Intercultural Memories

Contesting Places, Spaces, and Stories

by Ahmet Atay (Volume editor) Yea-Wen Chen (Volume editor) Alberto González (Volume editor)
Textbook VI, 192 Pages

Table Of Content

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Introduction: Intercultural Communication, Memory, and Stories


This Volume’s Origin Story

We begin our introduction with a story. After all, our stories that we narrate and share are based on our memories. We story our memories to keep people, places, and events alive and sometimes relevant. We remember details that might have been forgotten as we narrate our stories both verbally and visually.

The idea behind this project dates back to 2015 when Alberto González conceptualized a panel on public memory and intercultural conflict for the annual Central States Communication Association (CSCA) conference. In 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the three of us along with other members of the panel presented our own work. The panel attracted a large audience, and the presentations were received enthusiastically. We carried out more conversation on intercultural communication and the concept of memory throughout the conference. Soon after the conference, we decided to reformat our panel and explore the role of memory in cultural communication and feature pieces that theorize the notions of “memory and remembering.” Moreover, we were interested in presenting case studies that employ some of these theorizations but also discuss the links between culture and memory and illuminate different aspects of public and personal memory. Hence, this book was born out of our curiosity about the past and how we remember it as well as the cultural politics surrounding what we remember and what we forget. It also shows our commitment to further stretch the scholarly reach of critical intercultural communication to include memory studies.

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I have been studying different aspects of intercultural communication for about 20 years now. Primarily, I have been examining issues pertaining to culture and transnationality in various settings, including media, classroom, or everyday interactions. However, a big portion of my research is focused on diaspora studies in general, and queer diasporic experiences in particular. My first book engaged with diasporic queer bodies in queer social networks sites and the ways in which they use these sides to make sense of their identities, to perform queerness, and cultivate communities to belong to. Along with this research, I have been interested in thinking and writing about the meanings of home, belonging, and memory for diasporic communities. Within that, I have been curious about the role of visual texts and new media technologies in remembering the past and also documenting a diasporic archive to capture in-between and hybrid experiences. More particularly, I have been invested in theorizing digital memory from critical intercultural communication perspective and within diasporic contexts.


I have been formally studying intercultural communication since fall 2004 when I entered U.S. academia as an international graduate student and instructor. Primarily, my research trajectory focuses on understanding and unpacking the cultural, relational, and material impacts of how we experience and communicate cultural identities (or not) across contexts (e.g., intercultural relating, identity-based nonprofit organizing, and higher education). Though cultural identities and memories are often not explicitly linked, memories, whether personal, public, or cultural, inform, shape, and/or affect the constructions and contestations of cultural identities. I am grateful to Alberto González for inviting me to participate in the 2015 CSCA panel, which became an opportunity for me as a Taiwan-born and U.S.-based scholar to (re)engage with personal and cultural memories about Taiwan that often feel both intimate and distant. Later, I had another opportunity to unpack memories and memorable moments of weathering institutionalized whiteness vis-a-vis oral history as an immigrant woman-scholar and faculty of color at a historically white institution for six years (Chen, 2018). Given the commitment of critical intercultural communication scholarship to the power, authority, and impact of histories and historical conditions on intercultural communication (e.g., Halualani & Nakayama, 2010), cultural memory offers a rich and exciting direction for such endeavors.

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My early and more recent writing on Ohio Mexican Americans concerns how they enter and navigate the public sphere as a marginalized community. I have focused on Latinidad and arts activism (2014), poetic expressions of otherness by migrant workers (1990), and strategic uses of media by Mexican Americans in Northwest Ohio (1989). As I recall those articles and the residents of Mexican heritage (both “settled out” and temporary) I am struck by how they expressed their goals, how they crafted their identities, and how these were strongly tied to memory.

In private conversations and in public discourse, residents would tell stories about Mexico or South Texas. Some of the stories were their own and some were stories told by their elders. The stories often involved cooking methods like learning how to make the best tamales, celebrations like quinceaneras, or stories of mythical creatures like the chupacabra. Whether told out of nostalgia, ethnic pride, or social defensiveness, the stories were connections to an idealized time, the time before migration.

The chapter in this book is co-authored with Eun Young Lee. It emerges from my opportunity to teach in Seoul over the course of several summers and Eun Young’s summer visits to her hometown of Cheongyang. The first restaurant I went to in Seoul was Hiraku, a tiny Japanese place near where I lived. The second restaurant was a Tex-Mex place in Itaewon. (I began to wonder when I was going to eat at a Korean food restaurant!) In my view, Vatos Urban Tacos was better than many Mexican food restaurants in the U.S. In our chapter, we attempt to unpack the layers of diasporic remembering in the origin stories and the material elements of two well-known Korean restaurants.

Intercultural Communication Research and Memory

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Cultural memory as an area of study has been widely examined in cultural studies, memory studies, peace studies and even to a degree in rhetorical, media and film studies; it has yet to occupy a large role in intercultural communication. Even though rhetorical and performance studies scholars, such as Aden, 2014; Dickinson, Blair, & Ott, 2010; Hasian & Wood, 2010; Phillips & Reyes, 2011; Demo & Vivian 2012, have examined cultural memory as an idea in relation to political discourse(s), as an area it is under-examined in intercultural communication. Considering that critical intercultural communication scholars often focus on social and cultural ideas, such as marginalized voices and experiences and issues of power in social and cultural structures and practices (e.g., Collier et al., 2002; Halualani & Nakayama, 2010; Willink, Gutierrez-Perez, Shukri, & Stein, 2014) and deal with displacement, immigration, diasporic experiences, and cultural identity/ies (e.g., Atay, 2015; Cheng, 2008; Flores, 2003; Yep, 2013), it is rather surprising that (inter)cultural memory as an area of inquiry is not widely present in the field. Drzewiecka (2010) echoes this when she states: “While intercultural communication scholars are beginning to account for the formative function of history, fewer yet have turned their attention to the twists and turns of memory” (p. 292). Moreover, a branch of intercultural communication research examines cultural conflicts and their aftermaths. For example, the ongoing Syrian crisis generated research by intercultural communication scholars who study not only the different dimensions of the cultural conflict but also migration that has been taking place as the direct outcome of the ongoing war in the area (Wilmott, 2017). As these examples illustrate, intercultural encounters and representations regardless of their contexts and domains are often linked to the past. Hence, memory studies is highly relevant to (critical) intercultural communication research.

This edited volume aims to fill this void. The authors in this book use different critical intercultural communication and cultural studies frameworks to approach cultural memory. By utilizing various critical and cultural studies and ethnographic and narrative-based methods, they examine the notion of cultural memory in intercultural encounters, everyday experiences, and identity performances that evoke memories of colonial pasts, immigration processes and in some cases, memories of places and spaces that suggest or represent a cultural past that is shaped by power structures and different ideologies. Hence, they focus upon the link between space/place and cultural memory, memories of nationally, places constituted by markers of ethnicity, race, and sexuality, spaces and cultural experiences and identity performances and presentations that represent or embody intercultural conflicts, oppressions, struggles and memories that help to make sense of, deal with or reconcile with the past.

Storytelling emerges from the present relationship with representations of a particular past. Our publicly performed relationship with the past and the ways in which we tell stories of the past is negotiable and contestable. Who remembers what, and why? In juxtaposition, who or what is forgotten, and why? When and how is a consensual meaning achieved and maintained over time? When and how are meanings challenged and renegotiated?

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Borrowing from different critical intercultural frameworks, such as intercultural and transnational identity formations, feminist and queer theories, accommodation and acculturation theories and postcolonial theory, the authors of this collection collectively argue that as intercultural or transnational bodies, we remember cultural events and upbringing, performances, and conflicts, wars and peace negotiations in particular ways. Our cultural, ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds and ideological perspectives guide us to remember the past in a particular way. Hence, stories that we grow up with and stories that we tell about our past, influence how we remember the past, how we try to preserve it, or in some cases how we try to erase it. Furthermore, the ways in which we experience and make sense of politically, culturally, and emotionally charged spaces and places that either represent the past or narrate the past in particular ways are infused with and influenced by our intercultural experiences and ideological standpoints in relation to these cultural spaces and places. Hence, the way in which we remember the past, and narrate the past is an intercultural performance, act, encounter and representation.

Cultural Memory and Sensemaking

This book examines different ways of remembering the past through commemorative sites and events as locations for the negotiation and contestation of shared individual and collective narratives. We argue that cultural memory is preserved and represented through commemorative and commercial sites, visual and oral stories, and performances. Hence, how we remember is always a cultural negotiation between individuals and between individuals and society. Therefore, storytelling and cultural representations of the past through use of space and places play a paramount role in remembering the past. Stories and visual representations (built environments, film and media representations, and performances) play an important role as we construct a sense of reality, make sense of our everyday lives, and remember the past. As human beings, we use oral, written, and visual stories to communicate, express our ideas, narrate our experiences, and present our identities. Walter Fisher (1989) argues that we use stories to make sense of our lives and lived experiences.

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While some of the chapters employ ethnographic research and rhetorical analysis, some of them feature personal stories to examine memorial sites, film and visual texts, or lived experiences to understand how the commemorations, memory and storytelling work as inter/cultural performance and function as cultural memory. The commemorative sites and events, cultural, political and personal stories analyzed in this book emphasize how the meaning making process of historical events and the ways in which they are represented in media are not always consensual but instead are often contested and potentially reproduces the original struggle. When put in the regional, global, and intercultural contexts, the performance of cultural memory reveals the conflicted nature of personal and collective narratives.

Chapter Summaries

The book is divided into two sections: Cultural Memories of Places and Spaces, and Cultural Memory, Identity Politics and Intersectionality. In the first section, the authors examine different spaces and places that evoke memory of the cultural past, how the past is articulated or how it is performed or enacted. In the second section, authors use visual texts or everyday practices to analyze the links between intersectional aspects of cultural identity and memory.

Peter Ehrenhaus and A. Susan Owen’s chapter, titled “Constructing Coalition at the Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment: Fractures and Alliances between Communities of Memory” reflects on the past and the memory of the race relationships in the U.S. by focusing on Ford lynching reenactment. This chapter reminds us that the memory of the past is always present, especially now when as a society we are trying to grapple with issues pertaining to race and discrimination. Ehrenhaus and Owen are also concerned with the constant cultural tensions between remembering and forgetting and how to negotiate some of these frictions.

“(Be)Coming Home: Transformative Places and Koreamerican Identity in Itaewon, South Korea” (Eun Young Lee and Alberto González) explores how place and memory intersect as Koreamericans work to gain cultural citizenship in Seoul, South Korea. The chapter focuses on two Tex-Mex-themed restaurants founded by Koreamericans who have returned to the Itaewon district of Seoul, Coreanos and Vatos. The restaurants are constructed as intercultural places where the memories of the Korean homeland are invoked alongside the memories of the U.S. Southwest. The authors argue that Koreamericans uniquely valorize and disrupt the ontology of Han minjok (one Korean identity) through the transformative discursive and material rhetorics performed in Tex-Mex food restaurants.

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In their chapter, “When ‘Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Square’ (un)became ‘Liberty Square’: A Case of Contested Public Memories in Taiwan,” Yea-Wen Chen and Chunyu Zhang examine divided public memories about Taiwan’s first president, Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975). In particular, they focus on shifting, evolving, and contested public discourses surrounding Chiang Kaishek Memorial Hall (CKSMH) over time. They conclude by arguing for a need to put the public back in “public” memory in that consensus building and honoring peoples’ lived stories are key in the healing process of (re)writing public memory about controversial public figures.

“Remembering Communism: The Site of Witness and Memory and the House of Leaves Museums in Albania” (Nina Gjoci) investigates the role that places of memory play in the rhetorical constructions of the communist past in Albania. The analysis focuses on two museums: The Site of Witness and Memory museum in Shkoder and the House of Leaves museum in Tirana, capital of Albania. Gjoci argues that the different constructions of the communist past at these museums demonstrate the difficulty of staging public representations of oppressive regimes and they reveal the ambiguity of Albania’s reconciliation with its communist past.

In “(Mis)Remembering Stonewall: Narrative Authority and the American Monomyth in Queer Public Memory,” Kathryn Hobson, Bernadette Marie Calafell, and Spencer B. Margulies take an intersectional approach to examine Ronald Emmerich’s film Stonewall (2015). While the film tries to spotlight the LGBTQA+ struggles during the late 1960s by focusing on the Stonewall riots, how the film decided to remember the past is geared towards white mainstream U.S.-American audiences. In their chapter, Hobson, Calafell, and Margulies focus on the absence of “radical queer and trans people of color” from the Emmerich’s film. Hence, they argue that the film ignores and also erases certain individuals and their complex queer identities from the historical event. In a way, the way it is remembered, erases the present of certain bodies and their significance from our collective queer cultural memory.

Shinsuke Eguchi’s chapter, “Queer Fantasy: A Memory of Michael Sam’s Big Gay Kiss,” critiques “the performative rhetoric of queerness” by focusing on Michael Sam’s kiss. As Eguchi reflects on the mediated memory of this significant event, because it was the first publicly televised kiss by an openly queer NLF football player, he examines racism, sexism and homophobia surrounding the discourse of this significant queer moment. Hence, he offers culturally significant alternative readings of the memory of this kiss to challenge and resist cisheteronormativity.

In “Diasporic Memories: Place, Space and Home,” Ahmet Atay uses autoethnographic writing to articulate how the notion of memory and home works for diasporic individuals. In his chapter, Atay focuses on the role of photographs as a visual memory in diasporic experiences. He uses three interrelated stories from three different time periods to embody and represent diasporic memory. In doing so, he also theorizes how visual representations, such as photographs or stories that diasporic individuals share create as a sense of belonging. Thus, he theorizes diasporic memory through storytelling.

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Mariko Izumi’s chapter, “Displaced Memorials: Commemorating the ‘Comfort Women’ in the United States,” examines transnational memorials across U.S. cities and towns for former “comfort women” who were and are victims and survivors of the Japanese Imperial Military’s institutionalized sexual servitude and atrocities between 1930 and 1945. In particular, Izumi asks and analyzes if memorials could “work” beyond national borders to generate political potential and vibrancy. Guiding by conceptualization of memory-in-action for political organization and mobilization, Izumi concludes that, when the transnational “comfort women” statues serve as partial and displaced objects, the invitation to empathize with global Others is nothing but elusive and salutary.

In “ ‘Funk Isn’t a Trend, It’s a Necessity’: Favela Funk’s Vernacular Discourse and The Struggle for Cultural Legitimation,” Raquel Moreira argues that favela funk is modeled after samba’s cultural memory and analyzes discourses surrounding favela funk as a musical and cultural movement born in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil that has gained popularity locally since the 1990s and has enjoyed global consumption in the mid-2000s. Specifically, Moreira unpacks three distinct yet interrelated vernacular discourses in favela funk’s quest for legitimization: (a) a political and self-affirming 2008 manifesto published by APAFunk (Association of Professionals and Friends of Funk); (b) the favela funk circles; and (c) the vernacular discourse of an Afro-Brazilian MC, Carol Bandida. Moreira concludes that artists and supporters of favela funk utilize both self-affirming and oppositional rhetorical strategies to legitimize and keep reinventing favela funk outside of mainstream media.


Aden, R. C. (2014). Upon the ruins of liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and public memory. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Atay, A. (2015). Globalization’s impact on cultural identity formation: Queer diasporic males on cyberspace. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Chen, Y.-W. (2018). “Why don’t you speak (up), Asian/immigrant/woman?”: Rethink silence and voice through family oral history. Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 7(2), 29–48. doi:10.1525/dcqr.2018.7.2.29.

Cheng, H.-I. (2008). Culturing interface: Identity, communication, and Chinese transnationalism. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Collier, M. J., Hegde, R. S., Lee, W., Nakayama, T., & Yep, G. A. (2002). Dialogue on the edges: Ferment in communication and culture. In M. J. Collier (Ed.), Transforming communication about culture: Critical new directions (Vol. 24, pp. 219–280). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Dickinson, G., Blair, C., & Ott, B. L. (Eds.) (2010). Places of public memory: The rhetoric of museums and memorials. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press.

Demo, A. T., & Vivian, B. (2012). Rhetoric, remembrance, and visual form: Sighting memory. New York, NY: Routledge.

Drzewiecka, J. A. (2010). Public memories in the shadow of the Other: Divided memories and national identity. In T. K. Nakayama & R. T. Halualani (Eds.), The handbook of critical intercultural communication (pp. 286–310). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fisher, W. R. (1989). Clarifying the narrative paradigm. Communication Monographs, 56, 55–58.

Flores, L. A. (2003). Constructing rhetorical borders: Peons, illegal aliens, and competing narratives of immigration. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20(4), 362–387. doi:10.1080/0739318032000142025.

Gonza ́lez, A. (1989). “Participation” at WMEX-FM: Interventional rhetoric of Ohio Mexican Americans. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 53(4), 398–410.

Gonza ́lez, A. (1990). Mexican “Otherness” in the discourse of Mexican Americans. Southern Communication Journal, 55(2), 276–291.

Gonza ́lez, A., Chavez, J. M., & Englebrecht, C. M. (2014). Latinidad and vernacular discourse: Arts activism in Toledo’s Old South End. Journal of Poverty, 18(1), 50–64.

Halualani, R. T., & Nakayama, T. K. (2010). Critical intercultural communication studies at a crossroads. In T. K. Nakayama & R. T. Halualani (Eds.), The handbook of critical intercultural communication (pp. 1–16). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hasian, M., & Wood, R. (2010). Critical museology, (post)colonial communication, and the gradual mastering of traumatic pasts at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA). Western Journal of Communication, 74(2), pp. 128–149. doi:10.1080/10570311003614484.

Kendall, R. P., & Reyes, G. M. (Eds.) (2011). Global memory spaces: Contesting remembrance in a transnational age. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Willink, K. G., Gutierrez-Perez, R., Shukri, S., & Stein, L. (2014). Navigating with the stars: Critical qualitative methodological constellations for critical intercultural communication research. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 7(4), 289–316. doi:10.1080/17513057.2014.964150.

Wilmott, A. C. (2017). The politics of photography: Visual depictions of Syrian refugees in U.K. online media. Visual Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 67–82. doi:10.1080/15551393.2017.1307113.

Yep, G. A. (2013). Queering/Quaring/Kauering/Crippin’/Transing “other bodies” in intercultural communication. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 6, 118–126. doi:10.1080/17513057.2013.777087.

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Cultural Memories of Places and Spaces

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1. Communities of Memory, Coalition, and Race Trauma: The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment1


Pacific Lutheran University


University of Puget Sound

In recent years American communities have been compelled to confront their histories of race violence and race lynching.2 Situated within the tensions of remembrance and forgetting, the collective will to confront these pasts is fraught with challenge, and calls to confront the legacies of white-on-black race violence are often met with deep ambivalence. Some fear that commemoration will “produce nothing but anguish, grief, and a righteous, desperate rage that only risks fueling more violence.” Others worry that instead of producing “a reconciled future, memories of victimization” will only exacerbate “social division and conflict” (Simon, Rosenberg & Eppert, 2000, p. 1).

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In this chapter, we examine one call to remembrance through the annual reenactment of the 1946 lynching of four African Americans in Walton County, Georgia.3 Our research at the Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment concerns one iteration by a coalition formed from two communities of memory—one white, cosmopolitan, financially secure, feminist, and religiously and politically progressive, and one black, rural, of modest economic means, and grounded in the conservative social mores of the patriarchal Southern black church. Communities of memory coalesce around particular relationships to enduring cultural trauma—in this case, trauma produced by a legacy of race lynching. While each community “occupies a distinctive historical relationship” to those traumas, “points of intersection” may support coalitional efforts in pursuit of common commitments (Owen & Ehrenhaus, 2010, p. 132). In this coalition, both communities displayed their own rhetorical strategies for reading the past and its representation, and for managing their positional anxieties. Both exhibited distinct relationships to the traumas of race lynching and to their responsibilities to the past through reenactment. Consequently, despite a shared commitment to “justice and remembrance,” the struggle to control the meanings of the reenactment fractured the coalition.

Managing the tensions between remembrance and forgetting is a “delicate enterprise, demanding astute judgment about what to keep and what to let go … to memorialize or to anathematize” (Lowenthal, 1999, p. xi). But astute judgment is never neutral; the quandary of what, when, and how to remember is always problematic. Communities that bear the scars of race violence consist of historically entangled groups whose interests differ and may be antithetical. Even among those advocating remembrance and cooperation across cultural boundaries, competing interests emerge in struggles to shape and control commemorative practices.

Reenactment is distinctive among commemorative practices. It creates a liminal space for constructing memory through embodied, affective experiences. Liminality owes to the “temporal tangle” that reenactment creates (Schneider, 2011, p. 10). By folding time upon itself, reenactment opens a liminal space of “cross-temporal slippage” in which “something other than the discrete ‘now’ of everyday life” occurs, and this is manifested in the “explicit twiceness of reenactment” (Schneider, 2011, p. 14, italics in original).

Our research at the Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment spanned three days. It encompassed rehearsals, the reenactment, and the denouement. The reenactment comprised three performance tableaux staged in their original locales, giving context and temporal order to the narrative. Performers and spectators traversed material space in an orderly caravan of cars and buses. The liminal space created by reenactment invited all to become witnesses.

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We begin by discussing how the reenactment constructed memory of race trauma by reproducing the traumatizing social drama of the “lynching performance” (Fuoss, 1999). The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment is a redressive ritual performance, operating within both the local social drama of the 1946 lynching and the expansive national social drama of race violence and race lynching (Turner, 1980). We then recount the narrative of the lynching, noting the centrality of conspiracy in that narrative. We next share our field observations and analysis. Because we had access to the interior spaces of the performance—which we detail later in this chapter—we were privy to the dynamics that resulted in coalitional fracture. We read this fracture as resulting from the entanglement of intersections and contradictory interests of two communities of memory, each standing in distinctive relation to the legacies of race lynching.

