Tag Archives: Pop Culture

Seeing Honolulu through A Surfing Life

Until I read Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of his life as a surfer, I had little desire to visit Hawai’i. Like Ryan, my impression of the islands was drawn largely from Hollywood films and television, and reinforced by friends’ honeymoon photo albums on Facebook. Seen through these lenses, Hawaii seemed like a Disneyland for grown-ups—a façade purposefully constructed to show vacationers the beaches, roasting pigs, and smoking volcanoes that tourism professionals believed they wanted to see.

Barbarian Days shattered my perception of Hawai’i. Finnegan’s description of his two years living in Honolulu, attending a public junior high school and surfing with locals, provides a glimpse into the quotidian lives of Honolulu residents in the late 1960s. Stories about surfing certain waves serve as a starting point to discuss the history and geography of the Hawaiian islands; other stories, of the friendships Finnegan forged through surfing, demonstrate the complex racial and ethnic hierarchies that Honolulu’s diverse residents navigated daily, the class divisions that organized social life, and youth culture.

I picked up Finnegan’s memoir having heard positive reviews and because, after finishing my dissertation, I needed to be transported to another time and place. I had no particular interest in surfing, be it sport, recreation, or aesthetic. Within the first twenty pages of Barbarian Days, I discovered that in fact I was very interested in surfing. Moreover, I had a newfound itch to visit Honolulu.

Unlike more traditional memoirs, Barbarian Days skips around through Finnegan’s life. Rather than beginning with his childhood in Southern California, Finnegan begins the memoir with the formative surfing he did in Honolulu between 1966 and 1967. The memoir then flashes back to his earlier years before returning to Hawai’i (albeit Lahaina, on Maui) and then follows his surfing adventures in the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa, San Francisco, and Madeira.

Surf Riders Honolulu
Surf Riders, Honolulu, Charles Bartlett, c. 1920-1921, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although I found the entire book immensely enjoyable, I think the first chapter on Honolulu is my favorite and the one that stands out most clearly in my memory. In it, we follow the young Bill as he evolves from a naïve SoCal teen with a single-minded focus on surfing to a savvy, cosmopolitan young man awakened to the reality of racism and classism. An anecdote about being picked on as the new haole (white) kid in school begins the book, signaling the end of Finnegan’s innocent ignorance. “[M]y parents sent me to the nearest junior high, up in working-class Kaimuki, on the back side of Diamond Head crater,” Finnegan writes, “where they assumed I was getting on with the business of the eighth grade, but where in fact I was occupied almost entirely by the rigors of bullies, loneliness, fights, and finding my way, after a lifetime of unconscious whiteness in the segregated suburbs of California, in a racialized world.”[1]

Through the fistfights and brawls that he found himself in during his first weeks at Kaimuki Intermediate School, Finnegan (and the reader) become increasingly aware of the racial hierarchies operating within Honolulu. As one of the few haole kids in the public junior high—most white parents sent their children to private schools—Finnegan found himself a target for bullying by “the ‘mokes’—which seemed to mean anyone dark and tough.” Seeking protection, he joined “the In Crowd,” a haole gang from whom he “began to learn, first, the broad outlines, and then the minutiae, of the local racial setup.”[2] This alliance insulated Finnegan from further torture, but it was not long before surfing expanded his social circle to include Hawaiian friends.

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Honolulu, Diamond Head and palms, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Near the house his parents rented was a surf spot that the locals called Cliffs, where Finnegan became a regular. There he met a Hawaiian teen named Roddy Kaulukukui, who was his same age and at his same skill level at surfing. Both looked up to Roddy’s older brother, Glenn, a “superb surfer, with a style that was already flowing and beautiful.” It was from the Kaulukukui brothers and their friends that Finnegan learned the ins-and-outs of surfing Diamond Head, and it was with them that he learned local surfing culture. Unlike in Southern California, where surfing was a sport of youthful rebellion, in Hawaii surfing was and remains a family affair; a sport taught by fathers to sons. Roddy and Glenn’s father was accomplished enough to have surfed some of the most advanced waves on Oahu’s North Shore. “I had always assumed that only famous surfers rode Waimea,” Finnegan recalls, but during his year living in Honolulu he “saw that local fathers rode it too, and in time, perhaps, their sons would as well.” “These people never appeared in mainland [surfing] magazines,” and yet in time he realized “there were many families like the Kaulukukuis in Hawaii—multigenerational families, ohanas rich in talent and tradition, known only to one another.”[3]

