Making America Mid Century Modern - Again
Photo Credit: AP
With a wave of a tiny, orange, hand, history rolls back the clock to a 1955 Mid Century Modern moment. Mid Century Modern refers to a type of American furniture and home design, characterized by an angular austerity in its production of glass and concrete homes along with steel and fabric, leather and wood furnishings. While this artistic movement represents an apex of American taste and talent, its product belies reality of American life that is neither perfect or beautiful in its patriarchal oppression of race and gender. Our 2016 election cycle hinged on a return to this historic time period as an illusion of surface grace and beauty, obscuring the raw and ugly truth, branding 1955 Mid Century Modern on our electorate as a return to “great again.” For me, a gay, bi-cultural, woman of color, 1955 is not so great—then or now.
My welcome to a “great again” United States could very well be a place where I can’t vote, buy a house, or live where I want. I may lose the right to marry who I want, or have access to funds to start a business because I can’t get financed or insured. If by some miracle I can get financing for that house, I will be building a bomb shelter, filling it with duct tape, fresh water and canned food to prepare my family for a domestic terror attack. In that home I will be homeschooling my children because “separate but equal” will not be equal, it will be non-existent as affordable quality education will be a memory. I am waking up to an America that has made a pledge to put me back in the kitchen, in the fields, and at the back of a line when we’re just beginning to glimpse an America that could be, for all of us—no matter how hard some folks tried to prevent it.
I wasn’t yet born in 1955, but my mom tells of a springtime train ride from Chicago to Columbus Georgia to collect her fair-skinned, hazel-eyed, 3 year old nephew. If you didn’t know he was half Mexican, you would swear he was an adorable little white boy with black hair. My mother’s family is fair skinned with straight black hair. The hazel eyes and good looks come from his beautiful blonde mother. Mom took the train to Columbus and when she arrived at the depot, wasn’t sure about the protocol of “Whites Only” and “Coloreds Only” bathrooms. Mom didn’t know which bathroom she was supposed to use since she was not colored and not white—she is Mexican and American—she didn’t use the bathroom.
When she went to pick up her nephew and meet the family, all was fine. My aunt’s family is wonderful and sweet—and white and southern. Mom spent a few days in Columbus—she describes her time as surreal. Southern towns have a much slower pace, everyone knows everyone, so when someone new comes to town, it is news. People dropped in regularly to see the “pretty colored woman coming to take the little boy north.” Mom graciously tolerated the stares, respecting the family and culture of her surroundings. I am sure she was impeccably dressed in her Chanel suit, with peau de soie shoes and purse, dyed to match as her mother had taught her—reinforcing a pride in self, and as an armor against this strange new face of segregation she was experiencing.
1955 Chicago had its segregations but chose more subtle ways of presenting them. Chicago considered its populations of color invisible—we didn’t exist outside of our communities—not to get clerical work, schooling, loans, or become titans of industry. When we were fortunate to get to college or secretarial work downtown—it was always with the understanding that calling yourself Spanish and not Mexican would create a less challenging work place. If you worked downtown, you made sure to get back home to your cultural safe zones, on buses and trains, before dark. Safe zones maintained by voting for the Democratic status quo—Chicagoans had a vote and exercised it to make sure their community stayed separate and stayed put—garbage was collected and fires were put out. My Chicago was just as polarized, but growing up with this understanding—today the windy city is separated by class more than culture—the wealthy up North, the invisible needy further South.
The Wednesday after the 2016 election I wasn’t sure what to expect walking into a classroom of Nebraskan. I felt the weight of defeat, the churning stew of revisionist history already being written to place the blame of loss on people of color not voting—as if in the 52 years we’ve had the right to vote we’ve ever not voted for the underdog. I knew this was not a conversation I would have with these students—new to the process of elections and victory, magically-fluid, rhetoric and revisionist message. I would have to save this conversation of wondering what the heck had happened for another day, if ever.
What I didn’t know and still haven’t entirely processed is the weight of the collective betrayal of women to another woman. I don’t know how to respond to the idea that white women didn’t vote for a white woman. I thought about the hundreds of reasons the second wave women’s movement failed—and all the places it has succeeded. I knew many of its successes were defined by a transparency of freedom young women have available to them—reproductive freedom, personal credit, and unlimited opportunity in professional careers including participation in the electoral process. With these successes, even without understanding their ties to a movement, why couldn’t white women vote for a white woman?
Why could we as women of color, vote for a white woman? What failed miserably in the women’s movement was the disinterest of white feminists in building community with non-white women across race, class and educational lines. Women of color did collaborate across divides supporting and maintaining Chicana, Black and Native American Feminisms. White feminists never embraced the humanity in women of color and looked only for the benefit of volume and not the content in our existence. White women took on the issues of the day, armed with our numbers but not our voice, assuring us a place at the table, when the time came—only the time never did come. When the women’s movement was a memory, we all had to steel ourselves against Reaganomics, crack cocaine, AIDS, the prison industrial complex, welfare reform and deportation. When we next read about the history of the women’s movement—we had been erased—all the foot soldiers were gone and what remained were the theorists of color who would become the voices of Women’s Studies. Women of color were given a canon with some rock stars and an occasional bibliographic mention in anthologies as an “othering”—usually as those mysterious thousands that attended marches, conferences, spoke out locally, grass roots, community action types—always nameless and faceless.
Even though we never got a seat at the table of the white feminist movement; never got a serious acknowledgement in the historical telling of the second wave; still struggled to get, keep and maintain a place in academic settings mired in hostilities from the long list of issues as operational burdens upon walking into these spaces—we voted for a white woman. When the time came to put a woman in the White House, we were there—speaking out, singing out, wearing pantsuits and nudging our feminist partners to join the chorus of “I’m With Her.” We voted—for a highly intelligent, experienced but complex and flawed woman whose finger would push a fatal button as a last resort. We women of color voted for a white woman. White women couldn’t have a woman president—they could have a self-proclaimed success story that has guaranteed we will return to the “great” values of 1955—“again.”
Well, welcome to 1955. Where the women’s afternoon gloves, like the politics, are white. Where conversations will have a politely multi-phobic language peppered with dog whistle references to “urban” and “swamp.” Where celebrating the body will include nudity and strippers, but not reproductive freedom. Where intelligent design will outmaneuver climate change—it’s all a hoax anyway. Where voting, and elections will cost me money, require I take tests, and in general heighten the suspicions created by my brown skin. Yes, I still own a house and am measuring the backyard for the bomb shelter, clipping coupons for the sales on duct tape, bottled water and canned goods. Today, I cannot believe in miracles. I have hope, but I am relying on common sense. Today I will preserve what I know, reach out to those I know and tell them, yes I too hurt. Today, I am my mother, the colored lady, bringing home her nephew, tolerating the stares from fellow passengers that have assumed, I am his nanny.