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  • Editors' Introduction
  • Marta Gutman and Louis P. Nelson

In a mid-September public statement, former president Jimmy Carter claimed, "an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man." Obama has declined to engage the issue publicly. More recently, investigations into Michelle Obama's ancestry revealed that she is descended from both enslaved black and free white southerners. She, too, has declined to comment. The very public nature of these events recalls the much larger debate about the role of both personal and national identity in political formation. Carter's comments focused on white resentment against black advancement, a view that reflected his political maturation during the struggle against Jim Crow. President Obama had previously offered a more nuanced and multiracial view of race relations in his popularly lauded March 2008 speech, in which he called on Americans to transcend the "racial stalemate" of recent decades. If Obama's speech was hailed by some as "post-race," Carter's comment signals that the politics of identity are still very much in play in American politics. In many ways, the essays in this volume offer a scholarly perspective on that debate. Although each argument frames it differently, the politics of identity stand at or near the center of all of them.

The volume opens with Edwin Dobb's keynote from the most recent VAF annual meeting in Butte, Montana, as this edition's Viewpoint essay. By seeing Butte through the eyes of the vernaculus (Latin root for "native"), Dobb offers a beautifully complex study of Butte and its close relationship with personal and collective identity. This complexity is amplified as he reminds us to consider the multiplicities of perspective that undermine the drive toward any single view on a place. He points out for his readers how natives of a place can have vested in themselves a deep longing for the past of that place. Desire, he tells us, is a powerful drive that shapes both the way we see a place and influences what it is that we see. This feeling of longing highlights the interdependence of place and identity. He closes by arguing that if the city secures its identity solely in a particular view of the past, the city will die. The Lady of the Rockies—the huge statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the town—may then become a witness to a wake. But if the city's identity expands to include a broader view of its own past, it might open to a broader view of possible futures. As did earlier generations, new communities will enter in and make Butte their own—a different Butte, as the town becomes a palimpsest of personal memories and collective identity.

The close alignment between buildings and identity politics is more explicitly realized in two of the articles that follow. Pamela Simpson and Travis Nygard write about the presentation and representation of Native Americans in the corn palaces of the early twentieth-century Upper Midwest. They use two distinct modes: the evocation of Native cultures through the iconographic associations of Native Americans with corn through the nineteenth century (Hiawatha being only the most popular), and the physical presence of native peoples in the parades and celebrations associated with the opening of the corn palaces. In these, the politics of representation and inclusion challenge us to wonder about agency and power over identity formation. Does the act of publicly reifying one's own ethnicity mean a welcome embrace of that presentation? Not necessarily. In the second iteration, they introduce Crow painter Oscar Howe's work: the annual murals in the Mitchell, South Dakota, corn palace. These images highlight the multivalent realities of representation. His Origin of Corn series, [End Page iv] for example, could be read as pitting Longfellow's Hiawatha against a Dakota legend. Annmarie Adams's article on the Weston Havens House in Berkeley, California, explores the intersection of sexual identity and architecture by testing the boundaries of queer theory. While the building, designed by architect Harwell Hamilton Harris between 1939 and 1941, was designed for a man presumed by many to be gay, Adams...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. iv-v
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-25
Open Access
No
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