Reenactment, Trauma, and Public Memory

Reenactment has “become the most widely consumed form of popular history” (McCalman & Pickering, 2010, p. 3); this genre of remembrance reveals “a yearning to experience history somatically and emotionally” (p. 6). The immersive experiential character of reenactment creates a liminal space in which participants and observers are invited to foster “sympathetic understanding” (p. 7) of what original participants might have experienced. Reenactment calls attention to “unfinished business” (p. 11), by enabling “the creation and contestation of public memory” (p. 12). Moreover, as a hallmark of unfinished business, “compulsive repetition,” such as we find in annual commemorative reenactment, “is a response to trauma” (Sturken, 2007, p. 26). Telling a trauma story is “a kind of double telling, the oscillation between a crisis of death and the crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of survival” (Caruth, 1996, p. 7, italics in original).

The iterative character of the Moore’s Ford reenactment signals the enduring trauma of race lynching. We read this haunting of memory through Turner’s theory of social drama (1980): (1) the initial breach; (2) the subsequent crisis; (3) communal effort to seek redress through ritual reenactment; and (4) communal reconciliation or acknowledging an “irreparable breach” (p. 151). The 1946 lynching precipitated the breach. Its unresolved status perpetuates the crisis. The ritual reenactments, begun in 2005, seek redress, particularly after failed investigations by a grand jury, efforts of the Federal and Georgia Bureaus of Investigation, and financial incentives to reveal the perpetrators. But reconciliation necessitates bringing perpetrators to justice; the inability to secure this outcome suggests an enduring “irreparable breach” across racial divides, inter-racial coalitions notwithstanding.

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In response to a traumatizing social breach, redressive ritual divines “the hidden causes of misfortune” (Turner, 1986, p. 41). The struggle to control that “hidden cause” in the reenactment was the source of the coalition’s fracture. One community approached the reenactment as a resource for ritually redressing the Moore’s Ford lynching and fostering inter-racial cooperation through dramatized historical authenticity. The other appropriated it as a vehicle for metonymically redressing grievances based broadly in the nation’s history of white supremacist race violence.

The Lynching Conspiracy Narrative

On July 25, 1946 four African Americans, Roger and Dorothy Dorsey Malcolm and George and Mae Dorsey, were lynched in rural Walton County, Georgia. Coined “the last mass lynching in the United States” (Wexler, 2003), these murders were perpetrated in broad daylight in a field adjoining the Moore’s Ford Bridge, approximately 45 miles east of Atlanta. The lynching was carried out by twenty or more unmasked white perpetrators, none of whom were ever indicted.4 Local lore claims that now-elderly perpetrators continue to reside in the area.

Events leading to these murders are well documented. On July 14, in the front yard of white farmer Barney Hester, Roger and Dorothy Malcolm argued loudly and drew Barney’s attention. Hester interceded. Roger stabbed him and fled. Allegedly, Roger was intoxicated and suspected Barney was having an affair with his wife; this presumed infidelity was the basis of Roger’s arguing with Dorothy. Roger was quickly tracked down and surrendered. Sheriff’s deputies arrested and transported Roger to jail in Monroe, the county seat. Barney was taken to the hospital, where he lingered for eleven days. It was commonly understood that if he died, the white community would take matters into their own hands. On July 25, Barney Hester’s fever broke; he recovered.

That same day a wealthy white farmer, Loy Harrison, posted Roger’s bail. Harrison was accompanied to the jail by Dorothy Malcolm and George and Mae Dorsey. They had pleaded with Harrison to post bail, which Roger would reimburse with labor. Late that afternoon they headed for Dorothy’s mother’s home. Rather than taking the direct route, Harrison took back roads that led to the Moore’s Ford Bridge. As Harrison approached the bridge, his route was blocked by three cars; a fourth was behind him, barring retreat.

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A group of at least twenty unmasked white men with guns approached Harrison’s car. They pulled Roger from the car and bound him. Then they took George. Dorothy Dorsey reportedly cursed at one of the perpetrators by name; the mob then pried both women from the car, breaking their arms to loosen their grip on the car doors. All four were dragged to the clearing by the river. Under verbal command, three volleys of gunfire followed. The lynch mob returned to Harrison and asked if he recognized any of them; Harrison said he did not. The perpetrators then drove off, leaving Harrison behind. Harrison drove to a store to telephone the sheriff’s office and report the crime.

Conspiracy narratives share at least two generic features. First, they assert the “uneven distribution of resources and coercive power” (Fenster, 1999, p. xiv) and claim that “some individual or group … has secretly seized power by illicit means” (p. 110). Second, they invent the possibilities for moral agency, pitting “the actions of the perpetrators of evil conspiracy” against “the defender[s] of the moral order” (Fenster, 1999, p. 106). Moral agents discover, expose, and confront the web of secrets and illicit actions. Conspiracy narratives advance claims about “what really happened” (Fenster, 1999, p. 110) and expose what had been concealed.

As performed ritual redress, The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment responds to the social breach and crisis by revealing what was concealed through conspiracy and silence. Reenactors instantiate moral agents committed to social justice; an oft-repeated goal of the reenactment was to reveal the identities of the perpetrators, living or dead, and to hold them morally and legally accountable for the conspiracy to commit murder. The reenactment re-stages the conspiracy for the benefit of spectators, affirming that “this happened” and thwarting the original logic of disappearance lynching. The reenactment appropriates the structural logic of historical lynching performance complex5 as it confronts and explores the horrors of race lynching (Fuoss, 1999). Importantly, the liminal space of reenactment invites spectators to witness, and to position themselves as moral agents, as well.

Participant Observations at Moore’s Ford

Our work with the Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment spanned three days of intensive participant-observations, guided by principles of naturalistic inquiry (Jorgensen, 1989; Lofland & Lofland, 1995). Our preparation began well in advance of our arrival, focusing upon the original lynching, the coalition between the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee (MFMC) and Georgia WAND, press coverage and opinion pieces, and YouTube videos of previous reenactments. We also contacted Bobbie Paul, director of Georgia WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions) and of the reenactment.6 This relationship gave us access to the interior spaces of the reenactment. Moreover, Bobbie’s personal endorsement and our self-identification as educators established us as trustworthy to coalition members.

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Two questions emerged during fieldwork: How does the reenactment’s liminality open space for constructing affective memory? How do these communities of memory use reenactment to articulate their relationships to the traumas of race lynching?


Rehearsals for the reenactment over two days were highly collaborative and supportive, suggesting a high degree of commitment to the coalition and its goals across the two communities of memory. Rehearsals for each of the three tableaux were steeped in theatrical logistics which included: a detailed script with stage instructions; a published list of names and cell phone numbers of cast and crew; a published list of transportation options and scheduled travel times for the day of the reenactment; travel to three geographic sites of performances; site preparation; blocking of each staged tableau; the coaching of five primary actors; telephone exchanges between actors and other participants; and testing props.

Bobbie Paul, director of the reenactment, kept in regular contact with performers and production assistants, community event planners, and the coalition’s leadership team. Rehearsals were relatively brief, given the complex logistics of the reenactment, actors’ availability for rehearsal due to employment obligations, distance from reenactment sites, and prior role experience. Approximately 20 actors participated in the reenactment, most as members of the lynch mob. Bobbie worked most closely with actors who played the historical figures of Barney Hester, George Dorsey, Mae Dorsey, Roger Malcolm, and Dorothy Malcolm. Ray Mikelthun, a retired Methodist minister and peace activist, played both Barney Hester and the leader of the lynch mob. Betty Maddox, a retired police officer and non-violence activist, played the pregnant Dorothy Malcolm. Jillian Wells, a college student and intern with WAND, played Mae Dorsey; she worked closely with Bobbie on logistics for the reenactment.

Bobbie envisioned tableaux performances which she described as “postcard” or “snapshot” moments. She coached actors to use precise, minimalist body movement and gestures to convey moments of terror and violence. She demonstrated slow-motion action and freezing to convey moments of intense violence. She stressed the importance of physical and emotional safety when enacting performances of violence. She discussed the emotional intensity of reenacting a race lynching. She coaxed the white actors toward the performance of racially motivated rage, and the black actors to perform helplessness, panic and terror. She facilitated conversations in which actors reassured each other as they practiced physical and emotional confrontation.

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The first tableau was rehearsed at Monroe’s First African Baptist Church. The scene, featured for the first time, was of the precipitating altercation between Barney Hester and Roger Malcolm at the Hester farm. The Hester family disapproved of the reenactment, and razed the original homestead to remove a site of reenactor congregation. The Hesters also informed the Sheriff that reenactors were banned from their property. Bobbie coached actors on positioning themselves on the county road right-of-way in front of the farm, and instructed them to leave the site immediately if approached by members of the Hester family. As a precaution and in consultation with other coalition leaders, a law enforcement escort and presence was arranged for the entirety of the reenactment.

The second tableau was rehearsed outside the county courthouse and jail annex in the county seat of Monroe. Under Bobbie’s direction, Walter Reeves, a white activist from Atlanta, rehearsed his race-baiting speech as Gov. Eugene Talmadge. Betty rehearsed as Dorothy Malcolm plaintively calling up to her husband, Roger (Randy Ansley), on the second floor of the jail, urging him to be strong. Discussion then focused on moving quickly from the jail to the car that would carry the unwitting victims to their demise.

Rehearsal of the final tableau occurred at the site of the actual murders, an untended field adjacent to the two-lane bridge.7 Activities included site preparation, prop selection, actor preparation, and marking spatial boundaries for the press corps and spectators. Safety hazards were noted and volunteers cleaned and prepared the site. In consultation with lead reenactors, Bobbie determined the spatial contours of the reenactment site with yellow caution tape, taking into consideration road access and parking for spectators and performers, actor access to the field, the safety and comfort of actors who would be lying on the ground for several minutes, and press and spectator viewing areas.

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Bobbie’s concern was apparent for her actors’ physical and emotional safety while reenacting the violence of the original event. The two female victims would be dragged from the car. The perpetrators were to dramatize breaking the women’s arms to loosen their grip on the car doors; they would then place ropes around the necks of the two black men and drag them to the killing field. Bobbie rehearsed with her actors how to perform the action; as in the church rehearsal, she reiterated the “snapshot” composition of the performance through precise body motion and freeze-action to convey the horror of the moment. She coached her actors on how to use their voices to convey victim panic or the vocal and verbal menace of the perpetrators. Bobbie and Betty reviewed the challenges of playing Dorothy Malcolm as (allegedly) seven months pregnant. They worked on how Betty would support her belly prop with one hand as she is dragged from the car to the kill site. Bobbie reminded Betty of the coalition leaders’ agreement that this year’s reenactment not include a dramatization of the lynch mob cutting the fetus from Dorothy’s abdomen. Bobbie insisted that the reenactment not venture toward cheap spectacle. Betty Maddox agreed.

