Maps give viewers limited directions of how to get to one place to the next, and what’s in between. In her Ginzburg Geography Project, interdisciplinary artist Jewlia Eisenberg intends to map the greater journey.
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.