October 19, 2012

(Re)Brand USA: Nostalgia

In July of 1976, I was fresh off my Kindergarten graduation from Hadley Elementary, eager to join the older kids who went to school for a whole day. No more of this going home at noon nonsense. In order to enjoy this privilege, though, one last obligation loomed: Marching in the Bicentennial parade. In Revolutionary War-era garb.

Summers in western Pennsylvania are far from the blustery, fog-filled ones we (don’t) enjoy here in San Francisco. They are hot. They are humid. My outfit for this patriotic walk down State Street was more appropriate for an icy winter, or at least a crisp fall. My white shirt was made of something akin to burlap, while my knickered navy pants, pale knee-high socks and wedge-shaped headgear were all 100% wool, the hat and pants both with narrow bands of leather that (barely) minimized chafing on my waist and forehead. We gentlemen-to-be weren’t covered quite as head to toe like the girls, who wore short-sleeved, frilly dresses that dropped to their feet. And if these full-body cloaks weren’t chaste enough, all of them wore Little Bo Peep bonnets. At least the material was a lightweight cotton.

I can’t recall our exact path through my quaint hometown that lies on the banks of the Shenango River, but the sensation of holding the clammy palm of my classmate as we marched in clean lines on baking concrete in the humid press of that day has never left me. This is my first USA-branded memory.

I also remember the Bicentennial celebration logo, and a 1776-themed coloring book, probably the only one my mother allowed us to have as children. (Coloring, with its “inside the lines” process, inhibited creativity.) It was full of line art Minutemen, Founding Fathers, and dioramas of key Revolutionary War battles like Bunker Hill. I most vividly recall a page depicting the Boston Tea Party, specifically three colonists dressed as Native Americans (or “Indians,” as they were called then) gleefully hurling crates of English Breakfast into the harbor.

Today, the Tea Party is an unofficial, well-organized political group that thrives in communities like the one in which I grew up. A community that once flourished amidst alighted steel mills, but now struggles like others in the Rust Belt as manufacturing has disappeared, fleeing across oceans and continents to faraway lands. Those of my generation who were afforded the chance also fled the area. The once robust Jewish community that regularly flooded the sanctuary of Temple Beth Israel now struggles to fill seats, often holding ceremony with the nearby Youngstown, Ohio congregation to reach a critical mass. The Orthodox services that used to be held in Beth Israel’s basement have ceased. Finding one man, let alone the “tenth” (as my father often was when this group of local Jewish elders was short a quorum to perform the rituals) is a moot cause. Now, when I visit my old home as a well-travelled citizen of the world, I marvel that a respected Jewish community even existed there at all.

This reverie is partially a nostalgic longing for a better, more innocent time, but it’s not something I cling to or long to recreate. I was lucky to have left Mercer County, Pennsylvania before realities both personal and societal might have soured my view of the world, as it surely has for many there who now struggle to make ends meet. I’d bet this same nostalgia—an idealistic, antiquated vision of what our communities and America stand for—provides comfort, however cold, and adds some hope to the what may be frequent hopeless days. It’s why I can understand and even sympathize with my hometown community that congenially congregates on the Mercer courthouse lawn for a concert on July 4th, and then holds a Tea Party rally in the same spot on July 5th. (As occurred two years ago when I was visiting.)

Bob Dylan once remarked that “nostalgia is death” and, comfort aside, he has a point. My bicentennial coloring book celebrated our independence from Britain, but avoided the two black eyes on America’s colonial face that were slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. While I’ve never been to a Civil War reenactment, I’m guessing the Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t play a major role in the narrative. Nostalgia may be a soothing salve, but it’s often a whitewashed one, especially when we celebrate our country’s past glories. Examining the parade photo above more closely, I notice that every person in the frame is Caucasian. This particular nostalgic snapshot is also pasty white. No coloring inside the lines necessary.

Both our major political parties traffic in anachronistic jingoism, but after watching parts of both national conventions this year, I was struck by both the homogeneity of the delagates in Tampa, and the cultural variety of the ones in Charlotte. Much of this is calculated political theater, but the contrasting narratives seemed to ask, “which side of history do you really want to be on?” Especially four years after electing the first president of color in our nation’s history.

The timely richness of Jeremy Mende’s (Re)Brand USA solution is that it tackles this evolution of our country head on, but through the retooling of national monuments that echo an outdated ethos in their original forms. This simple, but potent design move affords us the nostalgic comfort of these signposts in our nation’s history while pointing us to the future. It’s cleverly realized and uniquely American.

Design: Jeremy Mende / MendeDesign




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