Sound effects were tested to mimic the sound of gunfire. From the edge of the clearing, standing among trees, Bobbie struck a snare drum in a staccato beat. She relocated the drum repeatedly to gauge the sound effect’s authenticity and its audibility. She compared the effect to using an over-turned metal washtub. Bobbie and her lead role actors discussed firecrackers to stand in for gunfire: the grass was dry and could catch fire; timing firecrackers is hard to control. Discussion turned to the mechanics of applying ketchup blood prop to the “bodies” of the lynched victims after they have been shot.

As we observed the rehearsal and spoke with reenactors, we realized how seamlessly the components of the lynching performance complex were integrated with the conspiracy narrative that figures prominently in disappearance lynchings. Three interrelated strategies dominated the rehearsal activities: narrativizing the original conspiracy; creating community and connectedness within the liminal space of rehearsal; and fostering affective memory through attention to sensory experience.

For our benefit and their own, participants told stories about their connection to the 1946 lynching and their involvement in the reenactment. Their stories expressed a felt sense of the devastating effects of historical silence upon the local African American community. Foremost in the story is the lack of criminal accountability. Participants shared a belief that some now-elderly perpetrators were still alive and that their families and friends knew the truth about the lynching. Bobby Howard, local civil rights activist, recounted his efforts since 1968 to investigate the crime. He claimed to know the identities of some of the perpetrators and hoped that the reenactment would encourage those with information to come forward. He and other local participants viewed the reenactment as a way to expose perpetrators before they die, thereby enacting justice for the victims and providing closure for their surviving families. Participants expressed their hopes that the reenactment would draw a broad audience, and that justice would prevail—whether through attending the reenactment, consuming media coverage, or a renewed F.B.I. investigation. Several cited our interest in their stories as further evidence of the reenactment’s import.

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Deacon Ron Brown of Monroe’s First African Baptist Church, a reenactment facilitator, shared his efforts to educate young African Americans about the history of racial violence in Georgia. “The children need to know the truth.” Hattie Lawson, board member of the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee (MFMC), was another key facilitator; she spoke of her life-long commitment to educating young black people about their history. Both of them echoed the commitments of the MFMC: “telling the story, honoring the dead, promoting healing and social justice, and creating a living memorial to the victims of this horrible crime.” Betty Maddox connected the original lynching to contemporary problems with violence among and against black youth, and shared the story of losing her 25-year-old son to gun violence; she had kept the shirt he was wearing when he was killed, and uses it as a visual aide when she gives motivational talks at schools and community meetings. For Ron, Hattie, and Betty, the reenactment is a pedagogical resource for motivating young African Americans to embrace educational opportunities, to eschew violence, and become involved in local civil rights activities. They viewed us as educators who could take their stories to a broader audience.

As the reenactment’s director, Bobbie Paul advocated public theatre as an appropriate and productive space for truth telling and healing. “Peace,” she said repeatedly, “is an action verb.” She expressed two goals: to offer participants and spectators a way of knowing and discovering, and to build inter-racial trust and coalition through community activism. To us she expressed both satisfaction and concern about the reenactment’s impact. She advocated the value of racial reconciliation among the reenactors who have done important emotional and political work across the years, yet wondered whether the reenactment deepens political and racial polarization in Walton County. She questioned whether some spectators attended the reenactment out of voyeuristic curiosity. She was deeply disturbed with past reenactments in which white perpetrators cut Dorothy Malcolm’s unborn child from her body, calling it “lurid and sensationalistic.” She expressed misgivings that the performance was being appropriated for pro-life (i.e., pro-birth) activism, which she opposes. She viewed us as sympathetic to her political commitments to racial and reproductive justice.

Reenactment Day

Reenactment Day was organized in three phases: a two-hour program at Monroe’s First African Baptist Church, coordinated travel to three locations in Walton County for the reenactment, and a communal meal at the church after the reenactment.

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The church overflowed with congregants, visitors, local citizens, visiting dignitaries, reenactors and facilitators, local politicians and religious leaders, and electronic and print media professionals. The three primary planners of the reenactment, several of the reenactors, and invited speakers took seats on the stage. State Representative Tyrone Brooks8 offered opening remarks and introduced the reenactment planners: Hattie Lawson, Bobbie Paul, and Bobby Howard. Each spoke briefly. Hattie Lawson addressed the urgency that the children “know the legacy of their history.” Bobbie Paul introduced the reenactors and described those playing perpetrators as “some of the most peaceful social activist folks in Atlanta.” The audience replied with a standing ovation. Bobby Howard told the story of the Moore’s Ford lynching and the ensuing efforts to secure justice.

The next four speakers connected themselves to the Moore’s Ford lynching through kinship. Dorothy Malcolm Woods identified herself as a namesake of Dorothy Malcolm and a representative of the Malcolm family. Sarah Maddox self-identified as Mae Dorsey’s cousin. Muriel Scott and Ariel Young Sullivan represented their fathers’ roles in the lynching’s aftermath. Each woman emphasized the reenactment’s significance for achieving justice and closure. Each spoke of a life-long connection to the lynching.

In a spirited and provocative speech, Dorothy Malcolm Woods gave her version of what happened to Dorothy Malcolm:

Dorothy Malcolm was pregnant with a precious baby. After she was so brutally massacred, and her baby excised from her body, the two of them, along with George and Mae Murray, were deprived of the most precious possession that even now some take for granted, and that is the right to be here. The baby that was denied -- he also had rights of being born, of bonding, of being nursed from a mother’s breast.

Woods then employed parallel structure to emphasize what the unborn child was denied:

the right to have playmates … the right to grow up … the right to march down an aisle as a graduate … the right to become a productive American citizen … the right to become a loving husband … the right to be loved by his family.

In closing, she shared that “in a moment of revelation,” and in consultation with Tyrone Brooks, she was moved to name Dorothy Malcolm’s baby:

He will no longer be denied a life or a name. For as this baby was conceived in a natural body and denied rights in the natural body, so he has been conceived in the spirit … and now born in the spirit. And ladies and gentlemen, he will forever live in the spirit of each of us so long as we stand for justice [applause]. And this day … we mark his name in history as “Justice” [applause].

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The elderly, frail Sarah Maddox thanked the audience and reenactors repeatedly and profusely. She described her family’s long relationship with the legacy of the lynching: “You don’t know what it is for your nerves to be ‘toh’ [torn] down and wracked. And live so long in fear and injustice.” She hoped that the reenactment would advance the pursuit of justice for the murdered four: “I just want to thank god for people like you all who try to stand up for us …. I just wanted to thank you together one and all for being here for the families of each of us and taking part in giving us justice.”

The next two speakers introduced themselves as the daughters of men who resisted, investigated and publicized the original lynching. Ariel Young Sullivan, daughter of the late Dan Young, Monroe’s funeral director for the African American community in 1946, related her father’s trauma from witnessing the “terrible injuries” inflicted upon the bodies of the Dorseys and Malcolms. With the consent of both families, Dan Young arranged a public viewing of the bodies because he believed the local community should witness the brutality of the murders, anticipating Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision in 1955 to publicize the image of her son’s brutalized body. More devastating to Mr. Young than preparing the mutilated bodies was the absence of accountability. “Fifty-two years later, the killers still remain unpunished.” Saying that “justice for the Malcolms and the Dorseys” was “my father’s dream,” Ms. Sullivan thanked the Committee and the reenactors for their efforts to keep attention focused on the crime.

Muriel Scott, daughter of publisher A. O. Scott who co-founded Atlanta Daily World, related the devastating effects of the lynching upon her father. He worked with Dan Young to investigate the crime, publicize the lynching in African American newspapers throughout the country, and protect African American witnesses called to testify before a grand jury. She urged the audience to “never give up” in their quest for accountability and justice. Projected above and behind her was an image of the family of Roger and Dorothy Malcolm looking on as two coffins were lowered into open graves.

As reenactors departed for their performances, Tyrone Brooks and others distributed a petition supporting federal adoption of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. For the next hour, audience members offered stories of local and national struggles for racial justice. They praised the efforts of the Moore’s Ford coalition and their dedication to racial justice. Visitors from Nigeria and Ethiopia described race struggles in their own nations and marveled at the audacity of a public reenactment of historical race violence. The program concluded with recognition of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, political candidates, religious leaders, newspaper editors, and activists in the audience. Audience members were given copies of the reenactment timeline with brief explanations of performances at various sites.

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A caravan comprising a church bus (bearing the slogan “Bible Fed, Spiritually Led”), twenty-five cars, and one large van traveled to the three reenactment sites under law enforcement escort. We were assigned to ride the bus, the lead vehicle in the caravan. The ride featured Hattie Lawson narrating again the original incident. As she spoke, passengers talked about their relationship to the reenactment. Several lynch mob reenactors discussed how to handle the media, the intensity of past performances, and their motivation for participating in the reenactment. They spoke of African American friends and co-workers who had shared their family histories of race trauma. Many reflected on their previous experiences of feeling emotionally drained after the performance. They joked with us and others about their performances as white supremacist murderers, declaring, “We’re just actors, you know!” Precisely whom they were reassuring was unclear.

At key intersections, Sheriff’s cruisers stopped traffic to permit the caravan to proceed. Other law enforcement vehicles were already at the Hester farm to monitor traffic flow and reenactor safety. As rehearsed, the reenactors repeatedly performed the violent altercation between Barney Hester and Roger Malcolm along the right-of-way until the entire caravan had passed. Bobby Howard narrated the scene with a bullhorn; Tyrone Brooks held aloft a sign captioning the scene. Amateur videographer Judy Conder exited the bus to record the scene. We exited as well. As soon as the caravan passed, performers moved quickly to the second tableau site in downtown Monroe. When we rejoined the bus for the trip to the Moore’s Ford Bridge, the reenactors teased us: “Never get off the bus at the Hester farm! Those people don’t like us!”

At the Walton County Courthouse Annex building, spectators were directed to Walter Reeves’s race-baiting speech as Gov. Eugene Talmadge. Walter constructed his script from excerpts of Talmadge’s speeches. Some spectators appeared offended by the racist sentiments and language; others laugh openly.9 As Walter concluded, facilitators directed the spectators to the nearby jail site where Loy Harrison (Bert Skellie) bailed out Roger Malcolm while Dorothy, Mae and George looked on. This scene unfolded quickly as reenactors scrambled to the third and final scene at Moore’s Ford Bridge. The caravan reformed for the thirty minute drive to the lynching site. As we approached the Moore’s Ford site, the mood of the reenactors shifted and chatter abated abruptly. “This is the longest ride, the last ride,” said one reenactor, referencing both performance anxiety and the fates of the Malcolms and the Dorseys.

