June 2016 Issue

In Vol. 68 No. 2, Gordon Fraser examines the “emancipatory cosmology” produced in Freedom’s Journal and The Rights of All, the first newspapers in the United States to be edited and published by African Americans. Bridget R. Cooks and Graham Eng-Wilmot analyze what they call “the break” performed by musical works written for the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The forum on teaching American studies convened by Julie Sze addresses the pedagogical project in a wide variety of ideological, political, and economic contexts both in the United States and abroad. The forum also showcases the range of community engagement projects that have been enhanced by the ASA Community Partnership Grants.

In the Digital Projects Review, Scott L. Matthews discusses the vast materials collected by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax that have been made digitally available. Jillian Russo reviews the digital archive of New Deal photographs created by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information.

Among the important Book Reviews included in the issue is Paul Mokrzycki Renfro’s review of books on the transnational politics of childhood.



Emancipatory Cosmology: Freedom’s Journal, The Rights of All, and the Revolutionary Movements of Black Print Culture
Gordon Fraser

Freedom’s Journal was the first newspaper in the United States to be edited and published by African Americans. From their office on Verick Street, in Manhattan, Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm printed the first edition of Freedom’s Journal on March 16, 1827. The newspaper ran until March 1829, when it was replaced by the short-lived Rights of All. These newspapers were remarkable—distributed to a total of thirty-seven cities, including nine cities in the slave-owning South. Importantly, the two newspapers did more than transmit political information. They transmitted scientific information about the nature of the cosmos. They produced, I suggest, an “emancipatory cosmology,” a total system through which accounts of the past, present, and future of the universe intersected with the material distribution, circulation, and seriality of black-authored and black-edited print.

If you’re interested in seeing digital facsimiles of Freedom’s Journal, you can see reproductions of the newspapers held at the Wisconsin Historical Society here.

The American Antiquarian Society holds both Freedom’s Journal and The Rights of All. You can read about these holdings here.

To read about Samuel Cornish, and about the New York African Free School that was the subject of much Freedom’s Journal writing, see the New York Historical Society’s website devoted to the school, Examination Days.

For a short article about Freedom’s Journal by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., see The Root The Root.

Throughout the essay, I spend time considering how Freedom’s Journal described the periodic Comet Encke. In 2007, observers recorded the partial breakup of this comet, which can be seen on YouTube here.

You can watch this event in a different format here

Sound of the Break: Jazz and the Failures of Emancipation
Bridget R. Cooks and Graham Eng-Wilmot

Our article analyzes four musical works that address the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, 1963: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, featuring the vocalist Abbey Lincoln; Duke Ellington’s theatrical production My People; John Coltrane’s “Alabama”; and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” The analysis shows how each of these pieces addresses the contradictions of Black life and death as they were experienced during the modern civil rights movement. Though these pieces are diverse in their musical qualities, their structures each evince a remarkable kind of aural tension. In following critical theorist Fred Moten’s work, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, we describe that expression of sonic conflict as “the break,” a musical feature that performs both resistance to the disavowal of Black suffering and the demand for substantive racial liberation. Listening to such breaks helps explain the tenuous position of Black performers in this moment. They navigated the precipice onstage in 1963, and the larger tension that undergirded the Black freedom struggle: the impulse to celebrate liberation against a cognizance of its failure to materialize in any substantive form. The series of YouTube videos below include the audio recordings that we listened to and analyzed for our work. We also include links to collections of archival materials that we researched.

Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite
Drummer Max Roach’s album, which chronicles the struggles of Black life in the New World, opens with the song “Driva’ Man.” Lyrically, the song addresses the constant physical duress and threat of punishment under which the enslaved worked in the cotton fields. The song’s percussive qualities suggest the sort of monotony and terrors of that experience.

Triptych” works through three musical movements entitled “Prayer,” “Protest,” and “Peace.” Abbey Lincoln’s vocal performance, which is perhaps the most notable feature of the piece, cycles through a range of emotions, including languished moans, relentless screams, and sighs of exhaustion.

