Teaching John Wayne, Public Enemy, Eighties, and Race

As I get closer to the eighties in my Advanced Placement United States History course, I start hearing the tunes of Public Enemy’s song Fight the Power (see their Black panther like video here). I like to play this in class so that students might gain a greater understanding of eighties black rage with Reagan’s supply-side economics, black urban poverty, and the lack of a political voice. In the song, Public Enemy takes a shot at both Elvis and John Wayne for being racist, as well as white society for not clasping to black culture. Here are the words about Elvis and John Wayne from Fight the Power (Note: I only play the language free CD):

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant ******* to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
********him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam

I am not so sure about Elvis, but I have long thought that John Wayne was racist dating back to my Montgomery childhood. As I juxtapose the eighties to Cold War policies, I focus on the relationship between race, urban society, and economic policies. I attribute Reagan’s administration for giving rise to gangster rap….Groups such as NWA emerged with their hard hitting lyrics about life in Compton.

I briefly addressed this in a previous blog piece:

During the late eighties and nineties, America was in a struggle to define its intellectual and spiritual identity. The nation had clearly moved in a more conservative direction during the Reagan-Bush years. I recall the eighties being a period of heightened racial tension, as neighborhoods continued to become even more segregated due to the lack of economic opportunities for both poor whites and ethnic/ racial minorities. This was very clear to me at a young age when my family moved from Limestone, Maine to Montgomery, Alabama – one of the more segregated cities in the country. However, race was not the only “cultural force” at work. Americans still did not understand the origins of AIDS, as many ignorant of this terrible disease prejudiced by the realities of modern day relationships assumed it was a gay only disease. Moreover, the eighties was the decade that first introduced gangster rap, a form of realist genre that illustrated the harsh realities of black and Latino urban life, which was amply portrayed in the movie Colors (must see video here), starring Sean Penn and musically produced by Ice-T.

John Wayne, however, might not be as racist as I thought – – I do not know. Jake Nicholson, a student in my World History course, sent me this YouTube video of Wayne’s hyphen speech, which I have never heard before. Watch the video here or read his speech below and tell me what you think, as I prepare to introduce him to my US History students.

Hyphen Speech

The Hyphen, Webster’s Dictionary defines,
Is a symbol used to divide a
compound word or a single word.
So it seems to me that when a man calls himself
An “Afro-American,” a “Mexican-American,”
“Italian-American,” An “Irish-American,” “Jewish-American,”
What he’s sayin’ is, “I’m a divided American.”

Well, we all came from other places,
Different creeds and different races,
To form a nation…to become as one,
Yet look at the harm a line has done –
A simple little line, and yet
As divisive as a line can get.
A crooked cross the Nazis flew,
And the Russian hammer and sickle too-
Time bombs in the lives of Man;
But none of these could ever fan
The flames of hatred faster than
The Hyphen.

The Russian hammer built a wall
That locks men’s hearts from freedom’s call.
A crooked cross flew overhead
Above twenty million tragic dead-
Among them men from this great nation,
Who died for freedom’s preservation.
A hyphen is a line that’s small;
It can be a bridge or be a wall.
A bridge can save you lots of time;
A wall you always have to climb.
The road to liberty lies true.
The Hyphen’s use is up to you.

Used as a bridge, it can span
All the differences of Man.
Being free in mind and soul
Should be our most important goal.
If you use The Hyphen as a wall,
You’ll make your life mean…and small.
An American is a special breed,
Whose people came to her in need.
They came to her that they might find
A world where they’d have peace of mind.
Where men are equal…and something more-
Stand taller than they stood before.

So you be wise in your decision,
And that little line won’t cause division.
Let’s join hands with one another…
For in this land, each man’s your brother.
United we stand…divided we fall.
WE’RE AMERICANS…and that says it all.


