Matthew Frye Jacobson holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University and directs the American Studies program at Yale University. His research interests revolve around the political culture of the United States over the last few centuries. He has written five books: What Have They Built You to Do?: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America (with Gaspar Gonzalez, University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Harvard University Press, 2005); Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (Hill and Wang, 2000); Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Harvard University Press, 1998); and Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States (University of California Press, 1995). We spoke to him about his current work on his new book Odetta's Voice and Other Weapons: The Civil Rights Era as Cultural History and his work on the website Historian's Eye. We also discussed the current election cycle, including the Republican nominating process as well as the Obama presidency as it pivots into campaign mode.
Tell us about your current project Odetta's Voice and Other Weapons: The Civil Rights Era as Cultural History. What is the purpose of your study?
This book started several years ago, when two smaller projects I was working on started to feel to me like different parts of the same big project. One was an essay on race and baseball that had been commissioned by Amy Bass for In the Game, a volume on race, identity, and sports; the other was an essay on music and social geography that evolved out of a lecture in my US cultural history course at Yale.
The first piece focused on Dick Allen (baseball’s iconic “bad boy” in the 1960s) and the rage that was unleashed upon him both by white fans and by the white press. (When Curt Flood refused to join the Phillies and launched his epic legal struggle against Major League Baseball for the right of free agency, it was in part because of the way Allen had been treated in Philadelphia.) I became interested in the diamond and the stadium as sites of racial struggle; I also became interested in Allen’s story as so clearly a desegregation story, even though he came up fifteen years after Jackie Robinson had famously taken the field in Brooklyn.
The other article I was working on followed Jimi Hendrix from the integrated neighborhood of his native Seattle, through the segregated South during his years as a sideman on the chitlin’ circuit, through a brief moment of artistic oblivion in New York (in mostly white bohemian clubs in the Village as well as mostly black blues clubs in Harlem), to his “discovery” by British rockers, his sudden fame in the UK, and his triumphal return to the US at the Monterrey Pop Festival. I was interested in Hendrix’s musical rearing in the African-American spaces of the rhythm and blues circuits, and in the peculiar racial cartography of his rise and of his fame. His is very much a story about race in popular musics - about the way it frames the general understanding of musical genre and that it organizes performance spaces, about the way it is obsessed over, misread, and contested. It is also a case study in social geography: in the US he represented something of an oddity - a “black hippie” - while in the UK he represented “authenticity” itself, to the extent that he unnerved white performers (“imposters”) like Clapton, Beck, and Townshend. This differential derives from the very different ways that whites in the US and whites in the UK understood (or misunderstood) the relationship between rock and roll and African-American musical forms.
These two pieces gradually grew together and pointed me toward a set of larger issues: the relationship between Civil Rights history and various cultural forms, as a start; but more specifically, the significance of artistic expression as political expression (Odetta once said, “I could sing things that I could never say”), and the significance of audiences - or “taste publics” - as contending political publics. Cultural forms themselves were often sites of struggle, and consequently the culture industries became increasingly important to combatants on all sides. It’s not just that a lot of black celebrities got involved in the movement or lent their names and their fame to the cause, for instance, but black celebrity itself in these years was always already politicized, if not by the artist (Odetta, Belafonte) then by the audience (Dick Allen).
The book that has grown out of these initial forays traces the arc of the Civil Rights Era, from the double V campaign of the 1940s to about the early 1970s, by focusing on a series of artists, entertainers, and cultural workers who were engaged in racial politics in wildly different ways. This study isn’t meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive - it’s not a cultural history, and it doesn’t pretend to be. Rather it’s a series of provocations - the era as cultural history - each chapter an occasion to think about a particular moment, a particular cultural form, and a particular political mood: Stump Cross (dance), Sammy Davis, Jr. (variety entertainment and popular autobiography), Odetta (folk music), Sidney Poitier (film), Diahann Carroll (television), Dick Gregory (stand-up comedy), Dick Allen (baseball), and Jimi Hendrix (rock). A brief epilogue looks at Blaxploitation and funk, and ponders the “post” of the “post-Civil Rights Era."
What do you hope it contributes to scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement?
Well, there’s been an explosion of really great scholarship in this area since I first began the project several years ago - especially in music and performance studies - and so the book maybe doesn’t have to carry as much freight as I once thought it did. But I still think there is a lot to think through when it comes to the relationship between politics and performance, or in understanding the many cultural forms that had to be mobilized in order for the modern Civil Rights “public” to emerge. You know, Odetta was an archivist in her musical practices; she put black history out there in the form of field hollers and work songs in a way that inspired African Americans and that challenged whites, and those coffee house settings in the late 1950s and early 1960s were really important to the formation of a politically engaged youth public. Diahann Carroll did battle with the network about how race and racism ought to be depicted at prime time - what was at stake ultimately was what she would be able to accomplish politically from the platform of her show Julia. We know a lot about the political significance of a figure like Paul Robeson, or Harry Belafonte maybe, but we don’t know as much as we need to about the totality of that cultural history. So that’s the first thing.
The second has more to do with the theoretical realm of inquiry. Not just recovering and fleshing out important examples of cultural figures accomplishing political work, but working to carry forward the theorizing of culture, race, and power. In this respect each case is a little laboratory. Setting the analytical concepts of cultural studies in motion in this period - surrogation, hidden and public transcripts, fugitivity - tells us some things about both the national transformation and its limits in this era that we can’t find out about by focusing on the major political figures like SNCC and King and Hamer and the Panthers.
Although you are concentrating on the Civil Rights Era, will the Obama presidency be mentioned?
I don’t expect to write very much about Obama for this project, although I do end up spending a lot of time thinking about Obama and cultural history. The thing that strikes me - and I actually started thinking about this immediately, like right on election day - is that no one I know, of any generation or background or color, would have said in 2007 that the United States was about to elect an African-American president. Or ever would, maybe. But when Obama won, suddenly the decades between the Civil Rights Movement and 2008 looked different - there was something about the underground currents of American life that could not be seen or known until those election returns came in; but now you could look back across the 1990s, the 1980s, the 1970s and begin to ask new questions about the nature of social change.
This isn’t to say that Obama’s victory marked “the end of race” or of racism or any crazy thing like that, though there are certainly enough people who want to say so. The society is as stratified as ever - the problems, as persistent and intractable. Racist hiring and housing practices; skewed banking practices; mass incarceration and differentials in sentencing; police brutality. Not to mention the backlash we’ve seen against Obama anyway, even after we proved our “color blindness” by electing him - like Newt Gingrich’s thinly coded trope of “the food stamp president.” But nonetheless it is no small thing - it is positively enormous - that millions of Americans paused and imagined a black president and then pulled the lever in his favor. From Jim Crow to this, how implausible.
This is where we need cultural history. This transformation is, in part, a political story, sure, involving a generation of African-American big-city mayors, the occasional national figure like Jesse Jackson or Colin Powell or even - ironically - Clarence Thomas or Condoleezza Rice; but I think in its most powerful dimensions it’s a cultural story. You don’t get from Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 to Obama’s election in 2008 without the work that culture does. I mean this in the sense of Stuart Hall’s dictum, “it is culture that outfits us to behave politically in certain ways and not in others.” We can’t explain Obama to ourselves - we can’t really grapple with the subterranean changes taking place in the decades since Selma - without reference to figures like Toni Morrison, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Derek Jeter, or Mariah Carey. Or Chris Rock. Or Tiger Woods. People who were speaking “race” in a different register than Carl B. Stokes, Shirley Chisholm, or Kurt Schmoke. People who in their work and in their public ubiquity were subtly changing minds - were outfitting people to behave differently.
So I’m not writing much about Obama in this book - I stay pretty much within the historical bounds of the 1940s to the early 1970s - but the spirit of the enterprise is to develop conceptual tools that can be applied in other periods, and certainly the post-Civil Rights Era is one of those. And I suppose, conversely, I’m learning some things in Obama’s America that are helping me to understand the cultural politics of earlier periods, too.
Newt Gingrich has been criticized for several comments he has recently made concerning race and the poor – you mentioned the “food stamp” remark. What is your opinion about his other remarks?
I can never tell whether someone like Gingrich actually believes what he is saying, or whether he is just willing to say it because he knows who he’s talking to. And I can never decide which would be worse, the ignorance of the one or the cynicism of the other. But the idea of getting black school children to be the custodians of their own schools (as much an assault on custodians as on the school children) I tend to think must actually be sincere on his part. It just seems to flow directly out of a whole, decades-old packet of racist stereotypes and assumptions - the notion that these kids don’t know anyone who works, that they have no role models and no way of learning about discipline and the value of hard work, that African-American motivation is the root cause of inner city social conditions, that they’re better suited to custodial work than to education…it’s unimaginable to me that he would suggest such a thing for white children, but correct me if I’m wrong.
