The Fault Lines of Midwestern
Racism Run Deep

Amaud Jamaul Johnson's Letter to Wisconsin

Dear Wisconsin–

Dear swing state: Dear battleground and infinite presidential visit: Dear broken-heartland: Dear flyover: Dear Packer fan and Brewer fan and anti-labor leader: Dear Act 10: Dear apple orchard and cranberry bog: Dear Tammy and Ron: Dear Cheesehead: Dear Butter Burger: Dear diabetes and high cholesterol and Ironman: Dear Supermax and overcrowded county lockup: Dear red tape and yellow tape, supper club and polka mixtape: Dear bottle glass and chalk silhouette: Dear cell phone footage: Dear seventh bullet in my back: Dear Tony Robinson and now dearest Kyla: Dear Governor Evers, Lt. Governor and Brother Mandela, and former Governor comb over: Dear Jacob Blake: Dear ghost of the dead Koch brother: Dear fried cheese curd and frozen custard: Dear Ho-Chunk Gaming: Dear Epic Systems and Trek Bicycle and outside agitator: Dear “Berkeley of the Midwest”: Dear Harley-Davidson and Bud Selig: Dear polar vortex and Canada Goose: Dear Ed Gein and Jeffery Dahmer: Dear Frank Lloyd Wright and death at Taliesin: Dear grandchild of a hidden war criminal: Dear Brat Fest: Dear “I don’t see race”: Dear legacy of Joseph McCarthy: Dear Brett Favre and Aaron Rogers and Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick: Dear dairy farmer and That 70s Show: Dear “not my tax dollars”: Dear Coasties: Dear “I can’t understand why they can’t get over it”: Dear gerrymandered majority: Dear Don’t Tread on Me: Dear Oshkosh B’gosh and You Betcha: Dear Fuck ‘em Bucky, Jump Around, and Sweet Caroline: Dear State Supreme Court: Dear frat house and functional alcoholic: Dear public urination: Dear rust belt and buckle: Dear achievement gap and infant mortality: Dear “you must be from Chicago” or “another country”: Dear conspiracy theory and living off the grid: Dear Pewaukee and Waukesha and Oconomowoc: Dear preschool to prison pipeline: Dear home brew and Brandy Old Fashioned: Dear fish boil and “Cape Cod of the Midwest”: Dear Miller High Life and lake house: Dear walleye and kayak: Dear why I’ll never hunt or ice fish: Dear Chancellor Becky and Robin Vos: Dear statistically worse than Mississippi (sorry Mississippi): Dear popular vote versus electoral college: Dear Driftless: Dear Buck: Dear Greek Freak and Sterling Brown: Dear passive-aggressiveness and aggressiveness: Dear Richie and Potsie and Ralph Mouth, and Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, and Joanie loves Chachi, and Laverne & Shirley, Lenny & Squiggy: Dear Mr. Arthur Fonzarelli:

I’ve lived here for two decades, and despite my best efforts, I’m still a stranger. Growing up in Compton, I loved the show Happy Days, which was based in Milwaukee. If you would have asked me, I couldn’t have pointed out Wisconsin on a map, and my relatives still have no idea where I am. This didn’t matter because it became an imagined place where the homes in every neighborhood were Arts and Crafts or split-level black and white American Colonials. The teenagers ate hamburgers and drank malts every afternoon, wearing two-tone cardigan letterman sweaters or poodle skirts. They didn’t have sex, but there was necking and sometimes heavy petting at the drive-in or at Picnic Point. The only trouble in this world was eating those Salisbury Steak TV dinners or the stress behind cramming for the next big exam. Fonzie, an unmarried itinerant motorcycle mechanic, renting a room above the Cunninghams’ garage, offered this world its sole point of tension. He is supposed to represent an “outside element,” and now that I think about it, I can’t remember how he made money. We are led to imagine that he’s a reformed member of some bike gang, an outcast from the film, Easy Rider. The Cunningham children are so innocent, even as teenagers, and Fonzie hovers around them as an educator of and protector from “street life.”

