[With work on my current book project ramping up to a fever pitch, at precisely the same time that the end of semester grading pours in—thanks, universe!—this week’s series will be particularly quick hits: each day a single American Studies insight, not necessarily earth-shattering but on my mind, courtesy of one of my classes this semester. Your insights and responses very welcome in the comments!]
Today’s insight came early in the semester with my Intro to American Studies course, as a familiar song opened up in a new way for me.
Since the first time I taught (or rather team-taught, with a colleague in History) our new Intro to American Studies course—and really since I first came up with the idea for a course focused on the 1980s—I knew that Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (1988) would be one of the multimedia texts that we’d analyze. It’s a great song, full of interesting and evocative choices and moments, and at its heart is that incredibly complex title image: the car owned by the speaker’s significant other. In the course of the song’s verses and shifting choruses, that car serves as a symbol of genuine hope and progress, a speeding vehicle toward more temporary and even “drunk”-en escape, and eventually a divisive reminder of all that has not happened for the speaker and her husband. But this time, as we talked about Chapman’s song in the context of poverty in the ‘80s, I started to recognize the more simple truth at its heart: how fully a car can serve as a reminder of our stark contemporary divisions in wealth and class.
After Katrina hit New Orleans, I remember seeing and hearing many commentators wonder why all those stranded residents hadn’t simply left the city—not recognizing how few of them could afford a car. Similarly, many Americans don’t seem to realize the central problem with the new photographic voter ID laws being passed or considered in many states: that for many millions of impoverished Americans, a driver’s license (the only common government-issued photo ID) is entirely meaningless and useless. In these and many other cases, a car is not a symbol or an image, not an American icon, but simply and crucially an important tool and resource that lies outside of the lives of many of our fellow citizens. The next time I talk with a class about Chapman’s song, I’ll try to make sure we include among our topics of conversation the idea that sometimes the literal reading of a text is one of the most powerful and significant.
Next insight tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? And I’ll ask again—insights to share?
5/9 Memory Day nominee: Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic priest and peace activist whose courageous opposition to the Vietnam War marked only the beginning of a long career of activism, protest, and poetry (and inspired a song by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams).