Americana Redux: Materializing Multiculturalism in the Postwar United States

This course investigates how individuals and groups have deployed material culture to challenge, redefine, and expand constructs of citizenship and belonging in the United States of America. Our pivot point is the American Revolution Bicentennial of 1976. This event marked the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and the onset of the Revolutionary War, culminating in the formation of the USA. Debates over the impact, meaning, and legacy of this history are longstanding and persist to this day, ranging from celebrations of selected ideals to radical critiques of their failed implementation. We will also examine earlier commemorations, such the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, and plans for America250 in 2026, announced as “the most comprehensive and inclusive celebration in our country’s history” amid the high stakes of contemporary politics. Why is the USA’s 1976 Bicentennial particularly useful for thinking about diverse expressions of object-based cultural nationalism, past and present? More so than prior commemorations, this event—and its counter-events—offered an unprecedented forum for activists reckoning with social injustice and political marginalization across national, regional, and local stages. Advocates of civil rights, Black Power, women’s and gay liberation, the American Indian and Chicano movements, and the New Left mobilized the rhetoric and symbolism of the revolutionary era to contest, redefine, and lay claim to its history. Material culture was an extraordinarily powerful medium for their practices. Yet, it has been understudied. Modes for integrating material culture, political aims, and social performance culture ranged widely. They encompassed protests, parades, and festivals; theater, film, television, and music; fashion and costuming; painting, sculpture, photography, and graphic arts; craft and design; books and magazines; advertising and consumer culture; projects by government organizations, museums, libraries, and schools; memorials; and the list goes on. These initiatives gained special momentum in the distinctive circumstances of the 1970s, including economic instability, contentious immigration debates, and widespread political disillusionment in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. The history of the postwar United States and the emergent discourse of multiculturalism—and its critics—are fundamental contexts for this course. This seminar will provide students with opportunities to engage with objects and topics of their choice. Class participation is essential; field trips may be required. 3 credits.