This show was a guilty pleasure. It trafficked in a nostalgia that didn’t have any connection to my life in Compton, particularly in the late 70s and early 80s. But their world was uncomplicated. Diversity on this show was about personality, about the assumptions made of blondes, brunettes, and redheads. I didn’t think of this as a segregated world. Sure, Compton was segregated, but segregation seemed both a part of our distant past and our everyday existence. Richie was an all-American boy. He was a “good person,” and as the protagonist of the sit-com, we saw the world through his eyes. We laughed with him and hesitated when he found himself in uncomfortable situations, or when he felt the need to be protective of his little sister, Joanie. Richie had red hair and freckles. I think we were supposed to pity him because these traits didn’t make him conventionally handsome. We hoped that his “good character” would shine through and everyone around him would love him, would see him as a natural leader. Maybe he’d grow up to become the owner of a small business or become our next president.

Back then, some of my cousins criticized me for being so obsessed with the show. As a Black suburb of Los Angeles, Compton shouldn’t be classified as an “inner city.” I felt like we were living on an island. We had our own rules, our own dress codes, our unique sound. Deep segregation allows one space for strange fantasies. I enjoyed a perverse form of freedom. No one would have called me “white,” or thought I wanted to be “white,” for enjoying these shows. At the time, I don’t know if it occurred to me that Happy Days was set in the mid-50s and early 60s, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. What did I know about life in middle America? The Cunninghams lived in a suburb; we lived in a suburb, a bubble. And what did I know about Freud, or Jung or Deleuze or Fanon? Happy Days was just popular. We also all loved The Dukes of Hazzard, and one Christmas somebody bought me a model car of The General Lee. (The nostalgia connected to that toy, and the time I spent “whistling Dixie” in our backyard as a child are as complicated as the eroticism attached to Daisy Duke). We had other options that attempted to portray inner city Black life. We had Good Times, of course; The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Whats Happening, a show about a Black family in Watts, the community that neighbored Compton, where my mother was born. Those shows were problematic in many ways, but I can’t overstate the importance of representations of race in popular media. I consumed obscene amounts of television when I was young. I wasn’t much of a reader, so my early imaginary life was drawn through screens. This was like a slow drumroll leading up to the significance of The Cosby Show. Learning to let go of my love of The Cosby Show still feels like an open wound. But before the Cosbys, I had the Cunninghams. Their life seemed perfect. Who wouldn’t love banana splits with extra cherries, roller skates, hula parties, and Perry Como?

I remember an episode entitled “Fonzie’s New Friend,” when Richie forms a band with Potsie and Ralph, and they are planning to perform at a Hawaiian-themed party in the Cunningham’s basement. Richie realizes that they need a drummer, and Fonzie recommends one of his good friends, Sticks. The scene opens at Arnold’s, the after-school hang out burger joint. Richie wants to invite more girls to his party. He’s interested in a particular young woman, who he refers to as “dollface.” She rebuffs Richie’s advances because her girlfriend wouldn’t have a date. Richie, while waiting for Fonzie’s “new friend” to arrive, suggests that Sticks would make a great blind date. Sticks walks in. Yes, he’s Black, which triggers the first laugh-track. The girls see him before Richie, and there’s a look of disgust and outrage on their faces. Richie glances back at Sticks and at first dismisses him like he was swatting a fly from his shoulder, then Sticks introduces himself. This is the cue for another big laugh. The girls accuse Richie of being cruel and storm off. Within a three-minute scene we get jokes about basketball, fried chicken, watermelon, and rhythm. Richie is clearly confused and befuddled, which provides a window for Fonzie’s moral assistance.

I’m concerned that I exist to improve the political capital of my neighbors. Is the purpose of my life the cultural enrichment of a white community?