The musical baseline for our work is “Freedom Day,” the third song from We Insist! That work, a swing number that is both up-tempo and restrained, imagines what the day of emancipation might have felt like for the now formerly enslaved. The song is less jubilant than one might expect. Instead, both the music and lyrics ask: “Can it really be?” The effect is sobering, as the song mixes expressions of continued disbelief, survival—and at best, an ironic optimism.

For those interested in researching more about Max Roach’s work, his effects were donated to the Library of Congress in 2013. 

Duke Ellington My People
Though the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is often remembered as the civil rights event of 1963, the Century of Negro Progress Exposition was convened in Chicago as the only federally recognized celebration of Lincoln’s Proclamation. The centerpiece of that event was Duke Ellington’s musical My People. Much of the show constituted a romanticized rendering of the Black experience in America. In contrast, a song entitled “King Fit the Battle of Alabam” hails Martin Luther King, Jr. as a hero—and in doing so, offers a frank musical elaboration of anti-Black violence in the South. The song refashions the lyrics and melody of the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” fitting it to a martial cadence that depicts the scene of Birmingham as a battlefield.

For those interested in researching My People or Duke Ellington further, the Archives Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History holds a wealth of materials from that project and his career. See the Archives Center’s finding aid.

John Coltrane "Alabama"
Saxophonist John Coltrane wrote and recorded the composition “Alabama” as a creative response to the senseless killing of four little girls by the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. On the initial release of Coltrane Live at Birdland (1964), the recording of “Alabama” included an unusual moment in which Coltrane halts the band and restarts the tune. This full stop also occurred when Coltrane performed the song for a taping of the television program Jazz Casual in November 1963. We hear this abrupt shift in relationship to the divergent dynamics of the civil rights moment at that moment, specifically as evocative of a profound sense of disorientation.

Nina Simone "Mississippi Goddamn"
“Mississippi Goddamn” was the first of several iconic songs Nina Simone wrote that condemned American racial politics. The initial recording of the song was released on Nina Simone in Concert (1964). In this performance, Simone recounts her bitter realization that in 1963, Black Americans had no more civil rights than in 1863. These anguished lyrics are strategically paired with a jaunty ragtime melody that fools listeners into briefly perceiving the number as a feel-good pop song. The song’s duality is crucial to the way Simone looks to register the continued failure of a full realization of Black freedom a century after the Thirteenth Amendment.


Engaging Contradictions: Teaching and Pedagogy in American Studies
Julie Sze

In the introduction to the Forum on Teaching and Pedagogy in American Studies, I trace out central themes, contradictions, and realities that structure teaching and pedagogy in American Studies. The scholars in the forum wrote on public humanities/ interdisciplinarity, transnationalism, and collaborative praxis.

This “Beyond the Page” contribution hopes to make selected useful links accessible. In the past, I drew upon the ASA Crossroads Teaching and Learning Site (now closed and archived). At the same time that more projects, writing, and information are available online, it becomes far more difficult it is to find centralized sources of material. I started with the American Studies Association, whether in the form of committee reports or Association funded prize (for example, the Association’s Community Partnership Grants are located here.

The ASA Committee on Departments, Programs and Centers commissioned a set of White Papers on a number of pressing themes that address institutional and pedagogical issues in the field  (2013):

The ASA K-16 Collaboration Committee Syllabi and Teaching Resources compiled the following list of links:

Here are some URLS from some of the Forum writers on their projects and related resources for those looking for guidance or activities to teach important issues:

On Prisons:

Links connected to college in prison programs discussed in essays by Tanya Erzen, Gillian Harkins and Erica R. Meiners

Environmental Justice, Indigenous Rights and History:

Past ASA funded projects include:

What Is This Thing Called Interdisciplinarity? Teaching Interdisciplinary Methods Courses in American Studies
Rebecca Hill

Below you’ll find my introductory note to students about reading for methodology followed by the current syllabus for my course on research methods for American Studies graduate students. Since writing the essay and giving the presentation at the ASA, I’ve made a couple of changes to the course. First, I’ve added a short interdisciplinary ethnography textbook, partly based on feedback from previous students. I’ve also replaced Amy Kaplan’s Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture with  Gretchen Murphy’s Shadowing the White Man’s Burden. I have not made the change because one book is better than the other, but because Murphy is so explicit in describing her methods. I have also changed the historical assignment to make the building block into a very small literature review and continue to come back to the literature review as a research process in all the building blocks because of the importance of writing the literature review to the thesis in this MA program. I now spend the opening week of the course using an excerpt from Kathryn Schulz’s popular book Being Wrong as a way to talk about confirmation bias in research, in response to conversation with thesis advisors following students’ completion of MA theses in the program.