In a sense, Gingrich doubles down on those views when he panders to his white audience by calling Obama “the food stamp president.” In one swoop he slanders an important feature of the hard-won and always endangered social safety net as fulfilling a (black) dream of idleness rather than as responding to a real and painful crisis, and he simultaneously links Obama with a long-standing social policy through the silent trope of blackness - Obama’s literal blackness, which need not be named for his audience, and the metaphorical blackness of liberal social programs, which since the era of Reagan’s “welfare queen” also need not be named for his audience. This is what I mean about its being hard to tell what he believes and what he does not. Does Gingrich think that food stamps are Obama’s aspiration for people? Probably not, but he’s willing to suggest it. Does he think that more people are in need of food stamps now because of Obama’s policies? That could go either way. Does he truly think that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a “black” program? I’m guessing yes.
What is your view on the current Republican nominating process – more generally speaking?
If it didn’t already exist we would have had to invent it - as a symbol of just how desperate our situation currently is. This spectacle reveals how far to the right the Republican Party has shifted, first of all; there is almost no such thing as a moderate Republican anymore, and even Goldwater and Reagan wouldn’t be conservative enough in this climate. Second, it shows the extent of the transformation in our post-Citizens United electoral universe, in both the sums that are being dumped into the process and also in the things that are coming out of candidates’ mouths (any critique of inequality in our society represents “class warfare” or “the politics of envy,” for instance, and the current tax code is sacred, loopholes and all, because the very wealthy are “job creators”). Third, it shows the extent of our polarization, in the utter demonization of Obama and in the slash and burn tactics of our everyday party politics. (Obama is a socialist, really?) We are becoming truly ungovernable in our differences and our hatreds toward one another. Fourth, it suggests the impossibility of bridging these rifts, because of the media environment we are now operating in.
The narrow-band cosmos of boutique news casting to well-defined target audiences has resulted in a public discourse disfigured by boutique realities that are disconnected and thoroughly dissimilar. It’s not just that if you watch FOX News you are hearing different opinions than if you watch MSNBC, you are actually living with an entirely different data set. We’ve lost all mooring in commonly recognized facts to be discussed and interpreted and debated (however vociferously). Obama really is a foreign-born Muslim socialist usurper, and he really has made things worse than they were in 2008, if you habitually tune in to certain frequencies. Which brings us, finally, to the overt and covert racism in this primary season. Those ghoulish Obama-as-Joker images; the persisting birther charges; Romney’s contention that Obama “doesn’t understand” America; the chant of “Kenya, Kenya, Kenya” at a Gingrich rally the other day, when Gingrich said it was time to send Obama back home. Many whites are clearly unnerved by the blackness of our president; these are the folks who self-select as the most energetic demographic in the Republican primary process, and the candidates have been positively gleeful in playing to them.
What are your thoughts concerning the Obama presidency as it pivots into campaign mode?
I think we’re about to find out that reelecting a black president is even harder than electing him in the first place. I think Obama’s going to win, but not by much and it’s going to be a very long year.
I remain a fan, even despite my own disappointments, in part because he is hands down the most intelligent president we’ve had in my lifetime, and in part because his opposition is so vicious, so willing to torch the place just to keep Obama from having a success, that how could you not root for him? He’s had some astonishing successes - probably more than many people even realize - but even so, the main storyline of his presidency remains that perfect storm of a disloyal opposition with all the charm and delicacy of a buzz saw on the one hand, and a president who is almost pathologically committed to compromise on the other. He lost a lot of months in his first term to the hopeless supposition that the Republicans would accept the olive branch that he continued to hold out, and that they would come to the table in good faith to compromise for the good of the country. So, as much as we might hate the obstructionism and the filibusters and the bad faith, we have to hold Obama responsible for the huge portion of his term that he squandered to the failed strategy of “appearing reasonable.”
But the more interesting aspect of the common disappointment with Obama, at least from a historian’s perspective, is how much of it seems to derive from the hopelessly high expectations that people had of him. As Ricardo Levins Morales said, the Civil Rights activists who pushed open doors were revolutionary visionaries, but that doesn’t mean that the people who walk through those doors are necessarily going to be revolutionary visionaries themselves. They probably won’t be. The Obama election campaign in 2008 felt like a social movement, but it was just an election campaign. People felt like we had just elected Martin Luther King, Jr. - a revolutionary visionary - but we had only elected a politician, and kind of a centrist one at that. Turns out. I think he’ll be remembered as a good president, but he would have had to do phenomenal things to avoid disappointing us.
How might Obama’s strengths and weaknesses affect the presidential election?
