Ambivalent Inclusion: The State, Race, and Official Culture, 1930-1950

Sklaroff, Lauren Rebecca, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia
McGovern, Charlie, Department of History, University of Virginia

This project explores how state sponsored cultural programs became a central form ofracial policy during the New Deal and World War II. Under the Works Progress Administration (WP A), state officials first began the development of what I regard as official culture-federal programs utilizing the fine arts and the mass media. A defining characteristic of official culture was its promotion of a multi-racial nation, with a central focus on black Americans.

With a political stalemate blocking the passage of overt civil rights legislation, officials could not secure structural changes for black individuals. Due to the explosive nature of racial politics during this period, official culture did not explicitly refer to racial inequality, instead highlighting black achievements and contributions. Placing faith in particular versions of racial inclusiveness, demonstrated in programs such as the Federal Writers' Project's American Guide Series and the Army's Jubilee Radio Show, state officials tried to create a culture that was politically sanitized. The relationship between culture and politics, however, was not as starkly demarcated as white administrators would have wished. As black individuals were barred from traditional political
institutions and faced rampant discrimination in industry, official culture took on political meaning once it provided black people with opportunities that were not available elsewhere. Within official culture, the words, songs, and actions of black people became important foundations in a struggle against racial inequality.

Although black artists understood that programs such as the Federal Theater Project's Swing Mikado or the Army's celebration of Joe Louis could not directly secure racial equality, they nonetheless used cultural media to critique discrimination and to possess their own representation. The pervasiveness of minstrel stereotypes, endemic to most areas of American popular culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, not only shaped white perceptions of black people, but propelled white Americans' belief in their own racial superiority. During the development of official culture, white administrators encouraged a level of black participation and invited black opinion. Thus black artists and entertainers capitalized on this unique opportunity to impact the nature of racial imagery, as the politics ofracial representation figured centrally in the struggle for civil rights.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
policy, race, culture, racial inequality, World War II

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2015-09-28 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:38:02.

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