A People’s History of the 1970s

three new books offer 1970s “history from below.”

X-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
  • Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr., Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
  • Joy Lisi Rankin, A People’s History of Computing in the United States (Harvard University Press, 2018)

For many years, the most prominent historical study of the 1970s in the United States was Peter Carroll’s It Seemed Like Nothing Happened.1 It was a great title to describe the historical lacunae that was the so-called “Me Decade.”2 Historians often skipped right over from the tumultuous 1960s to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, telling a story of how the radical possibilities of the New Frontier, Great Society, and New Left were snuffed out by the ascendency of modern conservatism. Or, if conservative themselves, they might claim that the 1970s proved all that was wrong with modern American liberalism—case closed and thank God for the Gipper. A number of historians have even gone so far as to argue that the seeds of the New Right were to be found in the underlying logics of the New Left. Whatever the interpretation, you might get a mention of Watergate, maybe a sparkling disco ball or two, and John Travolta doing the Brooklyn Shuffle, but the 1970s typically appear as a blip between the 1960s and the 1980s, Yippies to Yuppies.

To be sure, Carroll meant to imply that it only seemed like nothing happened. At this point, almost a half century later, it is patently clear that plenty did. Even if measured simply by the sheer amount of scholarship produced in the last ten years, the 1970s has shifted from an era in which it seemed like nothing happened to a “pivotal decade,” to borrow the title of Judith Stein’s 2010 study, subtitled How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies. Yet Stein’s focus on political economy points to a key aspect of the rise of a historical focus on the 1970s in the twenty-first century: it has been accompanied by a renewed interest in political and economic historical scholarship. With the exception of a few monographs and essay collections—one thinks of David Farber and Beth Bailey’s America in the Seventies, Alice Echols’ Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, and sections of Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class—ideas and culture in the 1970s have not garnered the same amount of attention.3 Disco still sucks (from the historiographic, not the musical perspective), but up with stagflation!

Refreshingly, however, three new books suggest that ideas and culture are starting to matter more to historians studying the 1970s. While Rymsza-Pawlowska’s History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, Ewoodzie’s Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years, and Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States each takes a very different topic as its focus, together the books bring us away from the history of capitalism to other areas of inquiry. Concentrating on culture and ideas, they remind us that, surprisingly, the notion of “the people”—of a vibrant collective public culture—took on great power in the “Me Decade.” To the point that one might even argue that maybe it wasn’t so “Me” after all. M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr., and Joy Lisi Rankin each brush history against the grain to trace the potency of grassroots intellectual and cultural energies among public historians, hip-hop teenagers, and computer innovators, respectively. Their scholarship serves as reminder that the appearance of Howard Zinn’s influential A People’s History of the United States in 1980 was no accident. The 1970s were a time not only of increased social atomization, but also of robust collective activity among everyday citizens.

M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska’s History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s examines the rise of a new kind of public history at cultural heritage institutions and on television. In what she identifies a shift from “a logic of preservation” to one of “reenactment,” emotional and affective connection to the past began to replace the emphasis on information from a supposedly “objective” remove. This change has been criticized by the likes of Jill Lepore, who lays the blame for the conservative Tea Party movement’s misuses of the past at the doorstep of the 1976 bicentennial, a “carnival of presentism,” in Lepore’s words.4 However, Rymsza-Pawlowska wants to “resist positioning reenactive and affective engagement in contrast to some other, more objective, practice of history” (169). In her view, the “unpredictability of reenactment” had the capacity, beginning in the 1970s, for generating “multiple meanings” from the past. 

Television programs such as Little House on the Prairie and especially Roots marked a change from treating the past as something distant to something immediate, made visceral through personal connection. Rymsza-Pawlowska points out that while the former registered a disenchanted libertarian and individualistic turn in 1970s culture, the latter was a sensation for its effort to foster direct emotional connection to the past of the transatlantic slave trade grounded in extensively researched re-creations of historical stories. Roots generated enormous individual and collective engagement.

