Black to the Future

As the folks at Mazda are always reminding us, the 1980s-going-on-'90s are really the 1950s. That's the key marketing pitch -- and cultural and political agenda -- behind those omnipresent TV spots for the Maita retro-roadster.

You know the ones: The screen fills with outtakes from the Reagan '84 "Morning in America" series while the soothing voiceover recites a neo-"Happy Days" litany which could have easily come from the lyrical opening passage of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. "Romance was big ... Rock and roll was in ... Everybody was feeling pretty good ... There were no Negroes ..." Oops, that last part was Doctorow, but you get my drift.

I don't believe that history runs in cycles. But I do believe that the culture-gurus at Mazda are on to at least the germ of something. The 1950s in America seemed like a time of political quiescence and cultural entropy, under a protective canopy of economic good-feeling. According to the mainstream pundits of the time, the Big Questions of American history were all settled. The future would be an unbroken Pax Americana ruled by The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

Of course the wise ones were all wrong. While America was supposedly busy feeling good about itself, the world was changing. The geological plates of history were silently shifting and earthquakes were being born. On the international front, colonialism was dying and a Third World was discovering itself. And, in a not-unrelated trend, on the home front African Americans were re-opening the question of democratic ideals vs. practice in ways that, at least for a while, called the whole structure of American society onto the carpet.

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