On April 5, 2019, we had our AMCS Spring 2019 Research Colloquium where our AMCS senior majors presented on their Capstone projects. Each student was introduced by their faculty advisor or mentor and it was a full day of fascinating research, with many friends and family in attendance.
"More Than the Game of Basketball": WNBA Player-Activists in a Postfeminist Era
Struggling, financially unsustainable, unpopular, lesbian, a joke: these are just some of the attitudes towards the WNBA prevalent in our culture. Showcasing the world's greatest female basketball players, the WNBA faces frequent critique, and with a closer look, disrespect from the league's parent organization of the NBA, the media, and the public. In "More Than the Game of Basketball": WNBA Player-Activists in a Postfeminist Era, I engage in two interconnected analyses: first, I critically examine the structural forces that shape WNBA players' experience; and second, I investigate the impact of players' agency in speaking out about their position, and their ability to turn this agency into structural change. I locate digital sources on the WNBA in a postfeminist framework, theorized by Rosalind Gill as a set of cultural patterns defined by simultaneous feminist and anti-feminist ideas. A postfeminist sensibility, what Gill calls the summation of various elements that shape our discussions and treatment of women today, is defined by a narrative of female empowerment that obfuscates anti-feminist structural forces, as well as the surveillance of female bodies. I explore how this postfeminist context shapes players' agency in issues including WNBA organizational structure, marketing, player salaries, network coverage, femininity, sexuality, and social issues. While players consistently critique the WNBA organizational structure, marketing, player salaries, and network coverage, their limited power reveals the paternalistic nature of the WNBA's relationships with the NBA and the media. However, WNBA players use social media and op-eds as a platform to effectively disrupt dominant narratives around femininity and sexuality. They similarly engage in an "informal activism" that addresses social issues both within their league and beyond the context of professional sport, thus redefining what it means to be a female athlete in America. By engaging in issues within the WNBA and beyond, WNBA players exercise agency to establish themselves and their league as culturally relevant, both within the domain of professional sport and in society more broadly.
This project is a manifestation of my interests in sports and gender equality. While my work on sports is new, my interests and focuses throughout my American Culture Studies coursework have always centered around marginalized communities and their narratives. This project is an exciting intersection between social issues I care deeply about—of gender equality and representation in traditionally white, male, heterosexual spaces—and my lifelong passion for sports. Finding my voice in my personal passions within the context of American Culture Studies has been a uniquely rewarding experience. The research, writing, and analysis skills I've learned throughout my American Culture Studies experience allowed me to easily pivot my research focus my senior year to something I am truly excited about and interested in. Writing this thesis has given me an expert understanding of my topic and revealed a passion for writing that I will carry with me through my career.
Shaping the Unity Circle: How Creative Placemaking has Contributed to Gentrification in Portland, Oregon
My journey through AMCS has consisted of both academic and self-discovery. Not only have I found an academic niche and realized passions for research and creative analysis on issues such as representation, social justice, and urban space in American culture, but I have also gained a supportive and respectful community of mentors and friends. My capstone is a fitting culmination of my time as an AMCS student, particularly the inspiration for the project, which occurred during one of my most rewarding and interesting AMCS programs, the 2018 On Location course in Portland, Oregon. During the class, I studied Portland's creative economy, alternative culture and aesthetics, and gentrification by engaging with the city's history, its urban landscape, and various residents including city planners, artists, and non-profit workers. While there, I further engaged with my interest in the AMCS concentrations 20th Century America and Social Thoughts & Social Problems, fostered by unique, thought-provoking classes such as Politics of Black Criminality and Visualizing Segregation.
Throughout the past four years, I have learned important sociologic and historical research methods, visual and material analysis skills, and theories in urban studies and American inequality more broadly. These academic aspects of AMCS, as well as encouragement and assistance from my classmates and advisors, proved integral to the materialization of my thesis. The project, which I present on a digital platform, using visual, spatial, historical, and sociological methodology to explore relationships between aesthetics, gentrification, and the creative economy in Portland. The website addresses the sweeping descriptions of gentrification often seen in academic literature by providing an interactive counternarrative of a contested urban space that speaks to the local realities of the material world of segregation, as well as the importance of visual and material cultural analysis.
