American Culture: Represented through Media, Then and Now Charlotte Roberts

Introduction

Can Americans stand for conformity and individuality? A closer look, through media’s perceptions, at the history of American culture sheds light on the question’s answer. In the late 1500s and early 1600s some of the first settlers established colonies in American. By the late 1700s, The Massachusetts Magazine printed an article by Judith Sargent Murray titled, “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790). Many Americans continued to analyze gender roles throughout the 1800s and by 1808, Dr. Samuel Jennings published, The Married Lady’s Companion, which addressed the role of a wife to her husband. Gender roles remained debatable throughout the 1800s, but there was more to American culture than gender.

Race took center stage in the 1900s, and in 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) emerged. With gender and race in the picture, political activists and popular media attended to a new concern—classism. By the early 1960s, “The Port Huron Statement,” a political manifesto written by the North American student activist movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), addressed social class and the status quo. Musician and songwriter, Malvina Reynolds, sang a song, “Little Boxes,” to address White America, suburbia, and conformity. In the late 1980s, Alice Dunbar-Nelson published a poem, titled “I Sit and Sew,” on the life of a Black woman in America. To consider the argument of whether or not Americans stand for conformity or individuality requires a critical eye in regards to the role of gender, race, and class throughout history.

Claim One: Analyzing Gender Roles

Gender, when defined as the state of being female or male, and questions regarding the role of gender are often seen as polarized views in American literature. Two pieces of American literature, one from 1790 and another from 1808, outline differing views on the socialization of gender. In 1790, Judith Sargent Murray wrote an essay highlighting the differences between men and women. She argues that not all minds are alike. In other words, not all men or women think in unison. Her argument is based on her daily interactions and experiences with others. She also argues that science, in regards to biology, and God play a role in speaking to the equality of the sexes. Murray goes into detail about some souls being more inferior to other souls, and this has nothing to do with the idea of gender identity. Questioning the idea of mental superiority, that at this time was believed to be true of men, Murray debunks this theory as she argues the equality of sexes in regards to a brother and a sister being given the same instructions on life; therefore, how can one gender be superior to the other?

On the contrary, in 1808, Dr. Samuel Jennings publishes The Married Lady’s Companion, which is written to address the newly married lady and her role as a wife toward her husband. Rather than focusing on equality, Dr. Jennings explains in detail the proper conduct of a wife and outlines ten main rules for wives to obey. These rules specifically address maintaining obedience, respect to one’s husband, attention to one’s husband, submission, discretion, affection, and modesty. Dr. Jennings’s argument for The Married Lady’s Companion is based on his belief that a wife will either obtain future happiness or misery. This is contingent upon the wife carrying out proper conduct toward her husband. These opposing views, represented in American literature, capture one White woman’s view of individuality, and one White man’s view of conformity.

Claim Two: A Closer Look at Race

In 1909, the NAACP, one of the nation’s oldest, largest, and most widely recognized grassroots civil rights organizations, was founded in order bring awareness to racial justice. The continuing horrific practice of lynching and the 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois were two major events that led to the call to action and formation of the NAACP. The NAACP seeks to remove barriers of racial discrimination and secure, for all people, the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments vowed to end slavery, provide equal protection of the law, and the right to vote for men of color. Throughout the early 1900s, the NAACP gave voice to marginalized people groups, specifically African Americans. In the mid 1950s, the NAACP was instrumental in the success of Brown v. the Board of Education, which was a decision to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. Brown v. the Board of Education declared separate but equal as unconstitutional. This landmark court case signifies a shift in United States history from segregation to integration. The NAACP continued active presence and involvement throughout the Civil Rights Movement and continues to fight for marginalized people groups to this day.

In 1988, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson published a poem titled “I Sit and Sew,” which provided insight into the life of a Black woman during the late 1980s. Dunbar-Nelson goes into detail about her physical, mental, and emotional state. Her hands are tired, her head weighed down, her face grim, but she must sit and sew. She thinks about the wasted fields of her ancestors, the pleading cries, and the slavery she refers to as a holocaust of hell. By recounting the history of her ancestors, Dunbar-Nelson brings to light the heavy burden and weight that never leaves her identity or mind in the late 1980s. In the last line of her poem, she calls on God and then reminds herself to sew the useless seam and the idle patch. The organization of the NAACP, and its continued presence in society represents an ongoing fight for racial justice. Furthermore, the poem by Dunbar-Nelson signifies the extent to which one Black female feels the impacts of American history.

Claim Three: Consideration of Class

In 1962, the SDS published a political manifesto known as “The Port Huron Statement.” This statement was written with the intent of being an agenda for the SDS. It is addressed directly to students living in “modest comfort, housed not in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit” (SDS, 1962, p. 3). This manifesto recaptures life for this generation, from the time of the atom bomb, their births, to where the find themselves now, in universities. Student activism from the 1950s to the 1970s is captured in the “Port Huron Statement” in reference to moving actively and directly against “racial injustices, the thread of war, violations of individual rights of conscience, and, less frequently, against economic manipulation” (SDS, 1962, p. 9).

Like “The Port Huron Statement,” “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds was written and recorded in 1962 and spoke directly to life from the 1950s to the 1970s. The song’s lyrics address American culture coming out of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Reynolds’s reference to the term “ticky-tacky” is directly related to the idea of conformity in the 1950s. Lyrics also include “pretty children,” “summer camp,” and “attending universities.” These are ideas of white suburbia and the reference to “little boxes” is indicative of the cookie-cutter houses that were popping up outside of major cities. Reynolds song is an example of how American culture directly impacted media and the arts, whereas, the “Port Huron Statement” speaks to how conformity and individuality influenced American culture and student activism.

Conclusion

Can Americans stand for conformity and individuality? It depends on the times—the decade. Gender is a factor and so is perspective. Whose lens are we using to answer the question? Are we looking through the lens of a White female, a Black male, middle-class Americans, or Americans living below the poverty line? In the late 1700s and early 1800s, we are presented with polarized views of gender, so based on our sources, a White American woman stood for individuality, whereas a White American man stood for conformity. Throughout the 1900s, African Americans call for an end to lynching, slavery, a right to vote, and individual rights in Brown v. the Board of Education. If we are looking specifically at the 1950s, and White suburbia, then White Americans stand for conformity. When considering the counterculture in the 1960s, the SDS, and student activism, then we would argue that Americans are trying to stand for something new—individual rights and freedoms; they are speaking out against conformity. These are broad sweeping generalizations based on a collection of sources, and though they may speak to the masses, they are not representative of all Americans. So, where does this leave us? Can Americans stand for conformity and individuality? Yes, they can stand for one, or the other, or both, but parameters and intersectionality help explain how conformity and individuality influenced American literature, philosophy, and the arts.

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