Sample text for American skin : pop culture, big business, and the end of white America / Leon E. Wynter.

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Counter Introduction

When I was in junior high school, you could tell the color of another boy's skin by looking at his feet. If he wore sneakers, and they were U.S. Keds or, god forbid, one of the off-label brands lumped into the category called "skips," you could be pretty sure he was white. If you saw Converse All-Stars on his feet, you could bet he was one of the 10 percent or so of kids at Frank D. Whelan Junior High in the north Bronx that was Negro or one of the tiny handful of Puerto Ricans.

It was 1965, and neither the term black nor Hispanic had been officially adopted. If the boy wore shoes like the kind his father wore to the office you could bet the kid was white, probably Jewish or one of the few Anglo-Saxon Protestants, for whom we had no group names. If the shoes were pointy, with narrow "Cuban" heels and skinny laces, then the kid could very well be Italian or Puerto Rican, although the jokes about the effectiveness of needle-nosed shoes for killing roaches in the corners only fell on the kids with Spanish last names. White boys wore wool hats with flaps on them like Vermont dairy farmers, but only outdoors and in winter. Those in the black in-crowd required a style of round brimmed cap, to be worn year-round, in the building if they could get away with it, and always at the approved rakish angle and attitude. My black friends, aping the styles modeled by the kids from the southern Bronx and Harlem, swore by reptile-skin shoes. "Snakes" and "Lizards" and "Gators" weren't just in the nearby Bronx Zoo, they were authentic "street" brand names that, when possessed, certified authenticity, hipness, and, most important, unquestioned membership in the group identity.

It was the year Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem. While most of us Negro boys in the north Bronx didn't know what a Black Muslim was, Muhammad Ali's prowess and lippy pride was already on our radar screens. Not that we'd ever seen the Olympic gold medalist on a Wheaties box. Ali wasn't even endorsing roach spray in the ghetto yet, but wherever he was we just knew he was wearing "Gators" and not taking any stuff from white people. JHS 135 was in a very white neighborhood that we entered via public transportation every morning and exited promptly at three. The segregation cohered and intensified an identity found in a shared sense of music, fashion, and style that wasn't necessary in their own black neighborhoods. It was how they knew themselves.

Black kids rooted for the small handful of black major-league sports stars whenever they could. If asked, they would only admit to listening to the "dollar-a-holler" black radio stations at the top of the AM dial. Black girls swore they were Diana Ross or Mary Wells, while black boys aped the moves of "Mr. Dynamite," Jackie Wilson, or James Brown. White kids thought there were no stations in New York besides WABC (home of the "All Americans") or WMCA (the "Good Guys"), and by 1965 there were no groups for white adolescents besides the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. To them, Stevie Wonder was just the blind kid who sang a number in one of the beach-blanket movies, a novelty act. To black kids, the name Stevie Wonder was always mentioned with "genius," the only one of their own widely regarded as such. White boys knew of Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, but there were no gods before white stars like Mickey Mantle. Joe Pepitone, an Italian-American Yankee, was a particular favorite. In basketball every white boy was John Havlicek or Jerry West. And cheerleading on the sidelines, every white girl in JHS 135 was Annette Funicello, the original Italian-American princess, or Sandra Dee. Even the Jewish girls.

It was 1965 and there was no line in most people's minds between the color of one's skin and the content of one's closet. The line was between white and nonwhite and it was crossed at the great peril of losing entirely one's identity in the hyperclannish preteen prison of junior high. Group loyalty was the ultimate value, and loyalty meant conformity, especially for the nonwhite minority; you could get beaten up for deviating by as much as one wrong snap on your cap.

Of course, there was that one white boy in ninety who regularly came to school sporting Converse or lizards, or "Italian" shoes, always topped with a leather jacket, and there were those white boys and girls who sometimes tuned in to the strong black beat under the static at the top of the AM dial. There were white boys who even had one or two of the loud, plush alpaca-wool sweaters we called "blyes" in their closets, just like the most impeccably dressed black kids on the corner. They wouldn't be caught dead in a cheap ski jacket or Buster Brown shoes. Nobody, black or white, thought lightly about messing with those few street fashionable white boys. Nobody knew quite what to make of them, either. We couldn't figure out how they found their way across the line into the wrong race closet. And we couldn't figure out why.

Nobody was openly marketing those $30 sweaters and $60 shoes to the coolest white kids in and around the school. The fashion of hard-core Harlem and the emerging black and Hispanic south Bronx wasn't on display in their neighborhood stores, local newspapers, or magazines. Nobody promoted black radio in media that reached these kids. Yet somehow they found it. Black fashion, music, and style were by definition not part of the mainstream, because mainstream meant white. White kids who embraced the markers of nonwhite cultural identity opted out of the mainstream, as defined, and thus out of whiteness itself.

That, I realize today, was probably the point. Like a subset of white youth in almost every generation before them, these kids had come to understand that cultural whiteness didn't completely capture their reality. The ski jacket didn't fit like a three-quarter-length leather coat. Unlike most of their white peers, they needed what we now understand as the street credibility the nonwhite attitude and style conferred. Association with less reputable Negro role models was a small price to pay, because at some level they understood that despite their white skin, they had more in common with the black kids on the corner than a ski jacket or a corny hat could hide. Not that they were politically conscious liberals, touched by the spirit of brotherhood and civil rights flowing through college-age America in the years after the Freedom Riders and before the Summer of Love. No, these white kids with the look of streets shared something more organic with their fashion mentors than progressive political rhetoric at the putative dawn of the Age of Aquarius. Most of them were leading candidates for dropping out, drugging out, becoming cannon fodder in Vietnam, or all three, and they knew it. In our little corner of the era, they were true rebels without a cause, except perhaps survival. It was the same outlook as the black cohort they emulated.

My old junior high was and still is just across the border that divides the north Bronx from the south, with a clear sense of the edge of where whiteness ends and the ever-encroaching black and Hispanic ghetto on the other side of Bronx Park begins. From that vantage, for these white kids trapped in their own unrecognized, underachieving ghettos, society's margin was the coolest, most unassailable place to appear to be from. It's as if they saw clearly what was coming and dressed accordingly. Like so many in every generation before them, these cooler-than-whites were driven to find a cultural skin that suited them better than the model of the day imposed by their racial skin. But, unlike each of the two generations that have been identified since these white boomers were teens, they didn't have the assembled might of America's corporate giants tripping over themselves to guide, affirm, and especially serve them in their quest across the lines.

Among thirteen-year-olds today, you can no more reliably tell a boy's race by looking at his feet than you can determine his sexual orientation by knowing that he sleeps under an artist-formerly-known-as-Prince poster. In fact, as multiracial America turns the millennial corner, you can't even be sure of someone's race or ethnicity by looking at their face, much less their feet. Exactly a generation after I left JHS 135, whites and nonwhites are still mostly segregated within their neighborhoods in the Bronx. But everyone--young and old, working and upper middle class, college and high school graduates--wears the same sneakers, baseball caps, jeans, boots, and designer names. Not all exactly the same labels at the exact same time, of course, because they are now choosing from hundreds of brands and to suit dozens of shades of lifestyle options mostly unimagined at the time. But, to an extent unprecedented in my lifetime, race and ethnic group membership is no longer the primary screen for filtering decisions on what kind of pants to wear, records to buy, teams or players to root for, or where to take a vacation.

