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Going Meta With “The Americans” and “The Day After”

This week The Americans, the F/X television show about two KGB spies posing undercover as suburban American parents in the early 1980s, reminded us that national anxiety about a possible nuclear holocaust was at a peak in the fall of 1983. Two families are shown watching the controversial made-for-TV movie The Day After, a film that explored the gruesome after effects of a nuclear armageddon in the United States. A conventional historical narrative of Cold War anxiety often focuses on Americans’ general nervousness about the possibility of nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, this is one my favorite parts of the U.S. History survey to teach. I look forward to showing my students The Atomic Cafe with its pastiche of clips from Cold War newsreels, Army instructional films, nightly news broadcasts, advertisements, and cartoons.(click here to view)

Bert the Turtle advises children to protect themselves from a nuclear blast.

Bert the Turtle advises children to protect themselves from a nuclear blast.

The Atomic Cafe is very adept at using black humor to highlight the extreme paranoia Americans felt about Communism and atomic energy, as well demonstrating the preposterous claims made by the Atomic Energy Commission and the military that we could survive a nuclear attack with well-thought out preparation. Students giggle when they see children in the 1951 Federal Civil Defense film practicing Bert the Turtle’s instruction to “duck and cover” before the atomic bomb hits.They laugh in disbelief when they hear the U.S. military instructor give specious information to soldiers participating in a 1957 nuclear detonation test at Camp Desert Rock.

One of a set of nuclear detonation tests in Nevada that was code-named Desert Rock.

One of several nuclear detonation tests in Nevada code-named Desert Rock.

“You are here to participate in an atomic maneuver. This is not a haphazard maneuver,” the instructor says. “Careful planning for it started months back. Watched from a safe distance, this explosion is one of the most beautiful sights seen by man. You’re probably saying, ‘So it’s beautiful. What makes it so dangerous?’ Basically, there are only three things to think about: blast, heat, and radiation. Radiation. This is the one new effect obtained by the use of an atomic weapon. Truthfully, it’s the least important of the three effects as far as the soldier on the ground is concerned…The radiation level may be high, but if you follow orders you’ll be moved out in time to avoid sickness. Finally, if you receive enough gamma radiation to cause sterility or severe sickness, you’ll be killed by blast, flying debris, or heat anyway. Well, that’s the story. Don’t worry about yourselves. As far as the test is concerned, you’ll be fine.” Students often ask me afterward, “how could people be so ignorant?”

The notion that we could survive an atomic blast with “duck and cover,” or safely watch a nuclear detonation up close believing that radiation was the least of our concern because the force of the atomic blast would kill us first, certainly feels silly. However it is no accident that production on The Atomic Cafe began in 1977 and the film was released in 1982. During the early 1980s the Cold War escalated under President Ronald Reagan’s watch. Reagan relied heavily on bellicose rhetoric (deeming the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”) and talked endlessly about stockpiling nuclear weapons. As I explain to my students, The Atomic Cafe can also be read as an anti-war critique of Reagan’s Cold War mentality in the careful way it uses humor to point out the absurdity of the arms race. The antinuclear movement accelerated in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident at a nuclear power plant in 1979, and in the face of Reagan’s hyperbolic and aggressive language toward the Soviet Union it grew stronger still.

The Jennings and Beeman families watch The Day After in the ninth episode of season 4 of The Americans.

The Jennings and Beeman families watch The Day After in season 4 of The Americans.

One year after The Atomic Cafe appeared in theaters, The Day After played to 100 million Americans sitting at home in front of their television sets. It follows the experience of several people from Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union turns hot and leads to a nuclear holocaust. The latest episode of The Americans “The Day After” taps into the wellspring of fear the film generated following its premiere on November 20, 1983. Undercover KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings watch the movie with their American-born children Paige and Henry, as well as their next door neighbor Stan Beeman, the FBI agent, and his son. 15-year old Paige struggles with profound unease and depression after seeing the movie and asks her father “Do you really think it’s all gonna end like that?” Her burden is exacerbated by the fact that she now knows her parents are Soviet spies and key players in the Cold War. Like the character Paige, I was 15 years old when I watched The Day After with my family and I distinctly remember feeling nervous too.