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The scene at Moore’s Ford Bridge was frenetic. Facilitators supervised parking, crowd management and spatial boundaries. Media professionals grumbled because they were not allowed inside the performance space marked by the yellow caution tape; some in the press section audibly mocked the sincerity of the reenactors and the production. As spectators milled about in hushed anticipation, lynch mob reenactors donned costumes, checked props and waited quietly in the woods lining the road. Using a bullhorn, Tyrone Brooks announced that the reenactment was starting, and the car driven slowly by Loy Harrison and carrying George, Mae, Roger and Dorothy arrived. Spectators ringed the scene on the road, as facilitators quieted them and moved them back from the performance space. The lynch party emerged from the woods; the crowd became hushed and solemn. Some spectators held hands as they watched. The elderly Sarah Maddox, cousin to murdered Mae Dorsey, sat in a lawn chair near the bridge, weeping and crying out softly, “lord have mercy, lord have mercy.” Professional media workers appeared unmoved.

The perpetrators menaced the car’s occupants with slurs and spitting. They pulled Roger and then George from the car. Then, Dorothy and Mae were dragged from the backseat, screaming and clinging to the car door handles. Roger and George pleaded for the women’s lives. Spectators stood transfixed as the lynch party reenactors “broke” the women’s arms; some moaned softly as they watched. Many spectators took photos throughout the performed scene. The reenactors moved from the road, down the steep embankment and into the field of execution. As the victim reenactors were dragged down the slope to the killing site, spectators from the road joined those already assembled in the designated viewing area. As rehearsed, on the count of three the lynch mob reenactors fired at the victims in concert with the staccato beat of the snare drum and the crackle of firecrackers. The victim reenactors slowly fell to the ground, freezing twice on their way down. After they collapsed, the command was given twice more to fire volleys into the victims’ bodies. The echoing sounds of simulated gunfire filled the sultry late-afternoon air. The acrid aroma of gunpowder from the firecrackers lingered; clouds of smoke drifted upward. Silence dominated the scene as reenactors froze and spectators stood mute. The liminality of reenactment was palpable.

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One perpetrator moved forward and squirted simulated blood on the fallen victims. Another pulled out a knife belt and performed the excision of a small, anatomically correct male black baby doll from Dorothy’s body. He threw the doll down by Dorothy’s head. At this moment an African American woman in a church choir robe stepped into the performance space and began to sings the hymn “Precious Lord.” As she finished the first verse, Bobbie signaled the professional media to enter the space and photograph the reenactors holding their poses as murdered victims. Bobbie re-entered the space and helped the actors to their feet, hugging each in turn. The silence broke. In the moments after the performance several of the reenactors hugged and wept in anguish. Spectators talked animatedly and shared their affective experience with the reenactors, the press, and each other. On the ride back to the church, most of those who portrayed the perpetrators were deep in reflection. Most were beset with a sense of aporia, incapable of articulating their feelings and thoughts; several simply offered us their apologies.

Participants and spectators reconvened at the First African Baptist Church for a locally catered meal and conversation. The mood was upbeat and celebratory. There were widespread expressions of pride in having contributed to the day’s significance. Several local residents asked us how we felt about the reenactment: “Are you glad you came? Was it worth it?” In part, the questions suggested that local citizens gauged the importance of the reenactment by the length of our journey. But they also underscored our status as outsiders perceived as having little or no experience with the culture and history of the Deep South. Word had spread that we exited the bus at the Hester farm; we were told “how things work in small rural towns.” Some locals were nervous about the reenactment: “After you leave, we still live here. They hold the mortgages and they can make things very uncomfortable.” Implicit in the utterance is the assumption that we knew who “they” were, without being told.

Concluding Observations

The performances we observed confirmed for us the manner in which the components of the lynching performance complex are integrated with conspiracy narration, attention to sensory experience, and liminal space. The formal orations at the church rally, on the bus, and at the three reenactment sites narrativized the original conspiracy. The Reenactment opened a liminal space of possibility for witnessing historical injustice then, and motivating activism now.

In this coalition we observed the impact of the traumas of race violence upon two communities of memory. Despite their mutual commitment to a progressive racial politics, struggles to shape and control the reenactment produced a rupture, centering upon the ritual excision of an unborn male child from Dorothy Malcolm’s body.

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We listened to WAND-affiliated reenactors as we returned to Atlanta. Many were dismayed by the ritual excision of the unborn child, now named “Justice.” Bobbie Paul was irate that the contractual promise with Tyrone Brooks and reenactor Betty Maddox was broken. For Bobbie, the naming of “Justice” was further evidence that a pro-life agenda was being imposed upon the reenactment, a political act of gender appropriation by patriarchal and socio-religious conservative interests. For her, this violation created a breach that could not be redressed. Since 2008, WAND has no longer been institutionally affiliated with Moore’s Ford.

Our immersion in the Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment enabled us to appreciate how reenactment provides the opportunity to experience the past viscerally, to occupy the moral position of witness, and to construct memory of the past affectively through the liminal space that performance opens. To illustrate this opportunity, we juxtapose Reginald Marsh’s 1934 anti-lynching illustration, “This Is Her First Lynching,” with a photograph highlighting of one of the young spectators at the 2008 reenactment.10

The visual homology we construct with these images inverts a relationship between past and present which reveals the possibility for witnessing historical injustice. Marsh’s illustration comments on the disturbing practice of white families taking their children to lynching scenes. Positioned amidst black witnesses, the contemporary photo features the white daughter of the family that made their land available for the performance.

Figure 1.1: Reginald Marsh, 1934, “This is her first lynching.”

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Figure 1.2: 2008, “This is her first lynching, redux” (Photo by P. Ehrenhaus).

Despite opportunities for moral witnessing and reconciliation, the reenactment was infused with an array of tensions that mitigated some of its goals. We question whether any surviving perpetrators will be identified for financial reward or come forward, awakened by moral conscience. (In the subsequent years none has.) But we saw compelling evidence of how reenactors, facilitators and spectators drew their own restorative justice from the performance. We observed earnest dedication to social justice and activism, and to selfless cooperation by people whose life circumstances and experiences differ dramatically; yet we also saw how differing relationships to the traumas of race violence in two communities of memory was manifested in struggles over how best to give presence to the past.

At the center of the 2008 Moore’s Ford reenactment was an entanglement of race and gender. On one hand was WAND’s commitment to women’s agency and activism, and to the reproductive politics entailed by that commitment. Alternatively, we saw the local black community’s resolve to reveal the conspiracy of silence regarding publicly celebrated violence against black women and children. And in this entanglement, in agreements reached and then breached, and in public performance, we encountered the “performative constitution of race and gender” and the “rhetorical use of performance in disputes” (Fuoss, 1997, p. 5).

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Both communities of memory are inheritors of a national legacy of race trauma, yet their historical trajectories place them in disparate relationships to memory of race violence and race lynching—and to the obligations and opportunities for creating memory through reenactment. One community willingly admits that they stand as beneficiaries of an economic and social system borne of white supremacy. Their pursuit of racial justice and racial reconciliation derives from acknowledging their privilege, and it motivates many from the white Atlanta activist community to reenact the roles of the morally corrupt Moore’s Ford lynchers. Responsible to the past, these reenactors find expiation through performance. The rural black community bears no responsibility for the horrors of race lynching. Nor have they benefited from a white supremacist system against which they still struggle. Beyond the pragmatic goal of bringing surviving perpetrators to justice, this community finds restitution and reparation through public performance that reveals what had been concealed. And as a vehicle to affectively constitute meanings of the past in the present, this community claims its right to expand the reenactment metonymically to proclaim that all black lives—potential and actual—is sacred.11

For the local black community, the liminal space of the reenactment produces and reproduces affective memory of racial subordination and victimization, and of moral agency and resistance. The voice of agency and resistance declares the legitimacy and importance of black life as cultural experience and as individual human sanctity. This voice names the unborn child “Justice” and cuts him from Dorothy Malcolm’s womb, alluding to the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner and the documented excision of her unborn child.12 This voice proclaims we must remember that such things did happen.

Performance, as Bobbie Paul observed, is a productive space for truth telling and healing. Yet as the 2008 Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment coalition demonstrated by its fracture at the intersections of race, gender, and religious faith, productive spaces can also be highly contested sites for negotiating and constructing public memory.


1 Some materials in this chapter appear in Owen, A. S. & Ehrenhaus, P. (2014). The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment: Affective memory and race trauma. Text and Performance Quarterly, 34, 72–90.

2 Among these are Abbeville, SC, Atlanta, GA, Chattanooga, TN, Duluth, MN, Greensboro, NC, Tulsa, OK, Waco, TX, and Wilmington, NC. Atlanta (1906), Tulsa (1921), and Wilmington (1898) were sites of mass violence against African Americans.

3 The reenactment began in 2005. Our work pertains to the 2008 performance.

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4 Reports on the number of perpetrators vary. A grand jury hearing in 1946 developed a list of 55 names.

5 Fuoss (1999) characterizes lynchings as “performance-saturated events” (p. 5) and identifies five strands of the performance complex; his focus in this essay is upon two of those strands.

6 WAND was founded by Dr. Helen Caldicott as Women Against Nuclear Destruction in 1982. WAND later became Women’s Action for New Directions. Bobbie Paul was asked to direct the reenactment by the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee because of her formal education in drama.

7 The current owners of the property gave their permission and support for the reenactment.

8 Brooks is founding member of GABEO, Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. As the most prominent public face of the Reenactment, Brooks made the agreement with Bobbie Paul to delete the excision of the fetus from the performance.

9 Reeves’s Talmadge speech offers insight into the liminal experiential space created by reenactment and its role in creating affective memory. Spectators’ laughter suggests that some experienced the “then” of “1946 white racists” while others were in the temporal “now,” and disparaged Talmadge’s racism.

10 Marsh’s illustration was first published in The New Yorker, September 8, 1934, and reprinted in The Crisis in January 1935.

11 We intentionally use the phrase “all black life” rather than “all black lives,” precisely because this 2008 reenactment preceded the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and 2014. Nonetheless, the connections and continuities of historic and contemporary race violence, are indisputable.

12 Mary Turner’s lynching on May 16, 1918, in Valdosta, GA, is among the most horrific on record. Mary and her husband, Haynes, worked for a wealthy white farmer, Hampton Smith, who was murdered by an unknown assailant. Smith’s wife accused a local black man, who fled. A white lynch mob selected ten black men, including Haynes Turner, in retaliation. Because Mary sought redress from local law enforcement, she, too, was lynched—hung by her ankles, doused with gasoline, and burned alive. Her eight-month-old fetus was cut from her abdomen and crushed (See Armstrong, 2011; Dray, 2002; Zangrando, 1980).


Armstrong, J. B. (2011). Mary Turner, hidden memory, and narrative possibility. In E. M. Simien (Ed.), Gender and lynching: The politics of memory (pp. 15–35). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Caruth, C. (1996). Unclaimed experience: Trauma, narrative, and history. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dray, P. (2002). At the hands of persons unknown: The lynching of Black America. New York, NY: Random House.

