Public radio is nothing if not loyal to the pun. Radiolab’s “Cold War” chronicles the epic feud that rent the Salem, Oregon ice cream scene in two. Literally, a cold war. Radiolab may have stuck with the punny title Epic Magazine—the original source of our story—chose, but despite the storytellers’ insistence that this story mirrors the international conflict between the United States and the USSR, this is actually a story about an intranational conflict.
Dennis and Efrain are fighting about what ice cream is really about. Efrain sells ice cream because it’s largely unregulated; It was an easy business to get into and he needed to support his family. He emigrated from Mexico in hopes of a better life—he wanted to buy a house and he believes that if he works hard enough he might be able to enjoy a Sunday off of work. It’s his way to get a slice of the American Dream. Dennis, on the other hand, got into the frozen sweets business for the people. A run-in with a “dilapidated” ice cream truck and rude salesman turned him into the Serpico of nostalgia. As he puts it, his ice cream business is “trying to hold on to a piece of Americana.”
It was at this point in the episode that I had a thought I’d never had before: is Americana racist? SNL’s Michael Che makes a strong case:
This week, Donald Trump released his new book, “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.” And while some are taking offense at his use of the word “crippled,” I’m more concerned about his use of the word “again.” Like, what years are you talking about specifically, dude? When I hear rich old white guys start bringing up the good ol’ days, my Negro senses start tingling. I mean, after all those years of progress, Trump’s really going to go with ‘Nah, I think we had it right the first time’?
Is there something deeply troubling about harkening, longingly for the America of old? The America of “separate but equal” and “Irish need not apply.” Glorifying these past versions of our nation is, at the very least, exclusive. It’s like we’re saying “Nah, I think we had it right the first time,” when clearly we didn’t. Even the sweet, jangling nostalgia of ice cream truck music has racist origins. 1 When we look back on American history it is important to ask who will be included in our vision for the future of America.
And just to be clear, I’m not saying anyone involved with this story is racist. What I’m saying is this: this ice cream war parallels our nation’s troubling inability to include.
Radiolab observes that Dennis started out with a “sense of idealism and purpose,” a commitment to his nostalgic image of ice cream. But vintage ice cream does not include questionable 2 business tactics. Things escalated. Cars were burned. A conversation starts and promises are made and not much changes. As Radiolab says, “if you’re a kid, ice cream is just ice cream.” When you’re young, you don’t much care what ice cream is about. It’s the aging and looking backwards and forwards in time that complicates things.
- Theodore R. Johnson III responds to his first article’s critics here. ^
- Efrain would challenge this term. I’ll let you be the judge. ^
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