One of the results of this new emphasis on confirmation bias and trying to get students to do open-ended literature reviews as part of all research in the course is that I have had several conversations with students in which they say that in undergraduate courses, they did research first by deciding on an argument and then finding supporting evidence for their point of view. If students are trained to do research this way, the question that I am sometimes asked: “should I include evidence that goes against my argument, or will that make my argument weaker?” now makes more sense. What we address as teachers of beginning graduate students is what it means to move from writing “position papers” or synthesis of material in secondary sources to doing original research.  From this point of view,  we can appreciate why students often find it difficult to understand that scholars often quote other authors not to indicate that there is another authority who “backs up” their argument, but in order to disagree with what those authors have written, to develop ideas or build upon knowledge begun by another scholar, or to distinguish their own work from what has been done before. Even though students have learned to write papers in a way that seems guaranteed to produce confirmation bias, they continue to value objectivity and to decry bias, particularly in response to some of the more politically provocative works that they read in American Studies classes.  In the context of the course, I’ve thus decided to stop resisting the language of bias and objectivity which we are so critical of in American Studies, but to allow students to work through these conflicting ideas about what research is for in conversation about methods during the course of the semester.

Introductory note on Interdisciplinary Methodology and the framing of this course. 

American Studies Methods Syllabus

Correction: June 2016 Issue

Thanks first to the many students who have struggled with me through American Studies 7100 at Kennesaw State, and especially to Anna Tussey and Lissa Small for allowing me to use examples from their work in the class. I’d also like to thank Julie Sze for organizing the forum, and to Julie again, as well as Wendy Kozol, Kevin Murphy, Andrew Ross , and Shelley Streeby for participating in the forum “What is this Thing Called Interdisciplinarity” at the ASA in Toronto. Big thanks to Paul Lauter, who shared a slice of pie with me in the Albuquerque airport after another great ASA and encouraged me to write about teaching.

The Global American Studies Classroom: International Students and Critical Pedagogy
Christina Owens and Abigail Boggs

In our piece "The Global American Studies Classroom: International Students and Critical Pedagogy" we discuss the current politics of teaching American Studies to international students in U.S. classrooms and provide practical strategies we've found to be effective in our experience in such classes. One of the key examples we discuss is teaching students about Manifest Destiny through a three-part approach: teach the discourse, demonstrate its pervasiveness, and then teach the critique. Concretely, this meant we showed clips such as the Schoolhouse Rocks music video “Elbow Room” multiple times, first asking questions about comprehension and then moving to analysis in subsequent viewings. 

This 1976 cartoon was originally created as an educational tool for U.S. children and contains a great many signifiers and rhetorical flourishes that students of all backgrounds do not recognize on first viewing. For example, Owens’s PowerPoint prompt for this initial discussion included pictures of the Mayflower, Rosa Parks, Pilgrim outfits, and the Golden Spike. While many international students did not recognize stereotypical Pilgrim garb, a large contingent of domestic / matriculated students didn’t know the exclusionary history of the Golden Spike ceremony either. Hence, this first discussion of what is shown in the video also allowed us to foreground the broader question: “What are the challenges of a course with students from so many different countries?” and then point out that we can’t assume we have shared conceptual maps and we can’t assume that people ‘represent’ their countries or regions.

After subsequent viewings, we focused on the ideological implications of the text, encouraging students to think about what is mythologized or obscured within this representation. With prompting, students were able to point out how visions of inevitable technological progress, frontier individualism, divine protection, and a supposedly unoccupied territory (unproblematically open to European settlement) inform the nationalist politics of the video. Including a map of the history of U.S. territorial acquisitions as a supplement to these subsequent discussions also allows students to see how the video erases the history of the Mexican-American War, the Annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii, etc. When showing videos to non-native English speakers, it is also important to display the text for students to read along with as they listen. Allowing time for this kind of extended discussion and engagement, across multiple viewings, is especially important in classes that incorporate international students. Students need these discussion opportunities not only for filling in basic knowledge but also for fully appreciating the differences in their perspectives.