In a more institutional framework, so too did the planning for the 1976 US bicentennial celebrations. In Rymsza-Pawlowska’s telling, the planning provides a fascinating way to track the new focus on direct, personalized, immersive, emotional experiences of history rather than mediated, distanced, informational, passive modes of presenting the past. Planning for the bicentennial began during the heyday of the postwar modernist liberal state in the presidential administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson during the mid-1960s. It was a clunky, bureaucratic expression of consensus history. This gave way, Rymsza-Pawlowska explains, to politicized rightwing planning by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, but the preparation for the bicentennial also had to adjust to grassroots organizing by groups such as People’s Bicentennial Commission, which demanded a more democratic, decentralized, and radical approach to the American past. 

Post-Vietnam War and Watergate suspicions of central government informed the bumpy road to the bicentennial year of 1976, but so too did a flourishing of citizen activism during the 1970s. Native Americans, African Americans, and countless others started to conceptualize “the American past as a storehouse of empirical and affective information for framing their own contemporary social movements” (138). The goal was not relativism or inaccuracy, but rather an “animating of the archive,” which remained central as the repository of evidence and information. The activists of the 1970s wanted to feel history more directly rather than gaze upon it as spectators. That made a path for access to a history previously controlled by the elites of the country. Activists wanted more control over shaping history on their own terms, around questions and emotional experiences that mattered to them.

This approach remains with us, Rymsza-Pawlowska notes, as a vibrant and still much-contested mode of social history from the bottom up. Therefore, she argues, rather than dismiss the new modes of affective “reenactment” that emerged in the 1970s, the better move is “understanding it on its own terms—how it emerged from a specific cultural context, how it was sanctioned and extended for different reasons by a variety of agents, and how it informed historical meaning making and identification” (164). There is some irony here, of course. History Comes Alive chooses a dry analytic style to argue for better recognition of the value found in the 1970s turn toward more personal, emotional styles of historical engagement. The bigger issue, however, might be in the book’s very use of the term “affective.” This is a complicated term that is never quite satisfactorily defined in History Comes Alive. Is it meant to mean simply emotional rather than coldly rational? Does Rymsza-Pawlowska mean a greater emphasis on the sensorial and immersive as well as the distanced and spectatorial? Does she want to signal a more informal, vernacular style of history in the 1970s compared to earlier, more official and bureaucratic tonalities? 

Perhaps it is more accurate to describe the new modes of history in the 1970s as differently emotional rather than newly emotional. After all, the earlier consensus history was deeply emotional too, keying off wartime and Depression-era patriotism and its push for civic conformity in service of the state and those in control of it. Maybe the shift in 1970s public history was not toward emotion per se, but rather toward a different register of emotion. In this way, public history and popular culture during the decade paralleled shifts in consumer capitalism, which sociologist Sam Binkley has described as moving decisively toward the goal of “getting loose,” in which mainstream Americans embraced “a countercultural pattern of interpersonal style and emotional self-management” that emphasized “new forms of flexibility, fragmentation, and fluidity in to the very fibers of self-identity.”5 This new approach to values, mores, styles, and expressions of personality accompanied consumer capitalism’s turn to more flexible modes of production in response to the economic and political crises of the 1970s. But crucially, what Rymsza-Pawlowska’s research suggests is that “getting loose” did not only lead to solipsistic or narcissistic culture. It also fostered new modes of collective action beyond consumerist ends alone. When it came to the uses of history in public life and popular culture, the focus on the self during the “Me Decade” also had larger, civic dimensions.

Like Rymsza-Pawlowska, Joseph C. Ewoodzie, Jr. looks to the 1970s as a decade in which dramatic changes occurred from the bottom up. In Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years he strives to tell a “people’s history of hip-hop” that emphasizes how teenagers in the South Bronx formulated creative approaches in the domain of culture, criss-crossing social and aesthetic boundaries, and eventually establishing new ones around the genre of hip-hop. While earlier hip-hop historians such as Jeff Chang emphasize the destructive chaos from which hip-hop emerged (Chang describes the South Bronx as a “Necropolis” and locates hip-hop’s history more squarely in the political economy of urban crisis), other scholars, such as Cheryl Keyes, map out the deep roots of hip-hop in African Diasporic traditions. Ewoodzie wants to combine these approaches (he calls them the culturalist and the materialist schools of hip-hop history, respectively) and also, at the same time, move past them.6 As a historical sociologist, his goal is most of all to track the development of the genre within a buzzing scene of active culture makers who shaped both their symbolic and material conditions.