Ironically, Sticks foreshadowed my adult life. I moved to Madison, Wisconsin in the fall of 2000. My wife was starting a teaching position, and I was still trying to “find myself” as a writer. Money Magazine had recently named Madison the #1 place to live in the US, so this seemed like a great place to land. After leaving Compton for college, I crisscrossed the country, living in DC, New York, Atlanta, and Oakland. The Midwest was the frontier. I’ve lived in deeply segregated communities my whole life, but I rarely experienced being the only Black person in a room. For me, the opposite was true; the white world was elsewhere, in other neighborhoods or on TV. Wisconsin is a lovely state. We actually live in our dream home, a lovely Colonial. I bike and hike; I ice skate and cross-country ski; I’ve become an amateur sommelier of craft beer, but I’m also a kind of mascot, a pet Negro, that one Black body in the coffee shop, or at the private pool; I’ve become everyone’s one Black friend, the anchor of every “one drop” diversity initiative, everything short of a drummer. Maybe a year ago, I was out alone having lunch, and a woman approached me. She placed her hand on my shoulder and said: “I’m so glad you’re here.” I felt like Sticks walking into Arnold’s. I’m concerned that I exist to improve the political capital of my neighbors. Is the purpose of my life the cultural enrichment of a white community? Was that my grandmother’s dream when I left for college? Similar to Sticks, I smile when nothing’s funny. I speak before I’m spoken to. I’ve mastered the early exit, a Black version of an Irish goodbye. And I learned from Malcolm X and my grandfathers to never sit with my back to a door, but that’s not enough to keep me safe or protect my sons. My palms sweat and I can’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. I’ve traded one form of segregation for another. But I’m an anomaly. In Wisconsin, the domination of Black bodies has been so complete, white conservatives started feeding on white liberals. Like Iowa, Wisconsin is a sort of test kitchen, a political science laboratory, a cultural barometer for our nation. The term, Heartland, is more than a metaphor. Poison the internal organs then watch the eyes turn jaundice, then wait for the extremities to change color: red/blue, blue/red, purple as a bruise. Anyone living here, navigating the political landscape of the Dairyland over the last few years, could see Donald Trump coming.

When I moved here, the local news was delightfully boring. Now I admit, as a child I fell asleep to sounds of sirens and helicopters, and I still miss the buzz of street traffic. Nothing happened here. Most nights, the lead news stories were about bake sales and can food drives. (I write this without sarcasm). If you are from Wisconsin, and you are white, maybe Happy Days wasn’t a fiction. We bought a new house a few years ago, and none of the locks worked. Our real estate agent didn’t understand why this was a serious problem. Almost every house in my old neighborhood was blanketed with bars. Politically, Madison and Milwaukee are deep blue dots in an otherwise red state. But like Portland and Seattle, progressive communities in Wisconsin have blind spots regarding race. Midwesterners are classically passive-aggressive, so no one would dare say the things you might hear in rural Georgia or Alabama. People here take great pride in being pleasant, and any confrontation would compromise a true Wisconsonite’s dignity. At first, I found it strange that I didn’t see people of color anywhere; not as bank tellers nor as grocery clerks, not as postal workers, nor in construction. What added to my confusion, I noticed the public schools were very diverse. I learned quickly that Madison is a heavily policed bubble with fragmented Black communities on the fringes of the city, struggling to survive. As it turns out, compared to Compton, the odds are greater that a Black child in Madison will drop out of school and end up incarcerated. Five years ago, during that horrible string of deaths, exposing the brutal vulgarity of police violence directed at Black bodies, when we learned the names Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sean Bell, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile, in Madison, on March 6, 2015, a 19-year-old named Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr. was shot and killed by Officer Matt Kenny. Kenny was responding to a well-check call because Robinson suffered from a mental health condition. Kenny shot an unarmed teenager because he was afraid for his life. Now these stories are painfully pedestrian, but Robinson’s death was a wakeup call for the city. Our bubble burst, and it was almost as if people here lost their innocence. Unfortunately, guilt is an unsustainable emotion, and Robinson’s death intensified fault lines running across the state.

It’s difficult not to think of the nostalgia shaping those Happy Days episodes as the evidence of a crime. The show debuted in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned, when the country was still reeling from Vietnam and the fallout from the riots after King’s assassination. Black communities were entering a period of reconstruction. I don’t think Happy Days is another Gone with the Wind, but this ran in the years hip hop and punk were born. Given its timing, Happy Days was more pernicious than any blood red MAGA cap.

At the conclusion of “Fonzie’s New Friend,” after Richie spends the bulk of the episode searching his spirit, trying to decide if Sticks joining the band is worth the risk of ostracism, we’re left with an image of integrated musicians playing to an empty room. Over 11 seasons, Sticks was featured in 3 episodes. Ron Howard, who played Richie, would go on to have a long career as a film director, eventually winning an Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind in 2001. John Bailey, Sticks, changed his name to Jack Baker and starred in a series of pornographic films in the mid-80s. He died of pancreatic cancer at 47.

Amaud Jamaul Johnson
Amaud Jamaul Johnson
A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, Amaud Jamaul Johnson is a winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Edna Meudt Poetry Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Dorset Prize, and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the MacDowell Colony, and Cave Canem. Born and raised in Compton, California, he is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing.





More Story
A (Decaying, Toxic) River Runs Through It: On Mill Towns and Populism The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations...