Behind the Walls of Segregation: Playing Cowboys

Article excerpt

Anne Wortham is associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University.

"We are a nation of hero-worshippers and the cowboy can be anybody's hero. Now being a nation of hero-worshippers isn't bad, it's good. This is a big country and a hundred years ago when our people were pushing across the plains and over the Great Divide, every citizen had to have some of the good stuff cowboys are made of--if he wanted to survive."

----Clint Walker1

Since the 1950s, a growth industry of writing and video productions has challenged the view of midcentury America as simple, innocent, happy, unanimously supportive of a broad spectrum of beliefs, and--unlike the dissenting 1960s--steeped in consensus and moral complacency.2 The success of this debunking exercise is indicated by the general agreement among cultural historians and social scientists that the 1950s were a period when "great instabilities and contestations in race relations and class antagonisms" coexisted with the "many cultural representations promot[ing] a vision of unity and homogeneity."3

I was a child during the years 1945--1955, and I find that many of the scholarly and popular representations of that period do not square with what I experienced. This is especially true of those analyses based on a dichotomy between consensus and conflict, in which consensus is construed as the shared understandings of whites imposed on nonwhites, and change produced by conflict is seen as the sociopolitical prize of protesting blacks, "liberated" women, and alienated young whites. I have concluded that a major reason there is such a wide gap between my childhood experiences and the prevailing interpretations of the 1950s is that the latter construct a picture of midcentury America that is essentially the world of teenagers and adults, not that of children.

The argument of this article is that while the years 1945--1955 were indeed, as Joel Foreman describes them, a period of "struggle, resistance, instability, and transformation,"4 this was so primarily for adults and financially emancipated adolescents. The world of many smalltown children like me was indeed simple, innocent, happy, and supportive of a broad spectrum of beliefs. In the adult world the mass media market acted as an agent of cultural subversion. However, in the world of us five- to ten-year-olds, and perhaps some who were slightly older, those same mass media were an agent of a cultural consensus into which we children were assimilated by our parents, teachers, and other authority figures. The consensus I refer to is a moral and civic consensus that transcended race and characterizes the ideal America-- not the consensus informing the politics and social norms of racial, gender, and religious exclusion that governed the social institutions of the real America but a consensus that was every bit as real.

A significant agent of our socialization, but by no means the only one, was the western hero as portrayed in radio, television, movies, and comic books. By focusing on the cowboy hero's influence on my playmates and me, I want to show how incomplete representations of life in the black community during the 1950s are without the inclusion of the activities and experiences of black children who were not on the front lines of adult challenges to racial segregation. I also mean to challenge the pretense by many middle-class blacks in their fifties that they are not assimilated, and to use my own experience to disclose a small slice of our childhood assimilation that they, as antiassimilationist adults, conceal or obscure.

In their accounts of the years of their youth, antiassimilationists give the impression that every waking hour was one of unrelieved alienation and struggle against racism. But, as cultural historian Lawrence Levine argues, "the construct of the pure victim is no more convincing than the [constructs] of the pure hero or villain."5 For, as Ralph Ellison asserted, a people is "more than the sum of its brutalization. …