Ehrenhaus, P., & Owen, A. S. (2004). Race lynching and Christian evangelicalism: Performances of faith. Text and Performance Quarterly, 24, 276–301.

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Fenster, M. (1999). Conspiracy theories: Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Fuoss, K. W. (1997). Striking performances/performing strikes. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Fuoss, K. W. (1999). Lynching performances, theatres of violence. Text and Performance Quarterly, 19, 1–37.

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Lowenthal, D. (1999). Preface. In A. Forty & S. Kuchler (Eds.), The art of forgetting (pp. xi–xiii). Oxford, UK: Berg.

McCalman, I., & Pickering, P. A. (2010). From realism to the affective turn: An agenda. In I. McCalman & P. A. Pickering (Eds.), Historical reenactment: From realism to the affective turn (pp. 1–17). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Owen, A. S., & Ehrenhaus, P. (2010). Communities of memory, entanglements, and claims of the past on the present: Reading race trauma through The Green Mile. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 27, 131–154.

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Simon, R. I., Rosenberg, S., & Eppert, C. (2000). The pedagogical encounter of historical remembrance. In R. I. Simon, S. Rosenberg, & C. Eppert (Eds.), Between hope and despair: Pedagogy and the remembrance of historical trauma (pp. 1–8). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sturken, M. (2007). Tourists of history: Memory, kitsch, and consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Turner, V. (1980). Social dramas and stories about them. Critical Inquiry, 7, 141–168.

Turner, V. (1986). Dewey, Dilthey, and drama: An essay in the anthropology of experience. In V. W. Turner & E. M. Bruner (Eds.), The anthropology of experience (pp. 33–44). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Wexler, L. (2003). Fire in a canebrake: The last mass lynching in America. New York, NY: Scribner.

“Who We Are.” Georgia WAND. Retrieved from https://gawand.org/who-is-georgia-wand/.

Zangrando, R. (1980). The NAACP crusade against lynching, 1909–1950. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

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2. (Be)Coming Home: Transformative Places and Koreamerican Identity in Itaewon, South Korea


Central Washington University


Bowling Green State University

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The transnational movements of people, information, and economy that have affected South Korean culture on various levels reveal a new transformative space in which Korean identity discourse is increasingly complicated. In communication studies, scholarship on space and place has flourished for the last two decades. Many studies explore how identities are constructed through spatial means of communication (Clark, 2004; Dickinson, 1997; Enck-Wanzwer, 2011; Ewalt, 2011; Gallagher & LaWare, 2010). The symbolic and material elements of spatial rhetoric are articulated in examinations of memorials, museums, and monuments (Halloran & Clark, 2006; Zagacki & Gallagher, 2009). The purview of these rhetorical studies extends to urban sites and landscapes (Clark, 2004; Dickinson, 2015; Fleming 2008; Lee, 2015). Our goal in this study is to reveal urban spaces as socially constructed environments within which intercultural encounters circulate (Lee, 2015). Particularly in an effort to comprehend the changing identity discourses in South Korean culture, we direct our attention to the intercultural urban environment in which a range of identities are performed and interact. We argue that Koreamericans (people born in the U.S. who are of Korean heritage) uniquely valorize and disrupt the notion of Han minjok (one Korean identity) through the transformative spatial and material rhetorics performed in Mexican food restaurants in Seoul. Our focus is Itaewon, the distinctive multicultural district in Seoul, South Korea, known for its global openness and its distance from Korean cultural conservatism.

According to the Korean census, there have been drastic changes to the demographic makeup of the country due primarily to steady immigration from Asian countries. Additionally, the number of international students has continuously increased throughout the last decade (Korean Statistical Information Service, 2016). In the meantime, an increasing number of Koreans are of mixed heritage, such as Koreamerican and Korean Chinese (Korean Statistical Information Service, 2016). Rather than being resistant to change, Koreans are adapting to a new demographic environment. As Shin (2019) notes, “Korean society has emphasized the necessity of Koreans living together with mixed-race or foreign people on the peninsula” (Shin, p 62). Population changes are becoming more and more visible in Korea and especially in the city of Seoul. In this context, this essay seeks to illustrate how Itaewon operates for Koreamericans, sojourners who aspire to contribute to the homeland of their cultural heritage, as a space to enact their identities. In doing so, we explore and critique how Itaewon facilitates a unique intercultural space for Koreamericans in South Korea.

Along with examining Itaewon as the intercultural urban space containing possibilities for transformations, where identity transformation is welcomed and even celebrated, we strive to initiate discussion about a more diversified and complicated understanding of Korean identity that, we argue, has become possible partly through Koreamericans in Itaewon as rhetorical agents who perform evolving identities while crossing geophysical, cultural, and discursive borders. The identities of Koreamericans have evolved by crossing not only nation-states but also by crossing discursive borders within the Westernized hybrid cultures of Itaewon and Korean indigenous culture. Further, the material presence of Koreamericans in Itaewon allows the urban environment to play a role in constituting a more complex Korean identity.

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Endres and Senda-Cook (2011) argue that “places, imbued with meaning and consequences, are rhetorical performances” (p. 260). With that in mind, we approach the restaurants founded and operated by Koreamericans in Itaewon as intercultural rhetorical sites within which cultural identities and memories are constituted and mediated. We focus on two restaurants, Coreanos and Vatos, which gain rhetorical significance in part due to their location in the city and also through the complex interplays of physical, political, historical, and cultural resources. Following the idea that “the urban built environment is communicative: It contributes to transforming and reproducing major ideological and structural conditions that, quite literally, mediate the everyday lives of individuals and communities” (Dickinson & Aiello, 2016, p. 1295), this study explores how Koreamericans and their material rhetoric in Itaewon are influencing (re)negotiations of Korean identity in the nation’s capital city. Also, given that food can be a rhetorical means of human agency to signify cultural associations and thus (cultural) identities (Shugart, 2008), this study, then, approaches food, restaurant layout, and menu items as material elements that rhetorically advance a new cultural being or sensibility.

These restaurants have been well received by people in/of Korea, which is evidenced by their expansions to other areas in Seoul throughout the last couple of years. Having been introduced in the early 2010s, as of 2017, they have three to four locations beyond Itaewon. As “materiality and symbolicity are entwined and enmeshed” (Dickinson, 2015, p. 12), throughout this analysis, we seek to demonstrate how those restaurants’ material and symbolic performances make present the cultural identities and experiences of Koreamericans. Especially as food becomes more and more “necessary for lifestyle” and “available for signification” (Cooks, 2009, p. 95), we argue that food items serve to highlight the cultural experiences and memories of Koreamericans, making those valuable and visible. Therefore, a part of the primary intention of this study is to address the following question: “How do we perform through food to constitute, resist, and critique the politics of power and identity?” (Cooks, 2009, p. 96, emphasis in original). By attending to the restaurants as cultural spaces, we argue that there is a shift in the social nexus of Korea due to the dismantling of the traditional binary of Korean identity, namely Korean or non-Korean (Shin, 2006). Then we examine how this shift alters identity politics in Korea.

As Mountford (2001) illuminates that “rhetorical spaces carry the residue of history upon them, but also, perhaps something else: a physical representation of relationships and ideas” (p. 42), such an examination of the dynamic between Koreamericans and Koreans in terms of their negotiations of identities helps us deepen our understanding of a complex nexus of the (re) creation of identity in the era of increasing transnational movements. In the following section, we briefly illuminate the rhetorical landscape of Itaewon in terms of the ways in which it works to (re)negotiate Korean identities. We also introduce the two restaurants under our examination, Coreanos Kitchen and Vatos: Urban Tacos. First, we contextualize this case study in concepts of diasporic citizenship and cultural belonging.

Diaspora and (a Sense of) Home

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The notion of a fixed sense of national identity that is primarily based on race and birthplace has been critiqued (Buisseret, 2000; Gilroy, 1993; Siu, 2005). Siu (2005) notes, “citizenship has become widely accepted as a set of cultural and social processes rather than simply a political status or juridical contract” (p. 7). Adopting this view, our approach to Koreamerican identity deploys the idea of “cultural citizenship” as a framework. Cultural citizenship allows us to keep our flexibility in understanding Koreamerican identity in terms of subject formation. We want to understand their “diasporic subject formation” (Siu, 2005, p. 13) by paying attention to how Koreamericans mediate their marginality in Korea with the “practices of belonging” (p. 6) that Koreamericans engage to affirm their heritage. Gilroy (1993) urges cultural critics to challenge “the ontological essentialist view” (p. 31) by adopting a view that takes an identity of people who traverse as something “routed” (p. 28). His emphasis on the routes instead of roots helps us to shift our focus to the processual nature of transnational living. Such a framework unveils in the Korean context, “the tragic popularity of ideas about the integrity and purity of cultures” (Gilroy, 1993, p. 7). Particularly in terms of foodways, “a relational approach gives dynamism to what could otherwise be a very static analysis of how a group’s foodways are rooted in timeless tradition” (Wilk, 2012, p. 30).

The return of Koreamericans occurs at a time of a hyper-charged political economy driven by what Lie (2015) calls the South Korean “export imperative” (p. 114). K-pop, electronics, home appliances, and cars are targeted primarily to overseas markets, not domestic markets. Through globalization, Koreamericans (in Texas or elsewhere) are never removed from the material reminders of their homeland. Siu (2005) contends that, “our increasingly interconnected world is changing the way we think, feel, act, and imagine ourselves in relation to home and community” (p. 207). For Koreamericans, the material and quotidian reminders of South Korea are dynamic and provide an avenue toward belonging. Siu emphasizes the contingency of belonging and highlights the complexity of affiliations that diasporic persons enact, affiliations that may be continuous or ruptured in the process of “diasporic subject formation” (p. 13). Those continuities and ruptures, an inevitable consequence of border crossings, are sources of cultural syncretism (Rath, 2000).

Koreamericans in Itaewon

Where people live, work, and play – the geographies they negotiate, the situations they find themselves in, the physical and human environments in which they think, act, and interact – these influence, directly and indirectly, subtly and forcefully, the experience they have, the people they know, the skills and habits they develop, the values they acquire (Fleming, City of Rhetoric, 2008, p. 185)

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Itaewon, located at the center of the capital city of South Korea, is a very distinctive urbanscape that is primarily a result of its closeness to a longstanding U.S. military base. Organically starting to function as a comfort town for U.S. military personnel since the Korean War, Itaewon has become distinctively internationalized throughout the rest of the 20th century (Choi, 2002; Lee, 2015). Endres and Senda-Cook (2011) clearly point out that “Places exist in the interrelationship with spaces … influenced by and influences spatial structures … that links localities into broader social structures and practices” (p. 260). Around the beginning of the 21st century, the dominant Western character of Itaewon has given way to a multicultural urban space with a greater variety of diasporic identities flowing into the district, taking advantage of the openness Itaewon provides in an arguably conservative and purist cultural atmosphere of South Korea (Hur, 2013; Lee, 2015).