Cover of Newsweek magazine, November 21, 1983.

Cover of Newsweek, November 21, 1983.

Frankly, this movie really scared the #$%& out of me and my siblings as well as our friends and neighbors. Moments before the nuclear explosion, the emergency broadcast system issues that familiar yet creepy two-tone screeching sound over the radio. We see scores of people pulling over their cars to wait in line at a payphone and make calls to loved ones. People practically riot in the grocery store, grabbing as much food as they can. A young boy is seen watching television and hears the newscaster report to viewers “a nuclear bomb of undetermined strength has already hit regional NATO military headquarters.” Men at the SAC Airborne Command Post over Kansas, after verifying keys and authentication papers, send out missiles loaded with nuclear bombs from nearby silos. People in the area stand silently and watch the missiles drive higher into the sky. A father instructs his two daughters to seek shelter in the basement as he heads upstairs to fetch his wife who is making the bed, as if nothing is wrong. He physically drags her down the stairs as she begins wailing. Several military men on duty debate whether to stay at their post or break orders and head to the secured underground bunker. “Can you believe it?” one airman says. “They’ve really gone and done it…They pushed all the buttons.” Another responds, “You know what this means don’t you? Either we fired first and they’re gonna try to hit what’s left or they fired first and we just got our missiles out of the ground in time. Either way we’re going to get hit.” Crowds of panicked people are shown running through the streets as the sirens go off. Drivers are honking their horns relentlessly, and automobiles are crashing. The filmmakers draw out the time preceding the blast when people are aware that the bombs are on their way in the most painful way possible; it lasts a full 17 minutes.

Mushroom cloud in "The Day After" (1983)

Mushroom cloud in The Day After (1983)

Suddenly the camera moves to the sky and then pans further back in brief short spurts until the bomb finally explodes in a bright cloud of light. A large orange mushroom cloud appears on the horizon. A second bomb explodes next to it. Various people in Lawrence and Kansas City, including a couple getting married in a church and clusters of school children, are instantly vaporized; groups are shown in brief flashing moments, their skeletons glowing against the orange background of the outline of their bodies before they disappear. A young child is flash-blinded after viewing the bomb burst in the sky. Walls of fire suddenly blow people away and buildings collapse. Footage from atomic testing in the 1950s is interspersed with the film’s special effects creating a seamless visual web of nuclear destruction. Once the nuclear bombs hit, the movie continues without commercial breaks. Families in the film are shown struggling with immense loss of life and property.The city’s infrastructure is destroyed, people are living in shanty towns, and large numbers of the injured are gathered in buildings with no medical care available. Many suffer from radiation poisoning. Some of the characters’ hair falls out and their skin peels off. A few succumb to their injuries and die. The day after the movie premiered, Newsweek issued a cover with a tagline asking: “Public Service or Propaganda? How Will It Affect Children?” The magazine noted that “what distinguishes ‘The Day After’ from every previous treatment of nuclear war is that it forces us to graphically experience the ground-zero agonies of ordinary people.” It is safe to say that adults wound up with nightmares too.

"TV's Nuclear Nightmare" in Newsweek magazine, November 21, 1983.

“TV’s Nuclear Nightmare” in Newsweek, November 21, 1983.

It’s hard for me to convey to my students the incredible level of anxiety this film induced in people, including myself. It was a searing experience, and I could not get it out of my head. In 1983 nuclear destruction was a real possibility in my mind. 43% of the American population watched The Day After live and ABC set up 1-800 hotlines to provide support for distraught viewers after it aired. The running time of the original version came to 4 hours, however the studio asked for significant cuts due to the graphic nature of planned scenes and footage as well as to make the film a one-night event. (click here if you would like to suffer through the entire movie). I have shown clips from The Day After to my students, including the 17 minute long lead up to the explosion and the 4 minute scene of total destruction, but it is difficult for them not to laugh or cringe at the poor special effects.

