The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II

The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II

The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II

The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II

Synopsis

Flamboyant zoot suit culture, with its ties to fashion, jazz and swing music, jitterbug and Lindy Hop dancing, unique patterns of speech, and even risqué experimentation with gender and sexuality, captivated the country's youth in the 1940s. The Power of the Zoot is the first book to give national consideration to this famous phenomenon. Providing a new history of youth culture based on rare, in-depth interviews with former zoot-suiters, Luis Alvarez explores race, region, and the politics of culture in urban America during World War II. He argues that Mexican American and African American youths, along with many nisei and white youths, used popular culture to oppose accepted modes of youthful behavior, the dominance of white middle-class norms, and expectations from within their own communities.

Excerpt

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recalls venturing into his local New York army recruitment office during the early years of World War II. He describes entering the armed forces depot “costumed like an actor. With my wild zoot suit I wore the yellow knob-toe shoes, and I frizzled my hair up into a reddish bush of conk. I went in, skipping and tipping, and I thrust my tattered greetings at that reception desk’s white soldier— ‘Crazy-o, daddy-o, get me moving. I can’t wait to get in …’—very likely that soldier hasn’t recovered from me yet.” Shortly following this initial encounter, Malcolm was sent to the army psychiatrist, where he said, “‘Daddy-o, now you and me, we’re from up North here, so don’t you tell nobody…I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns and kill up crackers!’ That psychiatrist’s blue pencil dropped and his professional manner fell off in all directions. He stared at me as if I were a snake’s egg hatching, fumbling for his red pencil. I knew I had him …” Malcolm was not surprised when he soon received his 4-f card in the mail excusing him from the army.

Around the same time, Alfred Barela, a young Mexican American zoot suiter from Los Angeles, wrote to a municipal court judge who had “bawled him out” for disturbing the peace. In his letter, Barela claimed,

Ever since I can remember I’ve been pushed around and called names
because I’m a Mexican. I was born in this country. Like you said I should
have the same rights and privileges of other Americans…. Pretty soon I

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