Honolulu Hawaii, Diamond Head
Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 9, 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Through the Kaulukukuis Finnegan also gained insight into Hawaiian life on the mainland, particularly how Hawaiians navigated the intersections of race and class. In an attempt to join the surfing club the Kaulukukui brothers belonged to, Finnegan found himself knocking on doors in a “posh looking subdivision high in the hills above Honolulu” trying to raise money by selling “a heavy sack of Portuguese sausage” to the affluent white residents. The organizer of the Southern Unit surfing club, Mr. Ching, gave the group “basic instruction in door-to-door salesmanship.” Explaining how the boys were to pitch the sale, Mr. Ching exaggeratedly code-switched from pidgin English: “Mr. Ching said ‘the Southern Unit,’ and the kids laughed, because he pronounced it haole-style, standard English, though it was usually said ‘da Soddun Unit.’”[4] When, a few weeks later, Roddy transferred into one of Finnegan’s classes at school, Finnegan realized his friend could similarly play both the role of Hawaiian surfer and “haole-style” student: “Like Mr. Ching in his fund-raising spiel, Roddy abandoned briefly, his normal pidgin and spoke standard English.”[5]

Boat and Palm tree outline at a Hawaii Beach.
Boat and Palm tree outline at a Hawaiian beach, Carol M. Highsmith, 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Through his parents, Finnegan gained an adult perspective on Honolulu society, particularly its class divisions. His father, a television producer, had moved the family to Oahu to make a TV show. This work regularly brought him into (contentious) contact with the state’s labor unions, and Finnegan observed that although workers—and particularly non-white workers—had benefitted from organized labor, “By the mid-‘60s… Hawaii’s labor movement, like much of its mainland counterpart, had grown complacent, top-heavy, and corrupt, and my father, although he came to personally like some of the union bosses he fought daily, never seemed much edified by the struggle.”[6] His mother, meanwhile, found “the provincialism of Honolulu … suffocating.” Although she hid her distaste from the family and “threw herself into making the most of life in an insular, reactionary town,” in retrospect Finnegan reflects that when she traveled to “the outer islands she found, I think, a Hawaii more to her liking—not the Babbitty boosters and country-club racists of Honolulu.”[7]

Although I can only assume that today Honolulu differs markedly from the city that Finnegan explored with his friends 50 years ago, Barbarian Days nonetheless invites readers to see Hawai’i, and Honolulu more specifically, as a place populated by residents. Tourists hardly appear, overshadowed by descriptions of riding city buses, babysitting siblings, and crushing on girls—indeed, without the social life that surfing provides Finnegan, little about his junior high experience would be remarkably Hawaiian. Yet, it’s this vision of Honolulu and Hawai’i that I appreciated and that opened my mind to a possible visit. My appreciation of surfing, however, will probably remain limited to YouTube videos.

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here.

[1] William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 3. Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton also talks about being bullied as a haole in the documentary Riding Giants.

[2] Finnegan, Barbarian Days, 10.

[3] Finnegan, 16.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid., 24-5.

Au revoir New Orleans, Hola Mexico City

On February 3, 2013, New Orleans became the American capitol for the day while the city hosted Super Bowl XLVII. The 2013 Super Bowl is most remembered for two events unrelated to the football game: the blackout and the halftime show. Beyoncé Carter-Knowles headlined, garnering praise for her performance of hits like “Run the World (Girls)” and “Independent Women Part I” with the backing of an all-female band and crew of dancers. It became, at the time, the second most-watched halftime show ever. Beyoncé returned to the Super Bowl in 2016, dominating the show (and eclipsing headliner Coldplay) with an explosive performance of her brand new single, “Formation.” Although the game occurred in the San Francisco Bay area—and the performance alluded to the Black Panthers, which originated in nearby Oakland—“Formation” also represented Beyonce’s return to the Crescent City; the track is laden with lyrical, sampled, and visual references to New Orleans.

beyonce-formation-halftimeLemonade, the subsequently released visual album which includes “Formation”, became the most significant artistic and cultural production of the year (if not the decade). Much of the album was filmed in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, and the artist and her collaborators use images of black life and black residents of the Crescent City to explore the album’s overarching themes of race, gender, feminism, marriage, southern identity, power, wealth, and status. “Formation,” in particular, resonated with fans for its revolutionary sound and lyrics.