23 thoughts on “Teaching John Wayne, Public Enemy, Eighties, and Race

  1. This is why you are a good historian and teacher. You reevaluate and challenge your previous thoughts on a topic. But I still think John Wayne was a racist. His speech telling all of these groups to lose their racial identity and just be American is to simple. How about society embracing (as you noted) ecah group politically, socially, and economically.

    Public Enemy, old school man. Good stuff! What do your white, wealthy, religious, elite, private school students think of this?

    • “Society embracing each separate group politically, socially, and economically” is very divisive. I don’t think Wayne was telling anyone to “lose” their racial identity, only saying that it was not really that important compared to their AMERICAN Identity. Identity politics is divisive because it separates us. It also creates an environment of pandering. Politicians are asked “How are you going to help the latino community?” “What are you going to do for the black community?” “What are you going to do for the community?” When really the question should be “What policies do you advocate that are beneficial for ALL Americans?” My experience was the opposite of the Professor’s. I grew up color-blind with an integrated group of friends, where we really didn’t see ourselves as any sort of hyphenated Americans. Then in the 80’s and 90’s I saw Identity Politics separate and divide and push people further and further away from each other based on ethnicity.

  2. Jaylon, I happen be one of those “white, wealthy, religious, elite, private school students” and I am also the one that sent him the John Wayne clip. I understand where you are coming from and you make an excellent point. Although, I feel as though he wants all Americans to unite as one regardless of race or country of origin, rather than telling these “groups to lose their racial identity.”

  3. Well said jake. I was one of those white, wealth, religious, elite private school students myself, and as far as race relations go, I think I’ve turned out pretty well.

    I will say this: When I was in high school, our congregation began to explore the possibility of buying property and moving to a different location. When I questioned my dad, who was a deacon and sat on the building/moving committee about why we didn’t just do work where we were already located, he told me that, despite our efforts, the African American people didn’t want to go to church with us. Now, I know that there could be many reasons for that, but trust me when I tell you that this congregation was made up of nice people. Not perfect, but nice, kind, largely unracist people. Of course there were some exceptions to that rule, but there are exceptions anywhere. Now, this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the entirety of American race relations, but I’m afraid that it many instances, it’s not a matter of white people being unsympathetic and uninterested in black culture, but a matter of African American’s not wanting us to be involved. Now I know this isn’t true all the time, perhaps not even most of the time. It was, however, true in that instance, and according to Toni Morrison, it seems to be true much of the time. I’m not saying this with any contempt or hatred or anger. I’m simply speaking from an experience I’ve had and an experience that I’ve read about happening at least a few other places.

  4. The video of Colors by Ice-T on your blog is great. Since you are from Little Rock, I am sure you recall when that song came out how Little Rock was the worst gang city in the nation.

  5. I’ve watched a lot of videos on the black panther and listened to quite a bit of Public Enemy, and one thing that I can say that would be reasoning for their lack of acceptance of a speech such as John Wayne’s, would be that black communities at that time did not feel that they were “American.”

    Listen to any speech by Huey P Newton or H Rap Brown and you will hear a common theme: “Our communities are being occupied by malicious and racist cops as a foreign power occupies enemy territory…we are treated as second class citizens and any means attempted at helping us succeed are shut down by the government and/or police”

    Wayne’s Hyphen speech would have meant nothing to them. It would have seemed just like any other meaningless speech by a white man trying to act as if everything is ok and there really are no problems with race today.

    Don’t like N.W.A. too much, they seem to lack the heart that Public Enemy had and try to fight racism with more racism and death threats.

    And modern rap is eons away from what it used to be… you gotta listen to stuff like Rage Against the Machine now to hear songs that actually have meaning and try to point out injustices today instead of just talk about sex like modern rap.

  6. Carson, I’m enjoying the book, Race Matters. As i was reading it last night i was struck by the paradox of the American minority groups who seperate themselves with a hyphen… an BOOM! I read your blog.
    I cannot appreciate what it would be like to be stranded on a corner in NY by taxis not interested in a picking up a person because they are naturally less likely to develop melanoma. And I wonder aloud if, perhaps, we are not ALL a bit prejudiced in how we think of people different from us.
    …including those “white, wealthy, religious, elite, private school students”.
    The solution is color blindness, though it seems to be a recessive trait.
    It is about time spent with those whose life stories enrich us, because they ARE different from ours; our mutual respect for how our variation makes us a stronger community, not weaker.
    For those who perceive themselves as part of the dominant tribe, that means risking what you fear– giving up space at the counter with the possibility of being displaced, because you are a lazy slacker, resting on the laurels of those who gave you your seat.
    And for those who perceive themselves as somehow of a lesser tribe, that means risking the loss of a deep rooted resentment, that nursed grudge that has become a self perpetuating definition that provides an excuse for why you shouldn’t aspire for greatness, a sinister friend that holds you down then points a crooked finger at the others and attributes blame.
    Both groups isolating, and like so many experiments in inbreeding, finding themselves with disorders not experiences by hybrids. Both groups crying out, “It’s not that easy,” an admission of lethargy that keeps them mired to old dysfunctions.
    So I’m going to try to drop the hyphen.
    I have much to learn from you, my friend, and I hope I challenge you enough to be of benefit. Sincerely.

  7. I’ve been reading up on the Black Panther Party and I must say that it’s quite unfortunate that white members are scarce. Ever since I have taken your APUSH course, I have started to understand the black plight more and more, and while I cannot fully comprehend the struggles and hardships, I certainly can come to some conclusions.
    I, Jonathan Magiera, am no different from the black teacher, the Mexican immigrant, or the Chinese neighbour. I am in no way better than them, I am in no way worse. I am entitled to the same education, to the and the same job oppertunities. I love everyone as I love myself, no matter what creed, colour, or race. I believe in the equality of all mankind, without social classes, without any wealth factor. I still have much to learn, but I hope that I can stand by this ideology until my old age.
    The Red Hot Chili Peppers say “American equality has always been sour.” Well, if so, why not keep fighting to try and change that? Although being far from perfect and seemingly unattainable, the ultimate goal of equality for all is tangible and even within the grasp of the discriminated. I know that I have it easy, but I would give up much just to help the less fortunate.
    Fight the power!

  8. Jon — Great comment! I think you have figured much out already. In the end, as you noted, we are all a like; it is the different experiences that pull us together — which is cool. I have read little on the panthers. I do know that the old panther party had a greater sense of purpose than the new panthers — which I am still not as versed on as I should be. I look forward to having more discussion on this. What did you think of the video?

    J. Kelley — We still have much to discuss as well. I do not believe in color blindness. The beauty of different races are the experiences they have to offer. Think about the power of those experiences once you allow all of us to engage. Race should be a means to get to know others.

    Walker – You sound like me, which is wild seeing that though we have a great relationship, we tend to take different stand on this topic. I am a little surprised. But you are right, when you are white and things are great — it is good to be an American. However, how about those not living the American dream…black or white.

    Kristi/Jake – – there is a matter of truth in what Jaylon is saying. It seems that Jake agrees with that, too. But, keep in mine, schools such as the ones I have taught at tend to be a bit more conservative to “such” topics. I recall the issues I had with the Bluest Eye.

  9. I didn’t have any issues. I was 18 and I simply refused to allow them to censor me. If you’re going to censor literature, you might as well just ban it altogether.

  10. I think when it comes to teaching about race and popular culture, I much like Mr. Magiera’s comment see this as something that whites struggle with. As a white man who teaches mostly white students, I often get a few interesting views when it comes to popular culture and movies. Why do black people sing that way? Why do black people address the same issues in literature? Was Wayne a racist, I do not know.

    But I really like Walker Parkhill’s comment here: “Don’t like N.W.A. too much, they seem to lack the heart that Public Enemy had and try to fight racism with more racism and death threats.”

    I do not know NWA, but I suspect they are not addressing the same matters as Public Enemy. And, for that, the same issues John Wayne addressed.

  11. Mark — You must go download NWA. It is not as intellectual as PE — as noted by Walker, but it explains a few things.

    Kristi — It was not so much censor as it was a small few who made a big deal out of reading it. Black literature addresses complex topics about race, sexual identity, and cultural attitudes that some conservative blacks and whites cannot comprehend. In the end, they did not want to read the book. K. Roberts and I discussed it and those few. Not all places are up to what I am going to challenge them with. I try to bring the real deal. Yes, I know, a bit sad.

  12. Well written. I’m happy to see educators bring in rap into the classroom the proper way. NWA is definitely the rough and rugged to PE’s intellect rawness.

  13. Thanks Jose….Growing up in the 80s, I cannot think of leaving the impact of gangster rap out of my course. Speaking of Public Enemy, I find it interesting that few today know about Chuck D.

  14. Too bad Flava Flav has become something of a bad black steriotype.

    Just because Chuck D says something is true doesn’t make it true. There’s no way John Wayne was a racist. there’s something else out there in cyberspace that someone sent me not too long ago where John Wayne is on the Dean Martin show and he gives a little speech about the kind of world he hopes his new little daughter will grow up in. Its very moving. Check it out if you can find it.
    Also, I think Elvis always pointed to the black artists that inspired him and his style of music. He took black music and made it mainsteam and OK for white kids to like. See – Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass, MnM, Kid Rock etc.

  15. Edward,

    I try to avoid the label racist applied to John Wayne, Elvis, and almost all other public figures, but at the same time insist upon examining the racialist and racist discourse employed by them. I use the term racialism to refer to an ideology (or belief) that visible physical features (skin color became significant in Western culture) offer clues to moral and psychological well being. Thus, racialism offers the foundation for the Black Power of H. Rap Brown as much as the White Supremacy of David Duke. Racism is the mistreatment of one person or group of persons by another person/group based on these perceptions of difference.

    John Wayne’s best movie–some have argued–was The Searchers. The plot of the film centers on a particularly nasty racialist perception of cross-racial relationships as destructive to a white person, and her society. This racism persists in the too easy use of the historically accurate–Custer and his peers used it–term “half-breed” in a book published last month: A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn–the Last Great Battle of the American West (2008) by James Donovan. Donovan seems to use the word “half-breed” with no anguish, although one suspects he might have difficulty saying the words NWA stand for.

    Does The Searchers reflect Wayne’s own views? The “Hyphen Speech” would suggest otherwise. However, the hyphen speech is rooted in a sentiment that is all too easy for a White man in America, for the term “American” has been deeply rooted in Anglo-Conformity whether were looking at the “melting pot” as it was described by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in Letters from an American Farmer (1782) or Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot (1908) when it had become associated with metallurgy and the burning off of impurities.

    As for Elvis, I like a scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003): “Twins” with Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, and Steve Buscemi for raising these issues.

  16. James Stripes:

    Yes I agree with you here…but it is the racist perception that many have about the individuals above. I have not seen The Searchers, but I hear that this perception of him starts for many with this film; I was told that he was in an interracial marriage with a Mexican lady; if so, I would add this as an example to the Hyphen Speech. I do not see racialism in the minds of some here. To me, that is more NAZI Germany.

  17. Being a child from the eighties with a Mom who loved all music I can say some of you are defending a concept not people. The concept behind John Wayne is what PE consider racist. America chose John Wayne and Elvis to be heroes. Chuck D simply said they stood for things that were full of racism. Elvis took black music and made it white. Society was wrong; don’t defend it. John Wayne was a terrorist in the West( in movies). Remember America was wrong in how it did the Native Americans. Be careful not to sound like a racist yourself.

  18. What about this. A quote from wayne in the 1971 edition of playboy.

    “I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people….

    I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans]…. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves

    • I did not know about that. Very interesting. I am shocked though in general I should not be. 1971 i figured things had shifted enough to where that would not be accepted. As for educated, there was a large black educated population by 1971. Seeing what Jim Crow did, he was the outsider. What issue was this in?

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