Even though I think that Obama did save us from an even deeper calamity, and even though his opponent (whichever it turns out to be) will in some sense represent precisely the policies that put us in the desperate straits we’re in, oddly the economy is going to work against Obama, not for him, and so he has real work cut out for him. He needs to wake up from the dream of compromise - he needs to play to his base a little bit - but he also needs to make the case for liberalism in a way that he never has so far. He needs to point out that reckless spending represents one danger, sure, but there is also such a thing as reckless austerity, and this can represent equal or worse danger. He needs to point out that what we knew as the American Dream through much of the twentieth century was built largely upon things that government did and that only government can do - the democratization of home ownership through guaranteed loans programs (racially skewed and completely problematic in their implementation, yes; but, ironically, millions of Romney and Gingrich supporters owe their security and standing to these); the democratization of higher education through the financing of the university system and through the GI Bill and student loan programs; the fostering of wildly creative private sector enterprises like Silicon Valley through the development and integration of the necessary communications and transportation infrastructure, and the financing of knowledge factories like Berkeley. These are stories about government that every citizen ought to know, and Obama can’t afford to cede the narrative to Tea Party types and their “don’t tread on me” stance toward government. There was a little tiny whisper of this in the State of the Union Address.
Beyond that, the factors affecting the election seem to line up this way: working against Obama are the likely state of the economy, the various blocks to voting that Republicans have succeeded in erecting in many states through their control of state legislatures, and the (so far) seeming aloofness on the part of the young voters who turned out for him so spectacularly in 2008. (Occupy, in this context, ought to both hearten Obama and also scare him a little.) Working in his favor, on the other hand, is that he looks to be facing the opponent of anyone’s dreams - either Gingrich along with his hatefulness and his hypocrisy and his ethics baggage, or Romney and his fabulous wealth and unimaginable privilege at a moment when the nation is newly and quite amazingly obsessed with economic inequality.
Personally, I think progressives are a little too happy about the weakness of the Republican field, and especially about Gingrich’s success, thinking that it’s beyond question that he’s unelectable. I remember being certain of exactly the same thing when Ronald Reagan got the nomination in 1980. Be careful what you wish for.
Lastly, tell us about your website Historian’s Eye at http://www.historianseye.org
This project began as an effort to document Obama’s Inauguration Day itself, and at the outset that’s all I thought it was going to be. I was working with a photographer named Renee Athay; we went to the Mall for the inauguration - we interviewed some folks on the train on the way down - and we spent the day photographing and interviewing people about the meaning that the day had for them and their understanding of what it meant for the country. And that was incredible. There was a kind of reverence for the moment that hung in the air there that was really powerful. It was joyous, but also sober in a way. More church than party. And while we expected that the scale and the spectacle would be the most significant thing about the materials we gathered, actually the greatest historical power was carried in the individual voices and in individual faces.
Over the next several months I decided to keep going - to keep photographing and interviewing as a way of documenting this historical moment that kept getting more and more interesting. Depressing, too, but interesting. The thing that struck me then and that strikes me still is the feeling - shared among people I’ve spoken with across the political spectrum - that this is a unique moment of hope and despair. This feeling that, as a country, we could deliver up our very best or our very worst at any moment. This started with the fork in the road that was the 2008 election; but that feeling of hope and danger persists for most people. (Of course, one person’s hope is another person’s danger.)
So by now the project has evolved into a documentary website that houses over 2,500 photographs and about sixty interviews (audio and transcript) that cover the Obama presidency, the anti-Obama backlash, the economic collapse, the Tea Party, the wars, the anti-Muslim resurgence, the BP oil spill, the Occupy Movement, all within this general frame of the double-edgedness of the moment, hope and despair. It’s meant as both an archive devoted to this extraordinary historical moment in the U.S., and as a pedagogical tool for thinking historically about the present - to think about the historical inventories we need to understand where we are, but also to think about the present as history-in-the-making. So it’s meant for classroom use (and a lot of teachers and students are indeed using it), and there’s also a participatory, “wiki” aspect to it, where people are invited to submit materials of their own to add to the archive. What does this histprical moment look like where you live? Scores of people have submitted individual photographs, but some people have developed much more elaborate contributions: there’s a whole gallery of photographs and interviews on the Tea Party, created by an ethnography student at NYU named A.J. Bauer; and right now there are groups at both NYU and Berkeley who are developing galleries on Occupy.
I haven’t figured out how long this project goes on - just until it seems natural to stop, I guess. But there are days when it feels like I’m documenting the fall of the American Empire, and that this is probably what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
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