America would like to think that it’s made a lot of progress in the last two centuries. The land of the free and the home of the brave has abolished slavery, promoted universal suffrage, won wars in search of a freer world and even elected an African American president. But one not so pleasant tradition has persisted throughout the years – minstrelsy. Even though America promises racial democracy, minstrelsy continues to thrive in new forms, creating a gray space in regards to the racism of modern-day blackface. Blackface minstrelsy began as shows intended to amuse white audiences. Performers would “black up” their appearance and attitude in their caricatures of slaves and other African Americans. While such blatant depictions are scarce in modern times, minstrelsy still prevails in subtle ways.
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.
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.
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.”
Joaquin Murieta was a man shrouded in myth, mystery and romanticism. It’s impossible for readers to not become fully enveloped in his adventures of violence and revenge. At times, the reader sympathizes with Joaquin as a victim of injustice and bigotry. Other times, the reader is easily disgusted by the brutal, oft unwarranted violent acts of Joaquin and his comrades. By some of these depictions, Joaquin becomes somewhat of a heroic character and martyr to his fellow Mexicans in California. In the same token, he is also largely demonized by the Anglo-Americans of the area. Any crime committed in the state is deemed to be the workings of “Joaquin” – no last name necessary, although Murieta was only one of many bandits named Joaquin during that period – regardless of how far away the incidents were from each other. The story of Joaquin Murieta fits in perfectly to the changing times of California and the idea of Mexicans vs. Anglos. Based off the early depiction John Rollin Ridge presents of Joaquin, it is easy to see why the bandito did many of the things he did, and at the same time, the story clearly shows how easily the Anglo-Americans could vilify such a character. Ironically, the author of the story has a somewhat similar story of rising from injustice and seeking out his own form of vengeance. Ridge/Yellow Bird’s life story makes him unable to be an unbiased storyteller. His depiction of the racialization of certain ethnic groups speaks volumes about his own personal experiences and tells a sub-story in which Ridge uses certain characters to represent deeper issues.