The greatest love of all

Love comes in all shapes and sizes.  It comes in all colors and all forms.  Sometimes it is innocent and fresh, but other times it is controversial and dangerous.  Sometimes love has no words – it is simply feelings, scents and tastes.  Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God learned the hard way just what love is and is not. Some critics argue that the novel is a love story.  I do not disagree, but I believe that it is more a story of self-love and Janie’s journey to find inner happiness and how the men in her life challenged or encouraged her pursuit.

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Herstory

My culture has always been a complicated story.  I am the daughter of an Asian father and a white mother.  My family has always described me as a Heinz 57.  I love being what I consider quite multiracial, but at the same time, it is often hard to largely identify with just one culture. I am very proud of my Chinese culture, but at the same time, I am also very interested in my Irish, German, Swedish and English history.  Unfortunately, my father’s mother died before I was born, so all the Asian culture I know comes solely from my father, aunt and uncle.  I love having Chinese traditions like taking my shoes off before I enter my home.  On the other side of my family, my mother’s mother has always had a great impact in my life.  I have never looked at her in a particularly cultural or historical way, but during this project, I did learn that her family emigrated from Sweden and that her grandfather was poisoned by a jealous co-worker shortly after the Civil War.  One thing I have always known is that my grandmother is a very strong female.  I believe that my strength comes from a long line of strong women, and for this assignment I really wanted to focus on that.  I learned about just how important family and community are in tough times.  While my mother and grandmother are fairly traditional women who come from largely male-dominated worlds, I have seen how their own amazing spirits have made them more than just faces in the background of my family history.

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Race relations during World War II and the ensuing attacks on African Americans in the Zoot Suit Riots

The conk haircuts, the wide-brimmed hats adorned with long, flashy feathers, the shoulder pads on the jackets that extended to the knees, the baggy pants that narrowed at the bottom – all of it was a form of expression, a form of protest.  Protest against the discrepancy of fighting for freedom overseas during World War II, while not sharing in the same “white” freedom described in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States and experienced in their own country.  Zoot suiters used their bodies as a form of expression against the norms of the era.  Their consumerist lifestyles upset many and the media quickly demonized African Americans as criminals.  The rumors and negativity that surrounded the zoot suiters calumniated in the Zoot Suit Riots of Los Angeles, California in which servicemen attacked young minorities (whether they were donning the zoot suit or not).  In the media and popular opinion, the victims were made out to be the perpetrators and the sailors were seen as heroes fighting those who were considered to be distracting from the war effort.  While history has often shown the Zoot Suit Riots in a more or less racially binary way, it was actually a very multiethnic experience.  Here in lies the true significance of the zoot.  While many groups were being oppressed, they also came together to express themselves and fight that very oppression.  Zoot suits were a terrific early example of African Americans using their bodies, clothing and language as a form of civil disobedience during a time in which ethnic youth came together to share in a culture all their own.

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The Power of the Zoot

Long coats stretched below their fingertips and sometimes to their knees.  Loose fitting pants had narrow cuffs to make them look even baggier.  Shoulder pads made them look stronger.  Conk haircuts, long chains and wide-brimmed hats adorned with flashy feathers gave them swagger.  Everything about the zoot suits of the World War II era made a statement.  They made a statement about the “Double V” campaign – about the oppression of non-white youth even while many of them were fighting for fellow Americans’ freedom overseas.  They made a statement about rebellion – about fighting the status quo of hard work and supporting the war-front labor.  Mainstream America also perceived statements about violence, juvenile delinquency, laziness and utter disregard for the war effort.  While non-white youth tried to make a statement through their style of clothes, music, language and culture, they were also criminalized and made out to be deviant persons because of their leisurely, consumerist lifestyles.  This criminalization culminated after the Sleepy Lagoon Trials in the Zoot Suit Riots (particularly the ones that occurred in Los Angeles).  During this time, racialized groups – including those not even sporting the zoot style – were symbolically castrated by being beaten and de-pants by men in the military.  Ethnic women were sexualized and harassed despite the fact that many riots were spurred by rumors of Mexican and African American rape and violence against white women.  Despite these horrible incidences, non-white youth were made out to be the perpetrators, whereas the actual instigating service men were portrayed as victims.

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The fight for power, pride and whiteness

They fought.  They fought for freedom of religion.  They fought for power.  They fought to become more integrated into White society.  But while fighting those who oppressed them, they also began to fight their fellow oppressed.  The antebellum era in which The Gangs of New York takes place was a violent, tumultuous period of time in which groups attempted to assert themselves through the illegal activities that made them infamous.  Irish immigrants departed their homeland hoping to leave the famine and religious persecution that plagued them in Ireland.  Unfortunately, they were not warmly embraced by Lady Liberty’s arms when they stepped off the ship.  Instead of being assimilated into a land of opportunity, they were sucked into the underbelly of American society.  They were instantly oppressed due to how they looked and the cultural differences that they brought with them.  Consequently came a criminalization associated with not only the area they lived in, but also the poverty that they had no real way of getting out of.  In turn, many immigrants became gangsters, trying to show their worth, trying to earn their way to “Whiteness.”

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