Amid the sojourners, expats, and tourists in Itaewon, there are Koreamericans. Korean immigration to the U.S. began in the early 1900s when the small number of Koreans went to Hawai’i as farm laborers (Kim, 2008). Since then, however, the major wave of Korean immigrants to the U.S. occurred around the mid-1960s with the U.S. immigration policy reform (Kang, 2013; Kim, 2008; Yuh, 2005). In the modern history of South Korean emigration, until 2003, the U.S. was the most common destination, followed by China (Korean Statistical Information Service, 2016). The trend makes sense in that the U.S. has been one of the most influential Western countries in South Korea ever since the Korean War of the 1950s as a flow of migration tends to be “molded by the history of prior relationships between the country of origins and those of potential destination” (Portes & Stepick, 2003, p. 308). However, given the relatively shorter span of Korean immigrants to the U.S., the discussion has been scarce concerning Koreamericans sojourning to Korea with their U.S. citizenship. No significant number of Koreamericans back to Korea has been recorded until 2010. Since 2010 (and coinciding with the explosive growth of Korean exports), the number of Koreamericans visiting and staying in Korea has steadily increased (Korean Statistical Information Service, 2016). From 2015 to 2016, for example, the number of Koreamericans who came to Korea with an F-4 visa, which allows Koreamericans to stay in South Korea, increased by 12.9% (Korean Statistical Information Service, 2016).

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Within this context, Koreamericans seem to be flowing into Itaewon. It is not rare to find American-themed bars and restaurants, and several are operated by Koreamericans. Especially in the last several years, the new fusion cuisine, Korean-Mexican food (more accurately Korean-Tex-Mex), has been gaining popularity in South Korea. Two restaurants in Itaewon, Coreanos and Vatos, have become the spearhead of the scene for cultural transformation in the Korean cultural landscape. Both restaurants are founded and run by Koreamericans. Coreanos means Korean in Spanish (Coreanos’s Facebook page). A food truck with the same name that was operated by the founders in Austin, Texas, since 2010, is the inspiration for this restaurant. They opened their place, Coreanos Kitchen, in Itaewon in 2014. Two founders of Coreanos, Gene Cho and James Kwon, lived in California and Texas until they moved to South Korea.

Vatos is a “Mexican slang meaning men or dudes” (Vatos Website). Cofounders and owners of Vatos are three men, Kenny Park, Juweon Jonathan Kim, and Sid Kim. On their website, they explain who they are as follows:

Vatos Urban Tacos sprang from the minds (and bellies) of three Korean-Americans who wanted to offer a new type of dining experience in Korea. Kenny and Sid hail from Southern California, and Juweon planted his roots in Texas; hence, all three spent the majority of their lives growing up on authentic Mexican food. Simultaneously, all three were fed a steady diet of home-made Korean food lovingly prepared by their first generation mothers. Inevitably, such an environment led to the natural progression towards Korean-Mexican fusion cuisine. (Vatos Website)

The restaurant initially planned by Kenny Park was originally named “Seoul Taco” in 2011. He created a video to get funding from Kickstarter and started the campaign called “Seoul Taco: Tacos for the Seoul!” It is also important to remember that one of the motivations for Kenny to come up with the idea for the restaurant was that he was missing foods he used to have in California and found his friends from the U.S. also had the same struggles in South Korea. Therefore, Vatos caters not only to Koreans who are introduced to Tex-Mex food but also to Koreamericans who miss “a taste of home” (Olozia, T Magazine, 2013). When opening the restaurant in Itaewon in November that year, Seoul Taco became Vatos Urban Tacos. In 2015, John Kerry, then the U.S. Secretary of State, visited Vatos during his visit to South Korea. His visit boosted the restaurant’s profile and authenticity among Korean customers. In their eyes, it was now certified even by the Americans as well.

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Postcolonial critic Raka Shome (2003) contends that, “[Space] functions as a technology – a means and medium – of power that is socially constituted through material relations that enable the communication of specific politics” (p. 40); hence, the materiality of Itaewon as an urban environment, which has emerged as the Americanized space, makes it accessible and porous for various cultures. The flexibility and permeability, which characterize the district on symbolic and material levels, drive its spatial rhetoricity within which borders are embodied and embraced. The urbanscape of Itaewon is a manifestation of cultural border-livings that originate from the shared border with the U.S. military base adjacent to it. On such a multicultural landscape that has been designed to mediate cultures and to translate them into commerce, Coreanos and Vatos are located. The liminality of Itaewon is ideally suited for the Koreamericans. The enactments of “Korean Americanness” by Koreamerican sojourners transform Korean culture internally, in the heart of Seoul, since “Spaces have heuristic power over their inhabitants and spectators by forcing them to change both their behavior (walls cause us to turn right or left; skyscrapers draw the eye up) and, sometimes, their view of themselves” (Mountford, 2001, p. 50). For example, from the balcony of Coreanos, patrons can see the U.S. military base that borders Itaewon-ro, the main street of Itaewon. People dining at Coreanos get to visually consume the suburban look of the military base with its trees and lawns and American-style houses. That is as American as it can get. Both restaurants thread the fabric of the urbanscape as critical nodes that continue to stimulate the Korean disposition toward globalism. As Dickinson and Aiello (2016) argue, “the bricks and mortar of cities and their contribution to both enabling and impeding particular actions, identities, and practices” (p. 1295), offers Koreamericans the possibility of imagining and enacting cultural citizenship. In doing so, Koreamericans (re)create Itaewon as a transnational and transcultural place in South Korea. In attempting to understand the spatial practices contextualized within intercultural communicative acts in the era of transnationalism, we note what Asante and Miike (2013) suggest as a caveat:

It is not so meaningful for intercultural communication critics to merely demonstrate that cultures are internally complex and historically hybrid. What they ought to do is to assess the trajectories and directions of cultural hybridity in postmodern spaces toward the healthy and balanced centering of cultural heritage. (Asante & Miike, 2013, p. 9)

In addition, with the premise that rhetorical space entails a cultural dimension as well as a material dimension (Lefebvre, 1984; Mountford, 2001), our analysis attends to the materiality of Itaewon’s cultural landscape and its relations to the restaurants that are the focus of our study. In what follows, we begin with describing the restaurants and then interpret how these Koreamerican spaces provide ways to understand belonging and identity in South Korea.

The Restaurants

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Koreamerican owned restaurants, especially Vatos and Coreanos, are important anchors in the urban landscape of Itaewon. Their visibility comes from their popularity and elevated spots along the main street, Itaewon-ro. Coreanos is located on the hill close to the west entry of Itaewon. This particular hillside has been rapidly developed in the last few years and Coreanos has been largely responsible. Vatos is also plainly visible from most of the western portion of the main street. In addition to their now well-known signboard and logo, crowds lining up especially during dinnertime and over weekends make the restaurant hard to ignore. To accommodate the increasing number of customers, the restaurant was expanded in 2015. The placement of the restaurants works with discursive aspects of the places as well. Their names are quite clearly situate them among Koreans (Coreanos), Americans (written in English), and cosmopolitan (Urban tacos) sensibilities.

Shome (2003) argues, “The materiality … of spatial relations and how one is distributed within those relations raises issues about access and mobility that are usually not addressed” (p. 44). Urban space, for example, can be a site that provides us a way to understand how such spatial practices as “representations of space” and “representational spaces” (Lefebvre, 1983) come to create the identity of an urban site especially in terms of being “intertwined with the individual lives of the people living through the site” (Simpson, 1999, p. 313). It is important to note that urban space is being produced by a complex dialectic between what it is and how it is taken up, which constitute its identity.

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In the nexus of various parts of the district, these restaurants emplace themselves into the cultural grid and in doing so they invite new subject relations as “Spaces are productive of meaning as well as endowed with meaning” (Mountford, 2001, p. 58). The physical, therefore material, emplacement of the restaurants and their success as businesses, demarcate their value on the cultural and mental map of Seoul. In turn, the spatialization of the restaurants directs customer attention to the intercultural aspects of their dining experiences and to their own participation in the transnational and transcultural era of globalization. The space of these restaurants as a “material and cultural communicative form” (Dickinson & Aiello, 2016, p. 1297) invites people to experience the biculturalism of Koreamericans. Diners experience the culture within the space because of the particular way that space is structured. The restaurants manifest American ways of using space beyond cultural artifacts and references on their walls. Bars and balconies, for example, reproduce American preferences for a casual and social atmosphere. “People watching” is inescapable due to the large open indoor and outdoor seating spaces. Figuring out how to move your body is to know how to properly engage with the world. The movement of bodies within the sites is conscious and preconscious (Dickinson and Aiello, 2016), therefore being in the restaurants structured by different spatial norms and being conscious about how to move your body (what to do and where to go, for instance) reformulate diners’ awareness, which is a part of the (re)culturing transformation. Navigating themselves in the restaurants that are assembled in American ways, people experience the culture, the way of living.

The way the two restaurants are designed—with a bar section and dining areas (dining tables)—also recreates American ways (or, surely non-Korean ways) of structuring the space that distinguishes them from prototypal Korean diners. The restaurants facilitate socializing across tables and accommodate individualism by offering “combo” or mixed-item platters as well as a variety of side dishes. In traditional banchan (side dishes that accompany a Korean meal), the diner does not choose the side dishes, they are provided with the meal. A full bar with a tip jar on it (tipping is not a part of Korean custom) and spacious outdoor balcony/patio distinguish these restaurants from typical dining places in Korea as those are the features that appeal to people with desires for the Western (read: American) and international experiences. In this way, the restaurants become an “aspirational place” (Simon, 2009, p. 332) in which diners can imagine themselves in South Texas or Southern California.

Bars with the variety of draft beers on tap, which have become one of the newest culinary and cultural trends in Korea nowadays, and tall bar stools are the American look of restaurants and taverns, or at least nominally so. The option of choosing to dine or drink either at the bar or table is the American custom, that is, American habitus to which these Koreamericans are accustomed. Although there are few visible signs that indicate that these are American-themed restaurants, there are unexpected norms, for example, people need to “wait to be seated” (not a typical custom that would be experienced in most Korean restaurants). An open-kitchen concept also adds a contemporary appeal to the space. Even baby booster seats—rarely found in typical Korean restaurants—are stacked in a corner ready for use. As little as those seats are, they create a discernible mood of American flexibility and inclusion that most Koreans would notice and many tourists would expect.