During the AMCS On Location course, I learned that Portland is one of the most liberal yet most racist cities in the country—a perplexing dynamic that has materialized in residents' celebration of its local, creative economy and passive attitude towards the violent consequences of gentrification. After interacting with many interesting residents, companies, artists, and neighborhoods in the city, I wanted to explore the role of local residents in furthering gentrification and displacement, particularly in such a progressive city. My thesis tells the story of "The Unity Circle," a street intersection mural in Albina, a historically black but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in northeast Portland, that creative residents crafted in attempt to foster an enhanced local culture after a violent murder occurred there. Albina's newer residents have taken ownership over the neighborhood through participation in a local creative economy, formation of local government entities, and creation of community development projects such as creative placemaking.
"The Unity Circle" exemplifies white, creative residents advancing the broader economic motives of a city in their aesthetic and cultural ownership of an urban space historically inhabited by minority, working class residents. Aesthetics play a crucial role in creative cities, where the appeal of a place is inextricably connected to the gentrifying impulses behind its creative economy. This digitalized project ultimately addresses questions of representation in the reclamation of space encouraged by creative placemakers, as well as legibility in the aesthetics of value within an urban landscape. In analyzing the intricate processes behind creative placemaking, I aim to highlight the failure of placemaking literature to implicate these local mechanisms in advancing gentrification. Additionally, academic publishing on gentrification tends to generalize it as a blameless, and inevitable process rather than reinforced by local leaders shaping their communities to adhere to their values and aesthetics.
Life is a Foodway: An Examination of Individual Agency and Discursive Obesity in America
Think: kale, quinoa, açai, matcha, coconut. In this particularly health conscious moment, many Americans are pursuing healthier, more active lifestyles. Scholars, doctors, and average consumers, alike, now condemn existing corporate foodways (namely, the fast-food industry) in favor of organic, fat-free, and healthful options. This mindset prioritizes a skinny body, with a goal of disrupting the obesity epidemic in America–an epidemic affecting nearly 40% of adults (Larned). Yet at the same time, we see emerging discourses of body diversity, reclaiming fatness, and "coming out" as fat. So my driving question is: how can these narratives coexist in the public imagination today, and how did we get here?
Since the early 2000s, Americans have conceived obesity as the antithesis of health. We have created a dichotomy whereby if you are fat you cannot be healthy, and if you are skinny you are presumed to be fit. We see this misconception across various media. In this Capstone project I conduct a close analysis of the sensationalized treatment of fat people in reality television, advertising campaigns, and the popular documentary SuperSize Me. In these mini case studies, we can find trends in how we stigmatize and shame fatness, meanwhile blaming overweight individuals as if they have complete agency in the matter. These examples which make a spectacle of fatness and use humor to convey a grotesquery of the fat body, ironically are all in the name of driving health initiatives and body-positive agendas. A content and rhetorical analysis of these cases reveals latent biases against fat people. Also through my analysis, I provide medical and discursive data to clarify falsities–to articulate health as a spectrum rather than a binary. In doing so, I evaluate how the emerging field of obesity science has countered notions of obesity as a choice and the biases against those who appear obese. Ultimately, I argue that while the insensitive narratives of the 2000s may no longer be the leading discourses, the remnants of the imagined ideal body and the blame against the fat individual still exist in new forms. I trace these narratives through to more recent reality TV shows, which hyper- commercialize fatness and often portray simple, one-dimensional fat characters.
In order to understand the complexity of the relationship between consumer, food, and the surrounding culture, I took a multidisciplinary approach drawing on both my business and liberal arts knowledge. Within my business coursework, I am extremely interested in consumer behavior and the relationship between mass corporations and the average consumer. This inspired me to want to understand how a large company like McDonald's engages and interacts with its customers. Moreover, I used a cultural and social lens (inspired by many of my American Culture Studies courses) by situating McDonald's food and McDonald's advertisements in the context of an American obesity epidemic. To explore all possible factors of agency within the epidemic, I investigated societal, socioeconomic, and medical influences. This work directly called on my knowledge from courses like Order and Change in Society (a Sociology course), Integrated Marketing Communications (a Marketing course), and Culture and Identity: Urban Ethnography in St. Louis (an AMCS fieldwork course). These courses not only inspired my Capstone topic, but also they informed my Capstone methodology. I utilized aspects of ethnography, ad analysis, and identity politics to create a holistic understanding of a cultural phenomenonone which combines my interest in consumer culture and American pop culture.
Lorraine Hansberry's Badass Women of A Raisin in the Sun
I took the Performing Arts Department's course "The American Family Drama" with Professor Henry Schvey to satisfy my capstone requirement. This was my first course on plays, but I was excited to take it because I would be able to work off of knowledge that I had from previous courses about both American culture in the twentieth century and would fit in with my interest in productions, whether they be on screen or off. The main question of the course was about what an American family drama actually was and if the definition has changed over time. When we read Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, I was struck by how different it was from the works of that time period (mid 1950s) that I was used to learning about in my film and television classes. I decided to compare what I knew and had learned to the new themes and ideas in A Raisin in the Sun to try and examine the differences between the limitations of film and theatre in regard to culture. I feel like we often compare theatre to books or film, but television is not usually talked about in comparison, specifically in the work that I have read. In order to conduct my research, I watched a number of episodes of the 1950s television show The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and also closely analyzed Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. I was also able to bring in information that I had known from both other courses and also my interests in order to be able to guide my argument more. Through my research I was able to learn about housing problems faced by African Americans in Chicago during the 1950s which is not a topic I knew much about besides from Hansberry's work, and from my findings I feel like it is information from the Civil Rights era that is incredibly important to know about.
This project is ultimately a culmination of my work in American Culture Studies because I was able to build off of all that I have learned in a new way that was very interesting to me. I have learned a lot about the twentieth century, representation, women, television, and even theatre through the major, and it felt incredibly rewarding to be able to bring it all together as I conducted research and formed my own conclusions. I have always had an interest in what has helped to shape American culture as we know it today, and looking back on the history of both theatre and television has really helped my understanding of where we started in relation to where we are now. Being that my interests lie mostly in entertainment, I came into the major wondering how much the American people actively shape their culture; it is clear from the lack of diversity and real voices on television that Americans only saw what they wanted to see, while in theatre there was more flexibility because people would opt to go and see a show. It is especially interesting to look at this argument now in 2019, and I feel like I have only scratched the surface of a very important issue.
The Authenticity of Britney Spears: Feminism, Mental Illness, and Signification in the Modern Cult of Celebrity
I took the Senior Capstone Workshop in Fall 2018. I hoped to produce a probing and unique one-semester thesis that would neatly culminate my four years as a scholar of American Culture. In my Capstone project, I wanted to explore the authenticity of Britney Spears, in the domains of feminism and mental illness within the larger modern cult of celebrity because I felt that the seriousness of pop culture within the major is often overlooked. In the classes I took as an undergrad, the emphasis seemed to be placed disproportionately on public figures, events and cultural trends unrelated to pop. Britney is the antithesis of this approach. She is as bubblegum pop as they come, and her resonance in the cultural dialectic proves her significance. I was eager to write my Capstone as a means of proving how important her story is and how telling it is about every other thing we have studied in the major. The cultural issue I explored and sought to better understand with my project was based in pop culture. In a macro sense, I asked, what do we, as a society, expect from our celebrities and popular media? How does the way we view the Spears head-shaving incident in hindsight dictate this? How does Spears' gender complicate the event and give it broader implications? How do the ways in which Spears' episode was relayed to the masses—and the way in which many people received it—paint an unsettling picture of the modern narrative of the American celebrity, particularly when it comes to the dynamics of gender and female sexuality, class discrimination, child fame, and mental health? Why has Spears never really been able to distance herself from this episode? These questions are significant because each of them confront the forces that shape American fame, and did so with a concrete clear focal point. My thesis, and argument, was that the photographs of Spears with the electric razor will eternally serve as the ultimate celebrity performance, at least in terms of media ubiquity. I added that as long as the female celebrity landscape is inundated with images of perfection, a public and shameless reveal of truth and authenticity—however it may have been intended—will remain as shocking as it is courageous. As long as flawlessness remains the celebrity standard, spectators will continue to hunger for images of humanity: reality, instability, and, if they're lucky, spectacular collapse. I also concluded that much of why Britney was so popular in the first place is because she provided a canvas upon which every American could paint their expectations and see reflections of their own ideas of self and culture. I looked mostly to primary source materials that covered Britney's head shaving for the bulk of my evidence, but I also buttressed that with targeted American culture journals and publications relating to fandom and stardom in the digital age. I think that by balancing larger and more abstract concepts about feminism, mental illness and fame with a singular event and the shockwaves it sent out, I was able to draw attention to many discrete factors. This also lends credence to the project's multidisciplinary attributes. It bridges knowledge between psychology, anthropology and American Culture studies in a new and modern way. My Capstone on Spears is a culmination of my AMCS studies because it required I leverage my analytical and research skills with my deep curiosity about the subject matter. I could never have completed this project had I approached it from an entirely academic point of view. This needed to be a topic about which I had many opinions, beliefs and interest. The Capstone is a difficult assignment. It requires consistency, organization, and an ability to incorporate the suggestions of others while maintaining true to your research and your vision. In these respects, combined with the subject matter, it is a veritable culmination of my AMCS studies.