The expressions of atomic anxiety in the The Atomic Cafe now seem laughably quaint, and for my students today The Day After plays like a bad disaster movie. But we should remember that fear of a nuclear holocaust was a genuine concern. The anxiety was quite palpable.The episode of The Americans this week ended up unsettling me, also reminding me that the Cold War had different iterations. The next time I teach this time period,  I need to incorporate greater material on the antinuclear movement in the 1970s-1980s into my lecture, situating the significance of The Day After in greater context.  In the meantime, if you’re interested in listening to musicians discuss why they participated in the 1979 No Nukes Concert (The Muse Concerts for a Non Nuclear Future) at Madison Square Garden, you might head here for Part II of seven parts available on Youtube.

No nukes ticket

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Jim Crow Memorabilia on Display in 2014

Recently I discovered a house listing in Dallas, Texas accompanied by a startling photo.  You can view it here on one of the largest real estate networks on the web or on the realtor’s site here or see below. The property is described as “family owned since 1931.” The kitchen contains a gorgeous gas stove that any cook with a fondness for authentic appliances would embrace with excitement.  Yet look closely at the wall to the left of the stove.  Yes, that it is a Mammy paper towel dispenser mounted in full Jim Crow glory. Clearly it never occurred to the real estate agent, the photographer, or the “home stager” that it might be problematic to decorate a house for sale with what has been referred to as “Black Memorabilia” or “Black Americana.”

Mammy towel paper holder (on wall to the left).

Mammy towel paper dispenser (on wall to the left).

From the 1880s-1950s tens of thousands of these consumer items were marketed and sold in the United States; this included everything from cookie jars, table clothes, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, dishes, glassware, lamps, children’s toys and games, greeting cards, books, sheet music, fishing lures, lawn jockeys, and postcards. Just about any item you might think of was designed with grotesque caricatured images of African Americans. These images often portrayed black men and women as dark-skinned with exaggerated noses, lips, and teeth as well as stupid, frightened, childlike, or lazy. “Sambo,” “Mammy,” Uncle Mose,” “Uncle Remus,” “Uncle Ben,” “Rastus,” and “Zip Coon” were ubiquitous in American popular culture.  Just type any of these terms into the eBay search engine.  As of today a search for “Black Americana” pulled up 25,380 results.

If you’re interested in learning more about these collectibles a plethora of examples can be viewed at the digital Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.  The 1987 documentary Ethnic Notions also provides an excellent history of the ways in which these dehumanizing images circulated in American popular culture for decades. Produced by California Newsreel the film can be viewed on YouTube here. Alice Walker, acclaimed writer and author of The Color Purple, once described her anguished feelings about this racist memorabilia: “These caricatures and stereotypes were really intended as prisons. Prisons without the traditional bars, but prisons of image. Inside each desperately grinning ‘Sambo’ and each placid 300-pound ‘mammy’ lamp there is imprisoned a real person, someone we know. If you look at hard at the collection and don’t panic…you will begin to really see, the eyes and then the hearts of these despised relatives of ours, who have been forced to lock their true spirits away from themselves and away from us…” It is time to shelve these prisons permanently. In 1931 (and even in 2014?) I am certain these homeowners viewed this Mammy kitchen item as familiar and banal, but it has no place today even in a historical home for sale.



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More fiddling with the N-gram

I went back and did another N-gram looking at other iterations of the “southern problem.”  Again you see some significant peaks, with the exception of the phrase the “southern question” which I had already determined though my original research was the least popular one.  Of interest, Edwin L. Godwin, an Irish immigrant who founded the Nation magazine, published two articles in the Nation in 1880 entitled “The Southern Question in the Canvass” (July 29) and “The White Side of the Southern Question (August 19).  This is why I reference 1880 in the title but that rhetorical version of the Problem South did not take hold as deeply in national discussions about what was wrong with the southern states. image

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Text mining with the “southern problem” and other stand-ins

Today I was introduced to Google N-Gram, Bookworm, Voyant, Overview, and MALLET in the context of data mining and topic modeling.  We were asked to write a post about how this “distant reading” might inform future projects.  My next research project is a history of Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as Angola Prison) and frankly text mining does not seem like it would be a particularly useful tool as I begin my history on this penal system.  Much of the work we did yesterday on mapping–particularly geocoding and georectifying–strikes me as a far more useful set of tools for this new project. Angola Prison, nicknamed “the Farm,” is an 18,000 acre prison, located in Angola, Louisiana (I have seen it also listed as Tunica, Louisiana).  In 1880 Confederate Major Samuel James (who had the sole monopoly on convict leasing) purchased an 8,000 acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish and nicknamed it Angola given the location many of the slaves in that area had come from. James housed convicts in the old slave quarters on this plantation.  In 1894, the Major died and his son assumed control of his extremely profitable convict labor system. However, Progressive reformers drew attention to the horrors of the convict lease system and in the face of extreme public pressure the state abolished leasing and took control of the penal system in 1901.  At this point the Board of Control ran the Louisiana penal system (at least until 1916 when the legislature began appointing individuals to head the penitentiary system) and immediately purchased this 8,000 acre plot from the James family.  Later in 1922 the prison purchased an additional 10,000 acres of land adding to the total size at 18,000 acres.  I am looking forward to creating a series of maps and plotting out how to georectify the topography and chart how ownership and the size of the prison shifted over time.  There were also large scale floods, including in 1903, 1912, and 1922 (and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) that I imagine destroyed and/or changed the landscape of the prison in significant ways as well.

The data mining tools are far more relevant to my book The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930.  I self-identify as a cultural/intellectual historian and The Problem South explores early twentieth century ideas (discourse) about the “southern problem” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the way in which identification of southern backwardness and regional deficiencies contributed to the development of liberalism and the consolidation of the regulatory state. This peaked significantly in the first decade of the twentieth century although there was evidence of interest in the “southern problem,” “Negro problem” or “race problem” preceding and following this decade.  Often times the these phrases were substituted for one another.

My sense is that most of the text mining tools I learned about today were not available in 1999 when I began research on this book. Knowledge of these tools in the mid to late “aughts” might have amplified my conclusions although much of the research was already completed by hand in an extremely laborious fashion.  A substantial portion of my book involved using published sources, many of which are digitized now.  However at the time I read cover to cover more than 30 popular and academic magazines/journals (such as NationCentury MagazineIndependentLiterary DigestOutlookAmerican Journal of Sociology, etc.) between 1880 and 1930. My library retrieved large sets of bound volumes for me that I went through by hand (and could not take home).  This involved hours and hours of flipping through thousands of pages. I would xerox all relevant articles and then file these hard copies in labeled folders.  I also used WCat to identify any and all books published on the US South between the ends of Reconstruction through the 1930s (despite the title of my suggesting an endpoint of 1930).  I read each book from cover to cover, taking notes. In addition, I augmented my research with an array of manuscript collections of individuals and institutions involved in rehabilitating the Problem South (pouring over correspondence in particular). With more time, experience with scripting language, and learning how to fashion sophisticated algorithms for data mining and scraping (I love that term!) I wonder what else I would have discovered.

On the most basic level I can confirm that interest in the “southern problem” and “Negro problem” peaked in this period I studied. I also could have N-gramed “race problem,” “race question,” “southern question,” and “Negro question” as well.  But I started with four.  Here is what I discovered which tells me I was on the right track analytically.  Remember that although the phrase the “southern problem” seems incidental in this N-gram, there is an uptick beginning in 1885 and many times the phrase “Negro problem,” “Negro question,” “race problem,” and “race question” could stand in for the “southern problem.”

Ngram of southern problem



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Senate Resolution 39 – Apology for Lynching (2005)

In 2005 Senator Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana and George Allen (R) of Virginia sponsored a bill in the United States Senate offering an apology to the victims of lynchings and their descendants for the failure to enact anti-lynching legislation.  The bill passed by voice vote although initially 20 out of 100 senators declined to sign on as co-sponsors.  After the resolution was approved by voice vote 8 of the 20 hold-outs made the decision to add their names. Between 1882-1968 more than 200 anti-lynching bills made their way to Congress (including the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill which passed in 1921, 1922, and 1923 in the House).  Many of the students I teach in a course on the origins of the Jim Crow South are stunned to learn that 12% of US senators refused to co-sponsor this bill.  A word cloud of the resolution makes it clear that the language was not opaque.  The words “lynching,” “victims,” and “anti-lynching” particularly stand out.


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