Teaching American Studies in Taiwan: Military Bases and the Paradox of Peace and Security in East Asia
Chih-Ming Wang

 My essay explains why and how teaching American studies in Taiwan as a critical pedagogy requires an engagement with the absent presence of US military bases in Okinawa and the paradox of peace and security in East Asia. Though briefly, it explains the historical, geopolitical, and institutional contexts in which American studies emerged in Taiwan since 1978 which neatly coincided with the closure of U.S. military bases in Taiwan and the termination of U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic ties. In addition, it pays attention to the ongoing anti-U.S. military bases struggles in Okinawa as a critical reference point for understanding the duality of the United States in East Asia as both the breaker and keeper of peace so as to highlight the political complexities and pedagogical challenges of teaching American studies as a form of critical humanities. Readers interested in the history and experience of the Okinawan struggles cannot miss Chie Mikami’s documentaries: Sit-in on the Sea: The 600 Days of Anti-Base Struggle in Okinawa Henoko (2012), and We Shall Overcome (2015, trailer only). 

Filipino Love Stories Digital Archiving Project
Grace I. Yeh

 The article outlines some of the hurdles, rewards, and practical matters of creating a digital and oral history archive from which the Filipino Love Stories online and traveling exhibit were developed. The exhibits are a culminating display of new archival collections of digitized stories, photographs, and mementos, which because of the political, social, and economic positions of Filipino Americans on the Central Coast, are not found in any public repositories but primarily "in their family albums, in their attics or garages, in their memories". These collections were created by local Filipina/o American community members working with students, faculty, and staff at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo through a community-based teaching and learning project, the Re/Collecting Project, “an ethnic studies memory project of California’s Central Coast.”

The Re/Collecting Project’s aim is to intervene in the construction and politics of the archives and historical narratives, specifically within the context of California agribusiness and U.S. empire building. As a digital archiving project, the project marshals the university’s resources to create a platform for communities of color in the San Luis Obispo and Northern Santa Barbara counties to share their stories and story materials. Traditional archives, especially the local repositories, provide limited, if any, documentation of communities that settled or were displaced by the economic, political, and cultural exigencies. For more practical details on how the archive was created as student-learning project, see my essay "The Re/collecting Project and Rethinking Archives and Archival Practice" (Verge: Studies in Global Asias: 1.2 (2015): 31-36).

Filipino Love Stories reflects the stories of love, marriage, and community building, as told by the wives and children of the Filipino migrants who came to live and work in the agricultural growing region of California’s Central Coast in the first half of the twentieth century.

This narrow focus on marriage hardly represents the full experiences of pre-WWII Filipino bachelor communities. Still, the stories provide a lens through which to witness the macro and micro processes constituting local communities and how individuals experienced and responded to social and political constraints. Clips of the interviews are organized around the kinds of marriages often seen in the Filipina/o community before and after the Second World War, where changing immigration and naturalization laws, economic opportunities, and geopolitics served as backdrop to intimate relationships and entanglements. 

Reaching to Offer, Reaching to Accept: Collaboration and Cotheorizing
Allison M. Guess, co-contributor

Reaching to Offer, Reaching to Accept: Academic Collaboration and Co-Theorizing is a short essay that outlines what a community research project (the Black/Land Project) expected from American Studies and the academy overall. It begins by declaring, “From our vantage points, land is a Black co-conspiring eternal ancestor, supporting life and freedom….” Along those lines, the essay supports the recognition of life and abundance as opposed to all that deems communities, particularly Black and Indigenous communities, as dying and/or simply pronounced dead. Such narratives as the “vanishing Indian” and “loss” Black places are characteristic of the type of research that we hope to move beyond. Writing with my contingent collaborators Mistinguette Smith of the Black/Land Project and Dr. Eve Tuck, we make note of a trending tropes which grossly highlights the construction of deficit as a continual production that contributes to the erasure of our indigeneity, collective senses of self on selfsame land (Tuck, Guess et. al, 2014). In that, this essay puts forward the expectation for research that breathes life into a subject and calls for masterful collaboration absent of overreaching. In this essay we attend to the pulse of Black and Indigenous life, rather than an imagined death or flat line. 

Digital Projects Reviews

The Alan Lomax Archive
Scott L. Matthews

This review essay assesses the Alan Lomax Archive, a vast online collection curated by the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) that includes the sound recordings, photographs and films Lomax produced between 1946 and the 1990s as well as recordings of radio programs he hosted and lectures he delivered during that span of time. It addresses Lomax’s goal of creating a digital Global Jukebox that would preserve, analyze, and repatriate the world’s vernacular musical cultures and how curators at ACE have carried on Lomax’s vision with the Lomax Archive and a number of high-quality CD and LP releases of Lomax’s work in recent years. The review also pays particular attention to how the Lomax Archive prompts questions about power and ethics in the encounter between the ethnographer and his subjects and how those issues persist in the curation of archives and record releases.

The archive can be accessed here.

 In my review, I also discuss ACE’s YouTube channel that stores Lomax’s vast video collection, including a video from Thorton Old Regular Baptist Church in eastern Kentucky. A young woman, who is a descendant of one of the preachers singing the hymn, wrote to the curator of the Lomax Archive, Nathan Salsburg, and expressed joy at being able to see her grandfather again on this video. Salsburg sees this as an example of the importance of repatriating Lomax’s recordings, photographs, and films to the specific communities from which they originated and also the broader global community.

The Lomax Archive YouTube Channel

Video from Thorton Old Regular Baptist Church

Some of Lomax’s recordings have been made into immaculately packaged CD and LP compilations in recent years. One of the most stunning examples, which earned a Grammy nomination for best historical album, is Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959 that was released by the Atlanta based label, Dust-to-Digital.

The full review of Parchman that I quote from in my review essay can be found here at the web site for Forced Exposure, a famed distributor of underground and experimental music. 

Photogrammar: A New Look at New Deal Photography
Jillian Russo

My article is a review of a new website created by Yale University that facilitates wider access to the Library of Congress collection of 170,000  Farm Security and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) photographs. Interactive maps and data visualizations plot photographs by location and chronicle the routes of photographers across the United States. Enabling a more in-depth look at the production of the FSA photography division, the site extends our knowledge beyond the most iconic examples by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. A useful companion to Photogrammar, which places the FSA photography program in a broader cultural and historical context, is the website accompanying Ken Burns 2012 film The Dust Bowl for PBS.  Short videos include first person accounts by eyewitnesses, recollections of the period by folk singer Woody Guthrie, and segments on photographer Arthur Rothstein, novelist Sanora Babb, and author Caroline Henderson. 

Correction: The digital project Photogrammar is also co-directed by Taylor Arnold.

Book Reviews

Figurations of the Child and the Politics of Endangered Childhood in the U.S. since 1900
Paul Mokrzycki Renfro

Appearing in the June 2016 issue of American Quarterly, the review essay “The Transnational Politics of Childhood and the Neoliberal Order”—on which this piece is based—assesses five recent monographs on childhood and youth. Three of these books focus on the politics of child adoption, while the other two examine symbolic renderings of childhood within the transnational Cold War.[1] The print essay argues that these monographs wisely attend to youthful images and to their political uses and misuses. “Figurations of the child,” the manuscript reads, “determine ‘who gets a childhood’ and who does not” (17). The companion piece before you builds upon this insight by looking at such youthful images within contemporary United States history.

Scholarly interest in childhood and youth has grown precipitously in the twenty-first century. From book series on children and young people to the emergence of doctoral programs and tenure lines in childhood studies, the subfield has attained considerable cachet. Yet while (broadly speaking) areas such as youth organizations and children’s literature are amply covered in the scholarship, still too few studies consider the politics of childhood—in the narrow sense of governance and the formal exercise of power, but also in the larger cultural sense. That is, with respect to the latter, how do understandings of childhood and youth reflect and shape assumptions about citizenship, “deservingness,” and belonging within a community? How does childhood serve as a site upon which subjects make claims for, or against, certain citizenship rights?