Femininity in Contemporary Hip-Hop: Radical Normalcy and the Politics of Respectability
In this project, I argue that through the simultaneous performance and reification of her public identity, independent Chicago-native rapper Noname (b. Fatimah Warner) reclaims some of the political efficacy of the politics of respectability that has largely been abandoned by contemporary feminist discourses. Aisha Durham et. al. (2013) argue that the feminist discourse of the two decades leading up to the turn of the century, which culminated in the Million Woman March of 1997, had coalesced into what has been referred to as hip-hop feminism. Although hip-hop feminists were ultimately very divided on the representations of black women's sexuality, they maintain a position of sex-positivity for black and Latina women. Developing in part as a response to critiques of women in the porn industry, sex-positive feminism argued that freedom of sexuality was crucial to the larger projects of achieving equity for women. Therefore, the politics of respectability, which tends to discourage minority women from expressing their sexuality in the public sphere, was seen as repressive and antithetical to the mission of hip-hop feminism by scholars and activists alike. The underlying critique of respectability politics is that it shifts attention away from systemic modes of oppression in favor of regulating the behaviors of minority women.
To be clear, this is not a a project about how Noname resolves the criticisms of respectability politics. Although Noname's performance of identity does not necessarily surveil (or chastise) the behavior of black girls and women as the politics of respectability so often does, it also does not explicitly encourage or celebrate alternative representations of black femininity—at least not outside the context of hip-hop. As such, this project offers an analysis of how, as a performer within the world of hip-hop, she is able to subvert some of the expectations and limitations placed on other female rappers by mobilizing the characteristics of her identity that read as respectable and by somewhat embedding herself within the gendered scripts of the genre—at least at their points of intersection with the broader American culture. Noname's respectability performs the very essential function of normalizing her for a both a black and broader American audience. More broadly, Noname offers the opportunity to read a more traditional model of feminist discourse in a socio-political. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham originally coined the phrase, 'politics of respectability' in order to discuss the ways that black women were resisting oppression by white power and the larger American political regime during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. According to Higginbotham, in contrast to respectable white women, whom were expected to stay in the domestic sphere, respectable black women were supposed to be politically active and thus were encouraged to be in the public sphere. The respectable black woman's political advocacy was also supposed to provide a positive representation of the race. Noname provides a case study for how respectable femininity operates within a socio-cultural context that is predominantly black, masculine, and controlled by men. Like Higginbotham I use the idea to describe a strategy for navigating a social space and its politics—in this case, hip-hop music. With the focus of my project being so contemporary, what continues to surprise me is how much of the relevant scholarship has come out during just the last two or three years I have spent with the topic. At the same time, I can see just how much more work needs to be done in hip-hop studies. Doing this project has made me excited about the prospect of continuing research on the contemporary representations of black women in rap music.
A Tale of Two Spideys: Franchise Culture and Fan Mediation
My capstone's central questions began to form around the release of Avengers: Infinity War in May of 2018. Like millions of other fans, I have been engaged with Marvel's meteoric rise in the movie industry, and was excited to see the newest installment on its opening weekend. At the same time, I felt a strange discomfort when thinking about the massive scale of these movies, their status as a globalized product, and the billions of dollars attached to the production and consumption of the movie. Essentially, I questioned the relationship between the time and money I have spent on these franchises, and if I actually feel authentically engaged with these media texts as part of my identity. As media culture trends more and more towards the dominance of large franchises owned by a select few companies, individuals will have to ask new questions about how they engage with media in an industry with consolidated or even monopolistic power.
From his origins in the 1960's as the first popular teenage superhero, Spider-Man has gone on to become Marvel's most important character who has appeared in comics, films, games, toys, clothing, advertisements, and general consumer goods like underwear or snack foods. When viewed at a large scale, Spider-Man's status as a corporate brand becomes apparent, as his likeness and history are used to sell a wide variety of products. However, his popularity does not necessarily exist in a company-created vacuum. Fans of Spider-Man throughout the years have latched onto the character's exciting stories, unique perspective, and cheeky comedy in a number of ways, and no single fan has accessed Spider-Man's vast archive of media texts in the exact same way. There is no definitive version of Spider-Man created by Marvel, and there is no definitive version of Spider-Man accepted by all fans, creating a space for a consistent mediation between consumers and producers. For all these reasons and more, I chose to use Spider-Man as a case study for my Capstone.
