April 2, 2001
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 musiceven the language we speakwould draw so heavily from the 1970s.
Films such as Almost Famous and Velvet Goldmine commemorate
the era, and todays politicians revisit the norms that were shaken
and reconfigured by pop culture
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 societys collective memory of the
decadeand 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 Frums 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 Vonneguts Breakfast of Champions.
And they are comparing actual news coverage of 1970s events like Watergate
to film interpretations such as All the Presidents 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
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
Yorks 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
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
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 womens liberation movement, the
lesbian-feminist movement or gay liberation. Through surveys or reading
novels or memoirs, they will uncover the relationship between the past
The idea is to help students understand the way individual memoriesthose
of the memoir writer or the person taking the survey, for exampleboth
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
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 Atlantas Little Five Points lesbian-feminist community since the 1970s, she brings personal experience to the topic.