This brief essay treats such questions within the context of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century United States. It proffers and succinctly describes three historical phases of imagining childhood: (1) Progressive “child saving”; (2) propagandizing and consensus building in the World War II and postwar eras; and (3) building the culture war kid. These explorations admittedly flatten complex sociohistorical processes for the sake of brevity. Hopefully, though, they sketch in bold brushstrokes the variegated ways in which childhood, and ideas about childhood, have furthered particular political objectives in the recent American past. They also shed light on the complex ways in which American adults have construed “threats” to young people in the long twentieth century.

“Child Saving”
The reforms of the Progressive era, which spanned from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, centered on the amelioration of squalor, disease, and suffering among the American populace. Anxieties about an increasingly industrial, urban, and “modern” society spurred Progressives to action. Progressive “child savers” operated on assumptions about childhood innocence and value forged during the Victorian era.

This photograph, captured by Lewis Hine in 1908, depicts an adolescent girl in a Carolina cotton mill

They sought to carve out for all youth an age-specific space insulated from the ills of hunger, poverty, and physical labor. In the service of this project, Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and other Progressives snapped and circulated photographs that illuminated the often-dismal conditions in which young children worked. Images of children toiling in factories, of newsboys hawking papers, and of young farmhands tilling the soil stirred public outrage and fundamentally transformed American children’s relationship with the labor market. Though efforts to curb child labor fell short in the Progressive era—as the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back the 1916 Keating-Owen Act just two years after its passage—the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act eventually imposed long-term restrictions on child labor. This development appeared to fulfill Progressives’ vision of a protected, “innocent” childhood in consonance with middle- and upper-class understandings of children as “economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless’”—ideas that had become hegemonic by the 1930s.[2]

Propaganda and Reform in the World War II and Postwar Eras
Notions of children’s “pricelessness” governed the iconography of the Second World War and Cold War. Some of the most popular American images circulated during these eras concentrated on either the cared-for, contented white child or the maltreated, needy youngster. The former found perhaps its most famous expression in Norman Rockwell’s iconic Four Freedoms paintings, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. Premised on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 state of the union address—in which the president articulated the national goals of “freedom of speech,” “freedom of worship,” “freedom from want,” and “freedom from fear”—Rockwell’s renderings of peaceful domestic scenes jarred mightily with the carnage visible in Europe at the time. For one, his Freedom from Fear features an affluent mother and father tucking their children into bed, with the father holding a newspaper whose headline screams of “bombings” and “horror.” This stark contrast mobilized the public to “fight … for the American family”—to defend the republic against the specter of rightwing totalitarianism both seen and unseen in these Rockwellian representations.[3]

Such pictures of happy white children surfaced in the postwar era as well, but the looming perils of communism and nuclear holocaust (not fascism) threatened these idealized figurations of American youth.

An infamous 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson campaign advertisement, for instance, cast a telegenic young white girl as the epitome of innocence. She picks daisies as a countdown sequence initiates and eventually culminates with a nuclear blast. The startling campaign spot insinuates, therefore, that Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would jeopardize the American future, embodied by a little white girl.[4]

Conversely, depictions of famished, injured, or brainwashed children “became part of the architecture of Cold War liberalism,” Laura Briggs writes, “which constructed an overseas role for the United States that was at once compassionate and interventionist.” Such images, propagated by postwar humanitarian bodies like the United Nations and its Children’s Fund (UNICEF), worked “to raise money and build support for [UNICEF’s] mother-and-child health and child-feeding programs.” Enunciating arguments about “proper” childhood—and more implicitly about American and western exceptionalism—these compositions have served “as the grammar of ‘hunger’ or ‘need’ in contemporary U.S. culture.”[5]