In my project, I explored Spider-Man as a media franchise to understand how franchises act as both popular and mass culture; they are simultaneously forced upon and called for by consumers. Ultimately, I argue that consumers have the power to shape Spider-Man's image, and I called attention to this possibility and process by comparing the production, content, and discourse around the two most recent Spider-Man movies: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. I contextualized these films in the history of Marvel properties in film, as well as Spider-Man's narrative history, to understand how the relationship between consumer and producer perception of a brand can lead to a dynamic media franchise which at times feels manipulative of consumer interests, and at other times feels as if it provides exactly what consumers want.
This capstone exists as a culmination of all of my studies and interests in the AMCS program. From a young age, I have been fascinated by comics and the comics industry, and in today's superhero-dominated moment, I felt the need to examine such a strong cultural force. Using the skills I have developed in the major, I was able to critically analyze something I had only casually thought of before. My project was also informed by the specific multidisciplinary coursework I completed, as I have taken many classes in Film and Media Studies. In these courses, I developed an interest for media analysis, especially in the context of broad cultural and economic trends.
"Queering" Suburbia: Reimagining the Built Environment to Design Inclusive Communities
My capstone project examines the mechanisms through which suburbia reinforces heteronormativity, with the goal of posing my own counter-interpretation of a "queer suburbia". Through text and corresponding architectural drawings, in dialogue with one another, I utilized queer theory and visual analysis to construct an argument that supports the widespread "queering" of domestic spaces. Grounding my research in a site-specific case study, I examined suburbia's continued perpetuation of heteronormativity. I focused my analysis on New Town at St. Charles, a suburban housing development in St. Charles county (constructed in 2004) designed on the principles of New Urbanism. Using charter maps, architectural plans, diagrams, photos, and other visual aids, I highlighted design decisions that foster the surveillance, suppression, and performance of identity within the community. Throughout the text, I interweave three speculations about how to "queer" pre-existing spaces: the first speculation is a spatial speculation considering how the community's layout could be rearranged to foster "queer" utopia; the second speculation is a stylistic speculation, positing ways to aesthetically modify the existing built environment so that it subverts the hegemonic histories and systems it currently bolsters; the third speculation explores queerness at the scale of an individual New Town dwelling, reimagining ways to renovate the space so that it responds flexibly and adaptively to ever-changing family structures and identities. Together, these pieces produce a narrative that cohesively travels between the past, present, and future to emphasize the intrinsic relationship between heteronormativity and the built environment.
The topic for this project was spawned at the nexus of my interests in American Culture Studies (AMCS), Women/Gender/Sexuality Studies (WGSS), and architecture. AMCS heightened my comfortability with visual and cultural analysis and WGSS acclimated me to queer theory. I was then able to utilize those skill sets and apply them to an examination of the built environment, an area of study I grew increasingly familiar with while studying architecture. My interest in examining suburbia, specifically, developed in college while studying the midcentury social and economic policies that motivated white flight and the proliferation of suburbia across the United States in the 1950s. Those policies in conjunction with the rebirth of social stringency guided the construction of the nuclear family and traditional American values, creating a cultural landscape primed for conformity that rejected difference. The way the built environment reflects and reinforces that rejection of non-normativity (resulting in the reproduction of hegemonic social systems) is what I probed in this project.
Designing the Public: Policy, Architecture, and the Power of Space in American Public Housing, An examination of Pruitt-Igoe and the Trumbull Park Homes
My thesis examines two Midwestern examples of federally subsidized public housing projects to demonstrate the ways in which federal and local policies were principle influences on the architectural design and spatial layout of the housing complexes. The two cases I am examining are Pruitt-Igoe, a St. Louis housing project completed in 1956 and subsequently demolished in 1972, and Trumbull Park, a Chicago housing project completed in 1938 that still operates today. What I aim to contribute to existing scholarship on the plights and successes of public housing in the United States is an understanding of the ways in which the policies implemented in public housing at federal and local levels had material effects on the ways that the complexes were designed, and ultimately their long-term operational success. I examine the ways that the design of the complexes, as influenced by the racist and classist policies of the mid-20th century, elicited certain behaviors on the part of the residents that influenced the long-term success or failure of the housing projects. I chose these two examples because they were built at different times, for different groups of people (Pruitt-Igoe was built as an internally segregated project, Trumbull Park was originally built as an all-white project), and they demonstrate the differences in the ways that policy influenced the physical design of housing projects based on the demographics of their intended residents. I hope to bridge the gap between theories claiming that either design or public policy is to blame for the failure of housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe by demonstrating the ways that they are not only connected, but that they also have a material effect on the tenant behavior in, and the long term outcomes of, the projects.
My approach to this project in terms of methodology was to root my research primarily in archival materials (mainly policy reports, Housing Authority papers, tenant testimonies, etc.), and then bolster the evidence found in the archives with both secondary scholarship on public housing policy and design, as well as social theories centered around human interaction with and within space. One particularly challenging part of my methodology was the lack of digitized archival material on the Trumbull Park Homes. As a result, I had to do my best to locate material that looked promising in archives around Chicago and travel there to study the material. It was a very formative research experience that contributed a lot to both my project and my intellectual growth. The question of the power of space is central to my argument, and without a multidisciplinary approach to my research (that is, both archival/strictly historical research and more abstract cultural theory analysis) that question would not have been able to be probed adequately or exhaustively.
This project is representative of a culmination of my studies in AMCS both because public housing has been a central theme of my own work since my sophomore year, and because the multidisciplinary nature of my research and analysis would have only been able to exist within an AMCS thesis framework. American public housing has fascinated me endlessly, and I found myself coming back to it time and time again in both AMCS and the History department. I see public housing as arguably the most important public issue in the United States, as it underpins a plethora of other civil rights issues, from voting rights to welfare regulations to residential segregation. To be able to examine and explore these two case studies so exhaustively through this thesis has been the most enriching and fulfilling intellectual experience of my life. As it comes to a close, I feel that I was able to spend my last year probing the issues I find most interesting and pressing to our country's civil rights agenda.
A Call to Action for Disability Studies: Speaking Chronic Illness as Disability and Grappling with Undesirability and Illegibility
For my American Culture Studies thesis, under the guidance and mentorship of Drs. Jami Ake and Cynthia Barounis, I explored why chronic illness has been historically under-examined in the field of disability studies. Chronic illness is an often nonvisible, or sometimes visible, form of disability marked by frequently debilitating symptoms. Disability studies, though a radical academic field focused on destabilizing norms and toppling inaccessible social structures, has given insufficient attention to chronic illness as a source of important teachings for the discipline and broader disability justice movement. The discipline has historically focused on the positive aspects of disability, in response to widespread ableism that portrays disability as a tragedy "worse than death," and has developed theories and arguments that most readily apply to visible disabilities. At odds with these approaches, chronically ill people experience distinctly undesirable, debilitating symptoms and are not necessarily subject to the same abled gaze and stereotypes as more visibly disabled people. For example, fundamental disciplinary arguments that disabled people are desexualized and degendered do not necessarily resonate with experiences of nonvisible or sometimes visible chronic illness.
Consequently, though not intentionally, chronic illness has been largely relegated to the periphery of the discipline of disability studies. In not developing theories surrounding the lived experience of chronic illness, disability studies has historically neglected to contest dominant, mainstream (mis-)perceptions of chronic illness and to give chronically ill people the tools with which to do so. Crucially, recent disability studies interventions, including by chronically ill scholars, like the cripistemologies turn and debility turn represent shifts in disability studies discourses in which chronic illness is shown to be missing from the canon and theories surrounding chronic illness are developed, such as Alison Kafer's political/relational model.
I argue that three dimensions of the experience of chronic illness account for its under-examination and re-marginalization in disability studies: the actual, undesirable symptoms associated with chronic illness, namely pain and fatigue; the challenge of expressing these symptoms and their corresponding illegibility; and the assumption by scholars, as a result of Elaine Scarry's authoritative The Body in Pain, that symptoms of physical pain and fatigue are inherently unspeakable and unknowable. Through close readings of Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals, Sonya Huber's Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and my own slam poetry, I argue that pain is not unspeakable; it has been effectively translated into language in non-academic, fragmentary forms like essays, poems, journal entries, and even Tweets.
