1. (Throughout the essay, I've included footnotes on specific cultural elements of the United States for readers from other countries.) "Woodstock" was an outdoor music festival in the town of Woodstock, New York, in 1969. Attended by some 400,000 people, it became one of the epitomes of the 1960s counterculture "revolution" in the United States. [return to page 1 of critical essay]
2. New York City is made up of five boroughs, including Manhattan and the Bronx. Since the 1960s the South Bronx has been a mostly African American neighborhood, and has been beset by deep poverty, a situation which still exists. For a useful summation of the continuing discrepancy between neighborhoods in Manhattan (some of the world's wealthiest) and the neighborhood of the South Bronx, see Paul Harris, "Worlds Apart—The Neighbourhoods That Sum Up a Divided America" The Guardian, 17 Sept., 2011.
3. The French Connection is about unscrupulous New York cops chasing international drug smugglers; Serpico is about a police officer struggling to reveal corruption on his own force. Both are a part of a wave of "realist" U.S. films from the 1970s that reflected a deep cynicism about both civil authority and the traditional narratives of the U.S. pursuit of prosperity. Mean Streets and Taxi Driver explore this material from the side of the criminal rather than the cop; Mean Streets does this through a narrative of a small-time, aspiring gangster, Taxi Driver though the story of a man immersed in, and warped nearly out of recognition by, the violence of U.S. culture.
4. The title works in two ways. The first is through a direct reference to John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), which is the first of Ford's so-called "Calvary Trilogy." As with much of Ford's work, these films both participate in, and stand in uneasy relationship to, the myth of the U. West. They take as their subject military confrontations between the U.S. Calvary and the Native Americans in the period after the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Each film in the trilogy engages with the myth and history of those confrontations, which involve the idea that the annihilation of the Native American was a necessary step in the worthy mission of bringing U.S. ideas of "freedom" and "civilization" into what was seen as an "untamed" land. This mythos is the source of the second, more subtle, reference of the title, which is to the U.S. habit of framing its military adventures in terms of "cowboys" and "Indians." The U.S. soldier abroad, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, has habitually been referred to as a cowboy, meaning one who brings civilization through violence, and the populations of those countries have been denoted Indians, that is, indigenous populations who will either be pacified or annihilated. The title Fort Apache, The Bronx transposes this entire military history onto the racialized policing situation (white cops, black populace) of New York City.
5. "'Rude Ludicrous Lucrative' Rap," The New York Review of Books, January 13, 2011.
6. The Indigenous American population is often termed "Native American" or "Indian." To avoid confusion for readers outside of the United States, I've generally used "Native American" in this article.
7. AIM is the American Indian Movement. This is a group founded "to turn the attention of Indian people toward a renewal of spirituality which would impart the strength of resolve needed to reverse the ruinous policies of the United States, Canada, and other colonialist governments of Central and South America." In the early 1970s it was involved in a number of confrontations, sometimes violent, with the United States government. It is still an active advocacy group today. Quote taken from Laura Waterman Wittstock and Elaine J. Salinas, "A Brief History of the American Indian Movement," AIM website.
8. A bullroarer is a traditional aboriginal instrument, made of a thin piece of resonating wood attached to the end of a length of string. When swung in circles, the wood vibrates, creating a roaring sound that can carry for great distances.
9. A wigwam is single-room, dome-shaped dwelling constructed by certain Native American tribes.
10. It is worth noting briefly that representations of this sort, in which black or minority inner cities are presented as wildernesses into which (usually white) characters must venture if they are to prove themselves, have not ceased to be made since the 1970s. Cop films from Colors (1988) to Training Day (2001) have used or explored this trope; nearly every decade sees several releases of white-teacher-ventures-into-the-minority-wilderness movies such as The Principle (1987), Dangerous Minds (1995), or Freedom Writers (2007); a host of other representations along these lines range from sophisticated interrogations of the subject matter such as HBO's famously seminal show The Wire (2002-08) to self-congratulations of white U.S. culture like 2009's The Blind Side.
11. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of The American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
12. Once again, this is a racialized tradition of U.S. storytelling that goes back nearly as long as there have been U.S. stories. The black character Jim in Mark Twain's 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn is often cited as a seminal prototype; characters like Dick Hallorann in The Shining (1980) or Morpheus from The Matrix (1999) are paradigmatic filmic examples. The keys to the character are that he (or she) serves as a helpful adjunct to a white protagonist, and that he does so out of a mysterious reserve of wisdom, spirituality or actual magic; what is revealed by the character is not simply the subordinate nature of black characters to white, but the exoticization of those characters, an ascription to them (and thus to black culture in general) of wisdom in place of intelligence, earthiness in place of civilization, and magic in place of rationality.
13. From the end of the 19th Century until 1954, racial segregation in the United States was both legal and widely practiced. In much of the country, and particularly in the South, blacks and whites attended separate schools, had separate eating areas in restaurants, and were forced to use different public amenities, such as rest rooms. The term "separate but equal," used at the time to justify this policy, has since acquired an ironic charge, since the policy was a de facto means of social control, as the facilities provide for blacks were of course vastly inferior.
14. The term "New Homesteader" refers to the history of the westward expansion of the United States across the continent. This expansion was driven by government policies granting property rights to citizens who put a previously "unowned" piece of land under cultivation. The people who did this were called homesteaders. These policies served as an excuse for the extirpation of the Native Americans residing on the land; they also formed a central part of the national imagination, in which the western part of the continent was seen as a paradise waiting to be developed. [return to page 2]
15. This is a loaded image for U.S. environmentalists. The existence and eradication of the wolf has long been a contentious issue in the U.S. West. (The claim forwarded by people favoring the elimination of the wolves is that they pose a threat to livestock and even to people.) One focal point of this confrontation has been the intermittent policy of the state of Alaska to shoot wolves from helicopters.
16. Chris Rock is a black standup comic known for his acerbic, clear-eyed style and willingness to talk directly about issues of race and class in the United States.
17. There is a long-running struggle to arrive at a proper metaphor for the interaction of people of different races in the United States. "The melting pot" was an image of a country in which race was subsumed by national culture; under this view, people's racial identities (or the cultural identities of immigrants) would properly be melted away to some extent, and the resulting U.S. culture would be the result of this comingling. It was often contrasted with the metaphor of "the salad bowl" in which the ingredients of race and culture would mingle but retain their own essential shape and flavor.
18. Leonard Peltier is a member of AIM who was sentenced to serve consecutive life sentences (a particularity of the U.S. judicial system, meant to signify the heinousness of his act) for the shooting of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. From the moment of his arrest, and continuing to this day, there have been deep suspicions about his guilt and the fairness of his trial.
19. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970) is an influential history of the Native Americans in the second half of the 19th Century; the title refers to a massacre the Lakota Sioux people by U.S. soldiers in 1890. This is often seen as the final moment of the long war between the United States government and the Native Americans; it also took place on the same reservation where, eighty-five years later, the AIM movement and the FBI would be involved in the confrontation resulting in the conviction of Leonard Peltier.
20. A genre in which the tropes of the Western movie, and the myth of the United States inherent in that movie, is critiqued, reconsidered, or reformulated.
21. The Black Panther Party was an African American organization begun in the late 1960s that advocated for black pride and socialist revolution, and was often in confrontation with the U.S. government and the white establishment.
22. A song from Bob Dylan's 1976 album Desire,about the 1966 arrest and conviction for murder of Ruben Carter, an African American boxer who served nineteen years in prison before his conviction was overturned.
23. The 1976 celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. declaration of independence from England was marked by a great deal of controversy. Many people of color felt that in the anniversary's celebration of U.S. virtues, the nation's history of genocide and slavery, as well as its continuing tradition of structural racism and poverty, were being whitewashed.
24. South Park is an enormously influential cartoon sitcom that first aired in 1997. Its protagonists are a group of kids in rural Colorado, and its approach is to satirize subjects important to all shades of the political and religious spectrums, while maintaining enough sentimentality to prevent its worldview from ever quite being absurdist or nihilistic.
25. This is a line penned by John Roberts, the deeply conservative Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It comes from one of a series of cases in which the conservatives on the court have made it increasingly difficult for public institutions to take race into consideration when making decisions that affect social policy. Robert's claim is that the government's attempts to remedy the effects of slavery by taking into account the race of citizens (he terms this "discrimination" to slant the argument) are inherently racist.