Dr. Zandria Robinson at New South Negress argues that New Orleans is a character in Beyonce’s story, essential to understanding both the historical formation of blackness and black lives, and, more importantly, the potential for black re-formation and revolution. In Robinson’s analysis:

“[T]he visuals for ‘Formation’ offer up New Orleans as convergence place for a blackness that slays through dreams, work, ownership, legacy, and the audacity of bodies that dare move and live in the face of death. As an actual and imagined site of black southern ecstasy, tragedy, remembrance, and revolutionary possibility, NOLA is the pendulum on which Beyoncé rides a southern genealogy that traverses the Deep South from Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, back and through, with stops in between.”

Like a true boss, in “Formation” Beyoncé manages to bridge centuries of history and to offer a compelling and complicated critique of racism and misogyny in under five minutes.

In re-reading the past month’s coverage of New Orleans for The Metropole’s first Metropolis of the Month series, I was struck by the similarities between how urban historians and Beyoncé have examined the city. Indeed, historians are inherently interested in formation, and many of our posts spoke of creation, evolution, and revolution in the city. Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City surveys New Orleans’ development in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to demonstrate how “the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality.” On a smaller scale, Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness examines a single neighborhood in the Big Easy, the red-light district of Storyville, to demonstrate how “both its creation and its closing down were pushed by ‘progressive’ reformers.” In his essay contrasting masks and memorialization in New Orleans, Craig Colten describes how the city’s destruction by three major hurricanes in the twentieth century inspired the construction of the levee system that eventually failed during Hurricane Katrina—further perpetuating the cycle.

Beyonce FormationThe “Formation” video begins with two allusions to Hurricane Katrina—the artist sitting on top of a submerged police car, amidst flooded homes, over which is layered a sample of late comedian Messy Mya asking, “What happened at the New Wil’ins?” “Beyoncé encourages us to hear [it] as a question about the comedian’s unsolved murder,” Robinson argues, “as well as a question about the city and black folks and the South: ‘What happened after New Orleans?’” Beyoncé plays with the ambiguity of Messy Mya’s question, using “What happened” as a way to look back at the city’s history of oppression against its black citizens, and to critique the present perception that black New Orleans has recovered from Katrina.

This longer chronological perspective also characterized our posts on The Metropole. Although references to the hurricane appeared in Colten’s essay and in our roundup of articles on New Orleans published in the Journal of Urban History, it served as an entry point to a broader examination of the city rather than the subject itself. As we wrote in our introduction to the JUH article roundup, “rather than rubbernecking at disaster, [scholars] have tried to use the hurricane to situate the city’s longer history; Katrina as organizing principle rather than a principle unto itself.”

In our discussions of urban histories of New Orleans, just as in Lemonade, the city’s legacy of slavery appeared as a consistent theme. While The Accidental City described how infrastructure built by slaves pulled “New Orleans out of the mud,” in her interview with with The Metropole, Landau explained how Storyville’s red-light district perpetuated the Southern sexual hierarchy whereby white men had ownership over black women’s bodies. And both Colten and Moira Donegan, whose piece on New Orleans in n+1 we featured in the introduction to the JUH article roundup, discussed how a certain form of hurricane tourism has emerged that privileges the desires of white, wealthy visitors over those of the city’s many communities of color.

Finally, if nothing else our coverage on The Metropole encouraged readers to “get information” on the city’s fascinating history. Beginning next week, we head southwest to Mexico City. We have some exciting posts planned, and hope you will enjoy reading essays by several scholars, including one by Professor Pablo Piccato on his new book, a bibliography, and some travelogues about visiting the Distrito Federal.

Thank you to Craig Colten, Emily Landau,  Brenda SantosSteve PerazaStephen K. Prince, and Andy Horowitz for their various efforts in bringing New Orleans to life this month.