While the supposed gap between “‘them’—foreign, impoverished, war refugees, orphans, migrant laborers—and ‘us’—white Americans” was always overstated, the domestic upheavals of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s appeared to close this imagined gap and thereby to shatter the idyll of contented, middle-class American youth.[6] As young people seemed to descend into disorder and lawlessness—with a flurry of student protests on college campuses; a youthful counterculture; young men slain in the Vietnamese jungle; and young women bucking patriarchal authority—the concept of the “contained child” (to employ Margaret Peacock’s formulation, a play on Elaine Tyler May’s “domestic containment”) all but crumbled.[7] For their part, nonwhite activists—especially those in the African American freedom movement—sought to make childhood “a racially inclusive category.” From the Emmett Till lynching to the violence visited upon “Project C” protesters in 1963 Birmingham, youth-centered images “brought sympathy and a measure of support for the black freedom struggle at a time when ideals about home and family, parents and children, strongly influenced the nation’s political culture.”[8]

The “Culture War Kid”
As the New Deal consensus gradually disintegrated in the late twentieth century—in part because of the sociocultural tumult discussed above—the idealized child, made in the image of the most privileged Americans, ostensibly came under assault by a spate of “moral threats.”[9] These perceived dangers derived from midcentury liberationism and the loss of parental and institutional control that accompanied it. Concerns about pornography, child kidnapping, child sexual abuse, drugs, alcohol, explicit media content, and other moral threats gave rise to new images and technologies intended to shore up parental authority, safeguard children, and punish predators.[10] We see evidence of this in the proliferation of “endangered child” images in the 1980s child safety panic, as well as the enshrinement of child-victims’ names in draconian legislation that expanded the carceral state in the 1990s and 2000s. When dairies began placing pictures of missing children on their products in the fall of 1984, they conveyed the message of endangered childhood in an arresting and sensationalist manner. (The milk carton program was short-lived, but the trope lives on.[11]) Daunting federal instruments—such as the 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act; the 1994 federal “three strikes, and you’re out” provision; Megan’s Law of 1996; the 2003 Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act; and 2006’s Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act—have used the names and faces of child-victims to incarcerate and monitor those who might harm juveniles.

One striking recent political manipulation of the “culture war kid” has emerged in the context of so-called bathroom bills passed in Houston, Texas; North Carolina; and elsewhere. Such laws purport to protect women and children from predation by perverts in public washrooms.

In actuality, though, these measures have seized upon transphobia to repeal existing protections for LGBTQ individuals.[12] Activists in Houston ginned up support for the city’s bathroom bill through a graphic commercial depicting the fictionalized sexual assault of a young girl. This sort of imagery preys upon public fears about “stranger danger” toward children; about the assumed sexual depravity of transgender individuals; and about sexual permissiveness and national decline, more generally.

Through these short analyses, we see the multifarious ways in which Americans have configured children and youth—and the threats presumably confronting them—across the long twentieth century. Again, the three historical phases posited above, while reductive, invite further consideration of the politicization of youth in the U.S. context and beyond.

[1] The three books surveying adoption are Laura Briggs, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012); Eleana Kim, Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010); Margaret Jacobs, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014). The two books on the Cold War politics of childhood are Anita Casavantes Bradford, The Revolution is for the Children: The Politics of Childhood in Havana and Miami, 1959–1962 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Margaret Peacock, Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
[2] Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), 3. See also Anne Higonnet, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998).
[3] Robert B. Westbrook, “Fighting for the American Family: Private Interests and Political Obligation in World War II,” in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 194–221.
[4] For children as political emblems of a collective future, see Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
[5] Briggs, Somebody’s Children, 135, 143, 145; Peacock, Innocent Weapons.
[6] Briggs, Somebody’s Children, 140.
[7] Peacock, Innocent Weapons; Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
[8] Rebecca de Schweinitz, If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 4.
[9] For “moral threats,” see Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since 1960 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012).
[10] Timothy Cole, “‘Old Enough to Live’: Age, Alcohol, and Adulthood in the United States, 1970–1984,” in Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present, ed. Corinne T. Field and Nicholas L. Syrett (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 237–58.
[11] Annie Brown and Roman Mars, “Milk Carton Kids,” 99 Percent Invisible, Public Radio Exchange, Sept. 15, 2015, http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/milk-carton-kids.
[12] For a fine historically rooted critique of such bathroom bills, see Gillian Frank, “Stalling Civil Rights: Conservative Sexual Thought Has Been in the Toilet since the 1940s,” Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality, Nov. 9, 2015, http://notchesblog.com/2015/11/09/stalling-civil-rights.