I thus put scholarly essays into conversation with literary texts and Twitter threads, and disability studies scholarship into conversation with literary analysis developed through my English major, for a multidisciplinary and multimedia project. I assert that nuanced discourses surrounding the lived experience of chronic illness exist but that, rather than flowing from academia into popular culture, they emerge from chronically people's everyday realities as they are articulated by and for us on Twitter, YouTube, and in non-academic forms of writing. With a constant eye to the visceral, bodily realities of chronic illness, I have endeavored to paint a more complete portrait of the actual lived experience of chronic illness.
My thesis highlights the disability community, to which I belong. This community is a cultural group in the U.S. that I have studied through my fieldwork—an internship at the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice (DRS/DOJ) in D.C.—and courses like Images of Disability. My thesis brings together my personal commitment to disability justice and my AMCS Social Thought and Social Problems concentration. Through my concentration, and through the AMCS major which allows tremendous intellectual freedom, I have learned about a range of social issues and minority groups, both those to which I do and do not belong, to prepare myself to be a civic-minded adult after graduation and, later, a civil rights attorney. My thesis has given me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge about a population that is not often thought of as an American cultural group but that in fact has a rich culture and history.
AMCS, more than any other program of study I have undertaken, has taught me to approach cultural artifacts and non-scholarly sources as significant and illuminating. I was able to develop a project surrounding the silences that exist in an academic discourse only because AMCS has empowered me to see Tweets, YouTube videos, Netflix episodes, and more as meaningful texts rather than as extraneous or peripheral to academic concerns. Ultimately, my project is a culmination of my studies in AMCS, which include the classes I have taken and the academic sensibilities I have developed.
J.D. and Ethel Shelley: The black family that made a home where 'colored can't live'
In my American Culture Studies courses, the theme of racial erasure was ubiquitous – from Frederick Douglass's revenant theory that the technology of photography could restore black dignity and historical presence to the gap in memory of the East St. Louis massacre of blacks, uncommemorated for 90 years.
The Shelley family behind the landmark Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer is a chimera: Their name is known by generations of law students because their 1948 case outlawed race restrictive real estate covenants and became the legal road map for Civil Rights reforms. Their case is celebrated in countless textbooks and scholarly articles, but their personal story is not celebrated, nor well examined. Rather, it is a footnote short-handing J.D. and Ethel Shelley's social and economic rise from Jim Crow Mississippi to home ownership in St. Louis as an undifferentiated drop in the flood of the Great Migration.
My aim is to rediscover this family. My pursuit involves historical research and journalistic shoe leather that bring into focus the Shelleys' multidimensional humanity that otherwise has been flattened by the forces of the grand Civil Rights agenda (their attorney and the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall fought viciously over control of their case) and the local coterie of educated, middle-class blacks who steered the case and overshadowed the family's humble presence. Even the one book that purports to tell their story – and is sold as such by the Missouri History Museum – is a self-published, novelized memoir not of the Shelleys but of a black schoolteacher who helped with their case.
Having only a few shards of primary sources on the Shelleys in their own words, I let my journalism instincts take over, and I found myself in the ruins of a sawmill company camp in buggy, snaky rural Mississippi where the Census shows the Shelleys lived near Starkville in the 1930s. My host was the elderly, well-armed, white owner of the sawmill site who drove me around in his pickup, trying to set this northerner straight on the "truth" of Mississippi history. I also interviewed a black Starkville man the age of the Shelleys' children who described how his lungs relaxed when traveling by train out of Mississippi to St. Louis in the 1940s.
My search for the covenant, itself, took me to the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds where I found it hidden, unindexed, in loopy script in a crumbling book; I dug through boxes fat with court testimony, lynching clippings from the Shelleys' home town, photos and stray news articles in special collections here at Wash U and UMSL, at the Missouri History Museum Library, at the humble Starkville Public Library, at the wood-paneled Mississippi State University Library, and the monumental granite Mississippi State Archives. I also spent a day at the gut-wrenching Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, where visitors hold each other in tears amid vast rows of hanging steel "monuments" that symbolize more than 4,400 lynchings between 1877 and 1950.
The broad outline of the Shelleys' epic journey is hardly unique in Great Migration lore, but the family's bead on their true north is a stunning character portrait. They did this despite poverty, the threat of lynching over a Good Samaritan gesture by Mr. Shelley, and the betrayals of American democracy and their own black community. In reimagining the story of their physical and social mobility – their post-slavery rags to modest riches of the American dream of a home of their own – I hope to bring their dignity back in focus.