As historical sociology, this is a book in dialogue both with the history of hip-hop itself as well as with sociological theories of how new cultural forms come into being. Ewoodzie does an exquisite job combining the two. To get at this complex and slippery aspect of the past, he concentrates most of all on hip-hop’s “lesser-known actors.” Their active participation in the emerging world of hip-hop during the surprisingly understudied years of 1975 to 1979 reveal how “proto-boundaries” within the South Bronx youth culture became “durable.” In other words, Ewoodzie wants to show us not the effects of a “people’s culture of hip-hop,” but rather how the participants themselves formed that culture in the first place. The result is a narrative quite different from the typical, seemingly inevitable march from Kool Herc playing break beats at a public housing party in 1973 to the breakout success of “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang in 1979. Instead, Ewoodzie gives us a story of unsung, but often fabulously talented, teenagers trying to make it in the music business or just have a good time on a Saturday night and “how, within the emerging hip-hop world, they developed their own ends toward which they directed behavior, their own cognitive perception of themselves and their world, their own strategies of action, their own styles, tastes, and signals, and their own social organizations” (10). This is a finely-grained, theoretically sophisticated social history of hip-hop becoming itself in the mid-1970s. 

Using oral history sources and archives of ephemera such as fliers, Ewoodzie returns repeatedly to the making of difference as a key aspect of hip-hop’s formations: youngsters in the South Bronx liked the DJ Kool Herc because he did not play disco (complicating more recent pop music history lumping of hip-hop, disco, and funk against the racialized and homophobic “disco sucks” movement of white, suburban rockers). Hip-hop was a subcultural teen music set against the sleeker sounds of disco emanating from the fancier Manhattan discotheques. At parties in public housing recreation rooms and plugging his portable sound system into street lamps at local playgrounds, Herc played records his growing fans knew from their parent’s music collections, yet he tweaked them to emphasize exciting new and different musical aspects, particularly the rhythmic breaks. Boundary making occurred around the known, slicing and dicing it into distinctive differences to create a new cultural form. 

Only then did conventions slowly emerge, or sometimes suddenly burst forth, as when the MC began to supplant the DJ as the central figure at hip-hop performances. Tensions over gang turf, who could perform in what club, moments when norms of gender and ethnicity were challenged or reinforced, and other local factors shaped hip-hop on the ground. What is exciting about the book is how Ewoodzie’s “people’s history” becomes something neither taken for granted nor dismissed as unimportant; instead, we see people living their lives, and making history as they did so, in a lively swirl of boundary and difference making in action, formulating culture out of agencies and constraints, opportunities and difficulties.

Ewoodzie’s people’s history of hip-hop is partly a history of technology; it reveals how electronic products such as the turntable moved from consumer goods meant for passive recorded-music playback to vehicles of production and creation: the technological wheels of commerce were spun into scratched tracks of innovative culture making. Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States is more directly a history of technology, but one with a healthy dose of social contextualization and awareness. 

Rankin traces an alternative past to the dominant narrative of the so-called computer revolution, in which Silicon Valley rose up out of the dusty hobbyist circuit boards of 1970s home-brewed computer clubs to lead a hyper-capitalist, libertarian revolution.  She moves the spotlight from Northern California tech firms to the educational uses of computers at Dartmouth College, in Minnesota, and at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Using extensive archival and oral history sources, Rankin contends that in these places we glimpse a different history: one of “citizen computing.” Instead of privatization and consumerism as the underlying force driving digital life, something more like a networked commons appeared. It was, in her recounting, still imperfectly masculinized by proto-tech bros, but it was also full of potential as a more democratic mode of publicly minded computing. Long before fake Facebook accounts, Twitterbots, and Google search returns began to undermine political elections and promote extremism through racist and sexist algorithms, and far prior to a digital gig economy upending more stable modes of middle-class employment, another kind of communal digital social life sprang up on time-share networks and at terminals across America.

Rankin contends that the computer time-sharing networks springing up at Dartmouth and spreading to Minnesota and elsewhere offer a different “history of the digital age that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and community.” They “emerged neither from individual genius nor from the military-industrial complex,” which is to say Rankin wants us to notice a “people’s history of computing” that is neither the byproduct of the ability to “think different” at Steve Jobs’s Apple nor the story of ARPANET Defense Department largesse giving birth to an industry of silicon-chip makers and software innovators. Instead, time-share networks “were created for—and by—students and educators at universities and public schools as civilian, civic-minded projects.” And, “at their most idealistic, the developers of these systems viewed access to computing as a public good available to all members of a collective body, whether that body consisted of a university, a school system, a state, or even a country” (4). In Rankin’s extensively researched findings, we glimpse the dream of a democratic, decentralized, inclusive computer commons that lingers on at the margins of today’s Internet culture. It is the original vision of a true “sharing economy” as a non-commercial zone of social interaction and a space for learning, discussion, leisure, and work beyond the imperatives of the “free market” capitalist economy.

In the 1970s, this vision of computing showed up in the development of the BASIC programming language, which privileged the user’s ability to code over the computer’s efficiency of processing. It showed up organizationally and institutionally as well in the National Science Foundation-funded Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, the subsequent Kiewit Network, the recommendations put forth by the Interuniversity Communications Council, known as EDUCOM, the People’s Computer Company, whose catalogue contained drawings of the people protesting the difficult FORTRAN programming language with picket signs, the playful software magazine Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia, the efforts at University of Illinois to design personal terminals at the Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) network, and the TIES (Total Information for Educational Systems) and MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium)’s development of the video game The Oregon Trail, beloved by a generation of school children. For Rankin these all make for “a history from the user up” that focuses not on the dazzling devices themselves, but rather on the stakes of the “act of computing” for collective civic life and the public good (10, 11).

Time and again in her book, Rankin celebrates this lost history of “citizen computing,” but at the same time she continually critiques it for its masculinized gender inequalities. Whereas the early years of computing saw opportunities for women as programmers, by the 1970s, computing was dominated by men, and while women were able to carve out some space within its networked sociability, gendered norms from the larger culture were rewired into the circuitry of these alternative time-sharing computer spaces. Unfounded assumptions about expertise, the development of sports as a main form of gaming on the time-share networks, and other factors made these new communities democratic, but not fully equal. This should come as no surprise—after all, even in earlier decades of modern computing, women found their options limited.7

However, while Rankin points out this problem, she never quite explains what to make of it. Should we therefore question the very nature of the alternative “citizen computing” she praises? Similarly, she continually notes the problems of maintaining a boundary between privacy and publicity on the time-sharing networks of the 1970s, but she never fully teases out the implications of the replication of various problems of the private-public division in these digital spaces. That Rankin draws our attention to the issues of gender and the tensions of private and public life online is invaluable. Indeed, it is important enough that working through all their implications for the “people’s history of computing” seems all the more needed. How do we fully make sense of the limitations as well as the immense possibilities of these kind of “computing communities” focused on the public good more than private profit? What can we learn from their failures as well as their idealizations?

Overall, Rymsza-Pawlowska, Ewoodzie, and Rankin each add fresh research and captivating new stories to the cultural and intellectual history of the 1970s. All three books do so in service of deepening our sense of the “people’s history” of the “Me Decade.” Taken together, they suggest that the era was not dominated merely by a “culture of narcissism,” but also saw the flourishing of a project of civic democracy.8 That project remains profoundly unfinished to this day. In our own moment, when the concept of the commons, not to mention its very existence, is under enormous pressure from new technologies of social media and the resurgence of reactionary, Nixonite politics—and when it is also receiving new interest from a post-Millennial generation curious about democratic socialism—the lost sense of a “people’s history” from the 1970s deserves the fresh scrutiny that Rymsza-Pawlowska, Ewoodzie, and Rankin provide.

Peter N. Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: The Tragedy and Promise of America in 1970s (New York: Holt, 1982).

Tom Wolfe, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” New York Magazine, 23 August 1976, https://web.archive.org/web/20131127072351/http://nymag.com/news/features/45938/.

Beth L. Bailey and Dave Farber, eds. America in the Seventies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004). Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010).

Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Sam Binkley, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop?: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005). Cheryl L. Keyes, Rap Music and Street Consciousness (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002). Nelson George, Hip Hop America (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998). Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan, 1994).

Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012); Nathan L. Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (W. W. Norton & Company, 1979).

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