The U.S. Embassy National American Studies Seminar, also known as “Fachleiter Conference” for more than three decades, which took place at the Gustav-Stresemann Institute in Bonn in the spring of 2009, tried to explore new angles by combining both urban studies and youth culture. It did not, and could not, succeed in providing a comprehensive look at the subject, but it offered fascinating material for reflection and discussion.
The conference concentrated first on the contemporary city which is reflected in Bill Flood’s analysis of Portland’s current “coffee house,” young entrepreneurial food and music scene, and Murray Forman’s discussion of hip-hop culture in the Obama era. Both are contributing to a vibrant and community-oriented youth culture. Yet there was also a look back at how youth culture is represented in youth-oriented films set in L.A. in the 1990s, and there was time for reflection when writer Howard Wolfe took us back to the New York City in the mid 20th century through personal memoir. What was it like to be young in the Big Apple then?
Discussions in workshop settings shaped the following papers. While they are not teaching guidelines, they provide background information and specific views to broaden the discussion of urban settings and youth culture, go beyond the stereotypical discussion of violence and decay and stress the richness of urban culture in its bright and darker colors.
Bill Flood contributes the view of an academic and a practitioner. He has been working as a Community Development Consultant for more than 20 years and is an instructor at the Arts and Administration Program at the University of Oregon. The conference inspired him to explore what makes the city of Portland an attractive place for young people, students, professionals and families. He concludes that city culture is something that can be shaped by government; but it is certainly profoundly influenced by the community itself.
In his paper “Conscious Hip-Hop, Change, and the Obama Era,” Murray Forman, who teaches in the Department of Communication at Northeastern University in Boston, introduces hip-hop culture as a way of life and as such as a phenomenon that fundamentally influences community life and youth culture beyond local, national, racial and economic boundaries. He detects a new phase in hip-hop culture, one that shapes cultural politics in the United States and finds its expression in a redefinition of the “discourse around race, culture, and identity” and ultimately in the election of President Obama. Forman concentrates on conscious rap as a form of expression available to youth in America to communicate their socio-cultural perspectives and practices. He also provides the necessary framework for teachers to work with when entering a territory with which their students might be more familiar when it comes to music, dress and language codes.
David E. James, who teaches at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and his colleague Marika Piday-Warren also take race as a starting point to discuss “Race and Place: Hollywood’s Vision of Urban Youth in Los Angeles Film.” Youth-oriented films, which experienced a revival in the 1990s, reflect in their selection the territory defined by race in the city of Los Angeles, a “polynucleated and decentered megalopolis.” In addition to experiencing the very spatiality of L.A., young people also grow up with the constant fictionalization of youth culture through the media. Youth-oriented films have changed with the civil rights movement since the 1970s in that they reflect ethnicity, yet ethnic groups are not represented equally even in the films of the 1990s.
Generational history imprints itself, to say nothing of longer increments of time, upon the individual; whether they are minor or major forces in the world through which they move, people write their signatures micro- or macro-scopically on the scrolls and walls of the “cities” in which they live. In this sense, we all become in the fullness of time, as Emerson puts it, “representative” women and men.
(Wolf, ASJ 54, passim)
Howard Wolf, distinguished writer, Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow at State University of New York at Buffalo, adds a very personal approach to the topic of “Growing Up in the American City.” Yet, at the same time, he attempts to speak for his generation, the young Americans born in the late 30s whose childhood was spent in the shadow of the war which took away their teachers and got them to admire their Hollywood heroes like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. These young adults came of age in a prosperous time, the fifties. Wolfe, “a son of the Bronx and Manhattan at birth,” developed an early attraction to European cultures, a longing to go abroad, yet it was New York, not Paris, that became the center of contemporary culture, ranging from literature to music, from dance to painting. Wolfe effectively captures “this togetherness, with a feeling of suburban and corporate solidarity towards a promised land in which the American dream (whatever it was) would be fulfilled” and makes us realize how rewarding it is to take this peek at youth culture through life writing and with the help of a “generational memoirist.”
Urban movements, urban planning, the ethnic roots of hip-hop culture and its enormous impact on American as well as global culture, the influence and limitations of youth-oriented American film and the attractiveness of American literature and culture reflecting the troubles of growing up in the late 20th century all come together in a mosaic of impressions and analyses. The picture is not complete, but so is youth culture: ever evolving.
I would like to thank all contributors to this edition of the American Studies Journal, among them first of all the faculty who extended the life of the conference by faithfully writing their papers, but also copy-editor Andreas Hübner and assistant editor Carsten Hummel who made the publication possible in its current form. It has been a privilege working with all of them.
Dr. Martina Kohl, Berlin, May 2010
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