to the National Film Registry, a cottage industry of gifts based on products in the movie, a house museum for its external set, and–most significantly–an annual 24-hour broadcasting block. Much of the film’s popularity comes from a plot steeped in nostalgia. And like all nostalgic cultural products, “A Christmas Story” contains subtle yet profound themes related to social and economic history. The most obvious of these themes is Ralphie’s struggle to fulfill expectations of masculine behavior through consumption. However, as someone who recently gave a conference presentation about the enlistment of ‘exotic’ folk culture into the pursuit of modern urban desires (“Chicken Teriyaki and a Blind Woodcarver with a Fake Southern Accent”), I’m most interested in the film’s depiction of the ‘urban hillbilly’ menace. The specter of the Bumpus hounds–and the Parker family’s subsequent retreat into exotic orientalism at the movie’s conclusion–show how the white, urban middle class selected certain pre-modern pasts while rejecting others, all in the context of consumption.
Postcard for the exhibit opening, depicting Conservative Vice Lords, an alderman, and the Illinois State’s Attorney in front of a CVL social club, 1969. (Hull-House)
The horrific killing of 7-year old Heaven Sutton dominated the July 27 Chicago news, an inauspicious backdrop for my visit that day to a museum exhibit about the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL)—a West Side Chicago gang that went ‘legitimate’ in the 1960s. Today’s crime statistics demand that only shootings involving extraordinary circumstances warrant significant attention from the mainstream media. In the Heaven Sutton case, these heart-wrenching details include the victim’s young age and that she was a victim of cross-fire while selling candy with her family—just after having her hair styled in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Disney World. There have been over 200 Chicago homicides thus far this year. During the 2011-2012 school year, 24 Chicago Public School children were killed, and an additional 319 were wounded by gunfire. Whether media coverage of shootings consists of short blurbs in the metro section or a Pulitzer-worthy serial expose, one theme remains: the vast majority of shootings are flatly depicted as “gang-related.” This persistent motif trains us to understand loose associations of urban youth (“gangs”) as the inevitable cause of violence and disruption, a convenient—even if unthinking—way to avoid many of the structural social and economic foundations of inner-city violence.
Continual “gang violence” also makes it difficult to remember a time when some street gangs shifted from illicit activities and violence to community service and legitimate political activity. History shows that gangs often embodied complex notions of resistance, consciousness-building, empowerment, and community. At times, dominant political and economic forces have even enlisted gangs in collaborative social welfare efforts. Certainly the actions of Heaven Sutton’s killers fall far from such aspects of gangs. And it could be argued that the positive potential of street gangs happened in a historical moment, long since occluded by the national cocaine and heroin epidemic and the precipitous decline of Federal and municipal funding for urban social programs. Regardless, “Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords,” an offsite exhibit curated by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, looks back to the 1960s when the urban crisis called for innovative partnerships between legitimate institutions and some of the gangs once assumed to be among the root causes of that very crisis. This timely exhibit questions the absolute ties between street gangs and destructive violence, suggesting that groups of frustrated young people are not destined to wreak the community havoc so prevalent on the evening news. Continue reading