What is up with the popular resurgence of images from the post World War II and the pre-rights era (civil, women, LGBTQ, American Indian, etc.) in our country? The desire for this nostalgic throwback in “time”, with it’s almost total absense of people of color, and especially the absence of our violent racial history — a literal and figurative whitewashing — speaks to popular culture’s desire to perpetuate and sell Trump’s mantra of Making America Great Again. These images are everywhere. And we know is who is buying them: white Americans.
The creation, production, and reception of images is important. Images become a kind of memory. They render, imitate, interpret, and preserve. They hold, unchanged. Image making functions as the tool for the construction of identities. But, what happens when those images are created by the dominant culture? And, what happens when those images are reproduced ad nauseam?
They reinforce the “histories”, ideas, values, and perceptions of those who control cultural and political production.
Try an experiment. Google “Retro Images” and see what pops up. White America. Open items on the menu bar: Christmas, Woman, Good Morning, Diner, Party, Baby, Easter, and even Groovy and Cool, and you will immediately find images of white people. It is as if people of color never existed.
Also, what does our culture’s hunger for retro images, items, and products really mean? There seems to be a white collective belief that “everything old is cool again”. The 20th Century may have been a time of technical and medical innovations, but it was also a century of race-wars and race politics. The luxury of being white is the belief that one can step outside of the history of race and racism. The luxury of being white is to pretend to be “color-blind”: as if one does not notice the color of skin, just the content of character. The hypervisibility of white culture in retro media and images creates and promotes more than just an aesthetic. It creates and promotes a history that is absent of race, racism, and racial upheavel. It creates and promotes of culture of whiteness as normal, desirable, and American. And, most importantly, it creates and promotes the idea that anything and everything that is white is superior.
The flood of Retro games available speaks to a collective desire for the past. But, whose past?
“When I was in elementary school, this white, owning-class family was presented to me — a southern, semi-rural, poor American Black — as an opportunity to learn to read and at the same time to understand what the typical American family experience was. Of course, when I was in elementary school, I didn’t know that most white Americans were not living like that — and I think that most of my Black teachers believed in the Dick and Jane story too.”
Clarissa Sligh, Artist
Retro images that are produced and re-produced do affect our culture. It doesn’t matter if they are tongue-in-cheek spoofs , a Little Treasure or a self-help book sold at Barnes & Noble, or a design concept from Architectural Digest.
They perpetuate a false history and narrative of American culture. They create a cultural climate; they contribute to a culture of whiteness that becomes synonymous with family, love, home, style, wealth, desire, identity, and especially nation.
The celebration and glorification of all things white is what lies behind the Make America Great Again movement. To paraphrase the brilliant historican, activist, and Harvard scholar, Dr. Henry Louis Gates;
“Eight years of a Black president drove a lot of people crazy!”
Celebrating a white-washed past of a literal raceless America, and longing for a childhood world that did not exist, is much more appetizing to the general white public than joining a white nationalist group. The examination of this popular trend is uncritical and unsophisticated. Critical analysis is reduced to sentimental commentary; with the worst being; “it is dated” and the best being; “they bring back delightful memories of childhood”. Again, I ask, delightful for whom? Again I write, the “I” is always white.
(And to think I purchased my sticky notes folio at a World Market store in Phoenix.)