Where once the label on your shirt or jacket amounted to a racial identification, it's now just a label, a fashion. Anything that's mostly cool with one group or subgroup today can and inevitably will become cool with another, socially disparate group tomorrow, if only for a fashion minute. Where headgear amounted to a racial flag in 1965, today young and not-so-young men of all races and ethnicities not only wear the same basic hat--the ubiquitous baseball cap--they wear it at the same attitude, backwards, about half the time. The top cable music services, MTV and VH1, are deliberately not easily categorized by race, and their video playlists, in certain prime viewing hours, are hard to distinguish from the avowedly "black" cable channel, Black Entertainment Television. The "black" radio station is no longer fuzzy near the top of the dial and has at least as many white as nonwhite listeners. Where once our family shopping was segregated by the "neighborhood stores" we frequented, we now mostly shop in the same stores, elbow-to-elbow, in big box branches of regional and national chains including Kmart, PathMark, The Gap, Rite-Aid, Home Depot, and Old Navy. These stores occupy malls that, by definition, are part of no one group's sovereign territory, even when they're an island in the middle of a homogeneous residential area. When you enter a McDonald's, you're in your own neighborhood, no matter where the particular store is located.

It's taken a very long time for the malling of America to reach the New York City. We didn't get our JC Penney in the Bronx until 1996. But now that it's here, it's easy to see what has become true in most metropolitan areas: while we are still divided by race and a dozen ethnic identities in our residential neighborhoods, we're all the same color to Kmart--green--and the same nationality, American. There's been a radical shift in the place of race and ethnicity in American commercial culture since the late 1970s. Near revolutionary developments in advertising, media, marketing, technology, and global trade have in the last two decades of the twentieth century nearly obliterated walls that have stood for generations between nonwhites and the image of the American dream. The mainstream, heretofore synonymous with what is considered average for whites, is now equally defined by the preferences, presence, and perspectives of people of color. The much maligned melting pot, into which generations of European American identities are said to have dissolved, is bubbling again, but on a higher flame; this time whiteness itself is finally being dissolved into a larger identity that includes blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

On its surface, this book tells the story of how and why big business turned up that flame and a brief history of race and pop culture leading up to this watershed. But at its core, American Skin is about the revolution that higher heat on American identity is bringing about: the end of "white" America. This book begins with, and my arguments and insights ultimately rest on, one premise and guiding belief about this country: We have always been, and will ever be of one race, human, and of one culture, American. But from its beginning the legal, social, and high cultural institutions of America defined and held American identity to mean white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.

"American" quickly broadened as successive groups of non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant European immigrants were obliged to fit themselves into the nation of slaveholding WASPs in order to lay claim to an American identity. They couldn't become Anglo-Saxons, nor would they convert en masse to Protestant faiths. But they did have the same general pigment and hair texture as the former Englishmen founders. To become American, the Irish and subsequent immigrant groups from Europe were allowed to become "white," though only after a period of sometimes brutal hazing that we now call assimilation. Even then, of course, they were only relatively white; absolute whiteness being reserved for the founding WASPs and their "purebred" descendants. Formerly enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and later immigrants from China and other parts of Asia were barred from assimilation into whiteness, and hence into a recognized share of American identity. Over time, to be sure, Native American people, including those who were indigenous to what is now Mexico, Central America, and South America, could and would enter relative American whiteness through intermixture with Euro-Americans. But no amount of mixture with whites would permit African-Americans to cross the threshold. "White" and "American" were conflated at the nation's birth for a reason: a nation being built on slavery couldn't tolerate the possibility of human property becoming just plain human.

Yet, as it turned out, no one in the young nation was as American as the Africans, free or not, because more than any of the voluntary immigrants from anywhere, they were forced to create themselves from scratch. They became the seminal, disproportionate creators of American culture because, except for the remnants of the displaced Indian societies, they were working, along with their masters, on a blank slate. The climate, topography and, significantly, economy and technology were unlike anything in the European experience. And no one, not even their masters, was as familiar with its simple pleasures and brutal truths as the Africans who would be Americans. They were excluded from whiteness, and thus from recognition as Americans, even as they led the creation of the culture. The exclusion produced the tension that has driven American popular culture from the start. Whites couldn't abide having Africans inside the definition of American, but as they kept discovering, they couldn't become truly American without them.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: United States Race relations, Popular culture United States History 20th century, Whites Race identity United States, African Americans in popular culture History, Racism United States History 20th century, Racism Economic aspects United States History 20th century, Marketing Social aspects United States History 20th century