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April 2, 2001

Loudermilk, Chesnut revisit that
seventies decade

By Cathy Byrd


Disco. Bell bottoms. Platform shoes. War protests. Gay rights. Rock and roll. Pop! Cool! Wow! In the year 2001, it might seem odd that contemporary issues, styles and music—even the language we speak—would draw so heavily from the 1970s.

Films such as Almost Famous and Velvet Goldmine commemorate the era, and today’s politicians revisit the norms that were shaken and reconfigured by pop culture
30 years ago.

But what were the 1970s in the United States really like? Students enrolled this spring in “Disco, Happy Days and Watergate: Remembering the 1970s” are finding out. Saralyn Chesnut and Kim Loudermilk co-teach the course that explores issues and events such as the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, feminism and lesbian-feminism, the gay rights movement, Watergate and ’70s culture.

The two professors want not only to establish a historical picture of the 1970s, but to examine our society’s collective memory of the decade—and what that memory tells us about our culture today. Students discuss the recent resurgence of interest in the 1970s and what this retro revival says about the early 21st century.

Chesnut and Loudermilk are asking them to consider how concepts of the past inform the contemporary sense of self, both for individuals and society.

In their initial approach, students consulted David Frum’s How We Got Here: The ’70s, the Decade That Brought You Modern Life and The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture, edited by Shelton Waldrep. Class participants are reading novels including Sula by Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. And they are comparing actual news coverage of 1970s events like Watergate to film interpretations such as All the President’s Men. According to Loudermilk, such comparisons reveal how mass media shape our interpretations of past events and help determine our responses to similar events in the present.

“One question is: What does our dominant collective memory collect, and what does it omit?” said Chesnut, who notes widespread social amnesia about certain historical events. She points to the Stonewall Riot in June 1969, in which patrons of a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, fought back when police raided the bar.

The Stonewall Riot is now recognized as the event that sparked the modern gay rights movement. However, the protest was hardly noted by the media at the time, and it is still absent from the pages of American history books.

“Although Pride events are held each June to commemorate the Stonewall Riot, our society at large remains unaware that it ever took place,” Chesnut said. “We must rely on forms of what has been termed ‘oppositional memory’ to establish the place of the Stonewall Riot in our national history.”

For their research papers, students select one event to analyze. They may choose to explore current popular memories of Vietnam, the anti-war movement, the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, the lesbian-feminist movement or gay liberation. Through surveys or reading novels or memoirs, they will uncover the relationship between the past and present.

“The idea is to help students understand the way individual memories—those of the memoir writer or the person taking the survey, for example—both draw on and help form collective memory,” Loudermilk said.

The two professors share a measure of personal history. Both were graduate students in the Institute of the Liberal Arts and worked as teaching fellows at Georgia Tech before coming to Emory. This is their first co-teaching adventure.

Loudermilk, appointed assistant vice provost last year, has focused her research on contemporary American literature, literary and feminist theory, and cultural studies. She completed her dissertation, “Fictional Feminism: Representing Feminism in American Bestsellers,” in 1997.

Chesnut, director of the Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender Life, specializes in feminist theory, 20th Century American literature and history, and lesbian/gay studies. Having lived and collected oral histories in Atlanta’s Little Five Points lesbian-feminist community since the 1970s, she brings personal experience to the topic.


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