America in 5 Objects

What do the Statue of Liberty, Barbie doll, buffalo nickel, Uncle Sam, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic have in common?

They are the five symbols that Chinese students studying English in universities are told wrap up American culture. I was delighted to hear this from a student I taught during my seminar in U.S. Cultural History at Renmin University in Beijing last week. Such reduction as a list of five artifacts to explain the U.S. is the plaything of academics, so easily belittled, bashed, pushed aside. But I appreciate the effort at synthesis, an intellectual task that is much overlooked in favor of the much more popular “unpacking.” Pack a whole nation (one explicitly formed by global networks), 500+ years, into five objects — love it! A fantastic parlor game, at the very least. Five objects that describe Sweden: Go!

Beyond the game of it, what’s the story these five artifacts tell? There’s a lot of capitalism, of course. My student told me that a Barbie doll is bought every seven seconds. I have no idea if this is true, but it’s possible. OK, a sad truth that American capitalism swims in distorted white female bodies of hard plastic. I believe the buffalo nickel symbolizes the west more than capitalism, with the buffalo on one side and a Native American on the other. Land once roamed then conquered and now endangered. OK, umm, another sad truth. Uncle Sam, I was told, signifies American imperialism. Given that mention of Uncle Sam emerged during the Revolutionary War and then became personified in an image in the War of 1812, perhaps that’s a fair enough interpretation. I’ve long associated the image with the famous army recruitment poster from World War 1: “I want YOU.” Domestic imperialism? The Statue of Liberty is the one artifact that seems the least disputable, and it at least speaks to a noble idea of the U.S. (although never fully realized).

And then there’s Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Huh? My conversation with the student about these five symbols emerged after a lecture I gave on the FSA-OWI photograph collection of the 1930s-40s in which I spent some time examining the Gordon Parks’ photo of Ella Watson in front of the American flag with broom, mop, and defiant resignation. After first showing the photo of Watson, I put up Wood’s American Gothic – and there was collective recognition, which surprised me. I didn’t inquire then as to why that was, and only learned later of the painting’s inclusion in the list of five. Apparently the painting stands in for the importance of farming, resiliency, and rural life in the U.S. (and hard labor in the countryside in China?). Now they have Parks’ comment on Woods, an African American perspective on “resiliency” and “hard work” – and their role in defining the U.S.

On the list of America in 5 objects: Grant Wood’s version of American Gothic or Gordon Parks’?