Expanding the popular culture 'vessel' so more elements can fit into it comfortably

WINDOW ON AMERICAN CULTURE

November 04, 1991|By Jean Marbella

I t starts in kindergarten, when you trace your little hand on a piece of paper and turn it into a turkey to commemorate Thanksgiving. That's American. Then you read Melville and Hawthorne, you study Jefferson and Madison, you listen to Sousa, you leave it to Beaver and you think: That's American.

Think again, the American Studies Association says.

Hip-hop is American. Lesbian characters in 19th century literature are American. Eco-feminists are Americans. Crips and Bloods, New York subway graffiti writers, exotic dancers exercising self-expression, Puerto Rican transvestites -- they're all American.

"To say there is just one, homogenized America, like vanilla ice cream, is to deny the democratic process," said Sarah Elbert, a professor at the State University of New York, Binghamton, and a participant in the Association conference held this weekend in Baltimore. "Who owns the store? How many of us came over on the Mayflower? Why is there only one American heritage?"

Vanilla certainly was not a favored flavor at the conference (unless you count a paper presented yesterday on "Cycles of Minstrel Transgression from Cool White to Vanilla Ice"), which was attended by some 1,400 scholars and students. In fact, you had to search long and hard through the workshops and lectures given in various rooms of the Lord Baltimore Hotel to find any subjects focusing on the "white male, Protestant, heterosexual world," as one researcher put it. Even a well-attended workshop on Friday titled "Men at Work: Visual Representation and the Construction of Masculinities" featured three papers by . . . women.

It was that kind of conference.

The members of the association come from various traditional dTC disciplines: history, political science, English, architecture, music and philosophy, as well as newer departments that focus on popular culture and Afro-American, women, ethnic and gender studies. And so at their conference, held annually to present new academic works, the mix of discourse was a heady one. During most time slots, there was a dizzying choice of more than a dozen workshops. Each usually featured three scholars

presenting papers, one or two other academics responding to them and an audience with its own set of questions and comments.

In one room, you could hear David Sloane of Dartmouth College's history department tracing the antecedents of the AIDS quilt back to the Vietnam Veteran's Wall, Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" and, of course, handmade quilts from the pre-machine era. In another, you could hear Joe Austin of the University of Minnesota's American Studies Program calling graffiti "folk art" rather than "urban scrawl."

In yet another, you could hear Melissa Dabakis of Kenyon College's art department showing how the turn-of-the-century shift toward more sedentary work led to a longing for "the strenuous life" that translated into the "muscular Christianity" of the YMCA and the dependence on the Boy Scouts to "develop manly men."

The only thing to do, it seemed, was to borrow from the work of Tricia Rose of Brown University's Department of American Civilization. She presented a paper on how rap and hip-hop use the "sampling" technique to weave and layer any number of recorded sounds and past performances to create a new work.

If you were to sample some of the conference workshops, you'd get lyrics something like this:

"What would happen if Thelma and Louise could have kept on kissing and coming instead of commiting suicide?"

"It's hoo-ha! It's historically specific hoo-ha!"

"Cops are gangsters, too."

"Mestiza consciousness will save the world."

"The equation of real art with real men rules out a feminine aspect to real life."

While many speakers seemed to have a decidedly progressive edge, association president Alice Kessler-Harris prefers not to label the group as such, even though many of the members share an activist bent.

" 'Progressive' is a code word," said Ms. Kessler-Harris, a professor at Rutgers University. "But of the academic organizations, [the association] is very conscious of the relationship between culture and politics. In fact, our mission is precisely to make those connections."

Like others at the conference, she isn't swayed by those who sneeringly call academics such as those in the association "politically correct" for emphasizing cultures besides the dominant white and Western one.

"The whole thing is a scam. It's a red herring," Mary Francis Berry, a former Carter administration official, said of the "politically correct" criticism. "It's about race. It's about gender. It's about class."

Participates indeed were sensitive about eliminating any racism, sexism, classism and other -isms (ever hear of "heterosexism" and "health- ism"?) from their work and their language. One presenter noted he was forced to use the male pronoun because of the absence of female writers in his particular study. Another academic worried whether it was problematic that the AIDS quilt, with so many panels commemorating male victims of the disease, "appropriates" the traditionally female art of quilting.

Questioning is natural in this kind of academic field. In fact, the general theme of the conference was "The Question of Rights," be they civil, artistic, labor, sexual or legal, to name just some of those addressed in the conference.

"We are asking," said Ms. Kessler-Harris, "what does being an American mean today?"

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