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Furthermore, for the experience of being “worldly,” the urban aesthetic of the restaurants speaks to the lifestyles of global nomads. For that purpose, the very spacious (given the density of the city generally and Itaewon in particular, the spaces these restaurants occupy are impressively big) balcony that looks out over Itaewon-ro, where flows of all kinds (people, vehicles of all sorts, and the occasional K-pop video shoot) are constant and eye-catching. Balconies and terraces are appealing for their rarity in the city of Seoul (Jeong, 2014) and thus their spatial significance is maximized. Instead of sitting inside of a cramped eatery where toilet tissue dispensers are used for napkins, people can sit outside where the border between inside and outside becomes blurred. Those spaces such as terrace and balcony, which are legally allowed only in a few districts in the entire city, propel an affective (and sensual) intensity in the process of consumption. At the same time, enunciating the Western and American cultural space, the balcony and terrace, both of which are also designed to be viewed by pedestrians from the streets below, are quite literally construed as a stage where people can perform a cosmopolitan identity. Therefore, the “agentic materiality” of those distinctively spatialized sections of the restaurants, “directs attention to the ways in which material things … co-produce the culture of which they are a part” (Dickinson & Aiello, 2016, p. 1297). Korean diners especially, are free to encounter the bicultural experience of Koreamericans and view it positively. Through these ways of moving, diners “produce their own texts which become part of the identity of the place” (Simpson, 1999, p. 313).

On the other hand, the rhetorics of the restaurants can also be understood by what is not present. Adopting a modern quasi-brutalist design, the places do not use color; instead, color palates feature monotones such as black, gray, and brick colors. The ceiling and floor are dark gray, which is close to cement color. Pipes and air ducts are exposed. The brick walls are exposed. Tables and chairs are very minimalistic with few decorations on them. Chidester (2008) argues that texts can reveal “treatment of the racial Other as a form of visual and discursive absence” (p. 161). While the restaurant décor reveals a U.S-informed sensibility, the connection to Mexico and Tex-Mex relations is hidden. Coreanos features an image of a mustachioed Mexican wearing a sombrero but any connections to Mexican culture or the origins of the dishes served are absent. Mexico, as a nation-state and as a cultural presence in the U.S. is without direct representation. Tex-Mex is already a hybrid cuisine that has emerged from the appropriation and commodification of Mexican and North American indigenous cultures. The restaurants successfully render invisible the Mexican presence in the U.S. and they elide the very cultural influences and histories that the Koreamerican founders experienced as residents in Latinx dominated regions of the U.S.

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Rather than designing a space with significations of a particular ethnic locality, these restaurants open up the space through which people can be offered opportunities to practice and/or enact their urban and worldly identities. As these restaurants aspire to look like they could be in any metropolitan city in the world (but probably imagined as to be in the U.S.), diners are invited to enact their urban and worldly selves. The restaurants, through their symbolic and material modes, exemplify, “a productive form of cultural citizenship” (Enck-Wanzer, 2011, p. 346) even as they ignore the historical immigration dynamics between the U.S. and Mexico. Similarly, the restaurants visually re-territorize the cultural scene of the city to create a new vision for Korean identity. The restaurants rhetorically repurpose the space so that it can be filled with new Western ways for Koreans to imagine themselves and the Koreamericans who make this experience possible. In doing so, the restaurants open up a space where new identities are created, transformed, and performed.

The Food

Shugart (2008) contends that “food functions as a form of communication” and highlights the “rhetorical function of food as a means to construct and negotiate cultural identity” (p. 70). Food and acts of creating and consuming food within designed spaces, then, can be understood as political performances of identity (Cooks, 2009). Also, the power and importance of such acts lie in their normality or everydayness (de Certeau et al., 1998). Organizing cultural politics on the daily-experienced urbanscape, the rhetorics of space in these restaurants are fueled by their foods when they intersect with nomadic-consumer bodies. Within this rhetoric, Koreamericans offer their foods as the imaginations of their being, which allow diners to identify with their transcultural and intercultural experiences and accept Koreamericans as cultural citizens.

Food takes on even broader functions for negotiating our relationship to the world and to others. Whether thinking about food within the context of the environment and sustainability, health and obesity, globalization and localization, food has become a nexus of crucial conversations about our most intimate and embodied selves and our most social and abstract identities (Dickinson, 2015, Suburban dreams, p.101)

Food and food practices such as cooking and dining are performances that are informed by and reflect cultural identity. Dickinson (2015) suggests that they are “powerfully embodied topoi for thinking and performing contemporary culture” (p. 104). He continues to argue, “Connected to region and geography, food can help people imagine their place in the world … Food and food practices offer fully embodied and performative rhetorics of locality” (104).

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Foods invented by Koreamericans, particularly those Korean-Mexican restaurants, are “a compellingly embodied rhetoric of locality” (Dickinson, 2015, p. 100). Pilcher (2014) points out how Mexican cuisine, particularly the taco, has been picked up by Koreamericans by fusing tacos with Korean home cooking. In other words, their food is at once their sense of their place of origin and their experience of moving across geographical and cultural places. The Koreamericans offer their food as a reminder of and as a testimony to those movements that connect them to a different time and place. Their foods invoke both a sense of pride in the Korean heritage and recognition of U.S. allegiance, that is, an intercultural hybridity that provides themselves and eaters with “particularly resonant ways of locating the body in reference to an idea of home and also in the context of globalization” (Dickinson, 2015, p. 100). At the same time, food fusion acknowledges the local understanding of the international reach and significance of Seoul as the center of the South Korean economy.

At Coreanos, food reifies, “being Coreanos.” For example, Three Wise Fries is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. On their website, they introduce it as follows: “Voted best fries in America by Yahoo, Travel, and US News. Our fries are loaded with three meats (galbi beef, chicken, and al pastor pork), three different sauces, all topped with onions and cilantro. The fries have been our number one selling item since opening!” (Coreanos Website). Galbi (Korean for rib) beef is a staple of Korean barbeque. This is their signature menu that brought Coreanos to fame as is seen in news articles framed on the wall in the downstairs section of the restaurant. The articles tell customers that Coreanos was voted one of the best food trucks in the U.S. due to the Wise Fries. They also have Pork Kimcheese Fries, which has pork meat, kimchi, and cheese toppings. Their taco menu includes Galbi beef and pork belly tacos. Those two types of meats and the ways they are prepared (marinated or braised) are popular in the Korean restaurants. In the burritos section, the menu offers Kimchi BKB burrito, which is a kimchi and fried rice burrito. Kimchi is arguably the most known Korean food. The main components of this menu are galbi and kimchi. Those Korean cuisine-inspired ingredients are wrapped in a tortilla. Hence, the diner can “be Korean” and experience the Americanness of the Koreamericans.

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A post on the Coreanos Facebook page states, “Our Carne Asada Fries are available across all four of our locations! A favorite from LA, it’s perfect for some daydrinking” (July, 29, 2016). The Korean language version of this announcement says, “… The taste you used to enjoy in LA, enjoy it here in Seoul too!” (Translated from Korean by the first author.) The statement announces two things. First, it makes a clear connection to popularity in the U.S. Second, it appeals to people who are craving a certain taste enjoyed only back in LA. While Coreanos Kitchen serves anyone who likes or wants to try Mexican (fusion) food in Korea, it also specifically meets a demand from a certain demographic, arguably the many affluent-class Koreamericans who share the nostalgia of the U.S. We pointed out earlier that the increasing number of Koreamericans sojourning back to Korea is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is the relative scarcity of fusion-style restaurants like Coreanos that allows it to uniquely tap into the cultural memories of a slice of American culture and allows Coreanos Kitchen, in a dual sense, to provide returned Koreamericans with home.

Similarly, the Vatos brochure explains that their food is a “Korean-Mexican fusion that incorporates the ssam culture in the Korean cuisine into tacos from the Mexican cuisine” (translated from Korean by the first author). Ssam is a way Koreans enjoy barbecued meats such as marinated beef and grilled pork belly with vegetables such as lettuce. One puts pieces of grilled meats (typically grilled on a tabletop gas or electric stove) on a leaf of lettuce and adds more toppings and sauces according to preference. That is similar to how tacos are assembled. For the creators of the Korean-Mexican fusion, the founders/owners of Vatos, such similarities between two different cuisines became clear only because they have directly experienced the two. The hybrid cuisine reflects their hybrid identity. In other words, these foods reflect the way the creators of the food grew up in Southern California and Texas as Koreamericans. The path of their lives, memories, and experiences along the way is evoked in the recipes for Korean-Mexican cuisine.

In addition to the fusion dishes that embrace cultural hybridity, the burgers section, which is very American, reveals more directly their cultural influences. Vatos features three types of burgers including SID Burger, Cali Burger, and Longhorn Burger. Each burger represents one of the three co-founders of Vatos: Sid, Kenny who is from California, and Juweon who lived in Texas and is an alumnus of the University of Texas (whose mascot is Bevo, a Texas Longhorn). These are not a fusion of any kind but they are examples of how they represent their route from the U.S.

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These food items are not simply about being global or being cosmopolitan but about the “route” to the U.S. of the first-generation emigrants and the return to Korea of the second generation. In the same vein, the hybridity of a good number of Korean-Mexican dishes couched in other non-fusion ones on the menus strengthens their rhetoric of belonging precisely for the paradoxical tension brought between something familiar and something not quite familiar at once. The familiar aspects of the foods assure comfort while the less-familiar dimensions invite an exciting global experience. Finnis (2012) contends that “the foods associated with inclusion, exclusion, taste, and distaste may change over time, which in turn may reshape social boundaries” (p. 5). In the same vein, the rhetorical function of the restaurant menus is to produce a particular vision of how to understand and place oneself in the global flow and reconsider the boundaries of belonging. The food locates and materializes ideas of border-living as “the gastronomic memory of diaspora” (Finnis, 2012, p. 9), which leads us to “understanding the ways we experience the everyday, practical reordering and mixing of food tradition with new ideas” (p. 10). The food practices reimagined by Koreamericans shift the aesthetics of taste and the criteria for belonging. In this sense, food is situated in the nexus of what Koreans and tourists desire and value. Consuming particular foods announces and directs our values and desires. Also, since food can be a less intimidating way to have an intercultural experience, the experience of eating could be pleasurable as well as instrumental to encountering a variety of cultural identities. These foods provide diners with ways to “an embodied experience of multiculturalism” (Dickinson, 2015, p. 106). That is, consuming food centers their (consumers/eaters) bodily experiences and constitutes their multicultural/cosmopolitan identities. In addition, the act of eating includes a range of activities from picking out a place to eat, deciding what to eat from the menu, which requires us to read through the menu, and figuring it out how to (properly) eat. These varying activities, especially reading and navigating through the menu, can be intercultural encounters. In these restaurants, customers are learning the cultural interactions as well as transformative processes in performing Koreamerican identity.


Shome (2003) argues, “Mobility in and of itself is neither good nor bad … What matters are the material relations of empowerment and disempowerment that are enabled through the production of mobility” (p. 52). How do we understand the places of Koreamericans? Does their transnational and transcultural mobility produce an emancipatory potential for Koreans? Mannur (2007) observes that “Culinary discourse bears witness to the complicated historical processes that have occasioned international migration and diasporic dislocation” (p. 28). Throughout this analysis, our effort was to map how Koreamerican identities are constructed and shared by examining the elements of Koreamerican-operated Tex-Mex restaurants Coreanos and Vatos, in Itaewon. We examined the spatial rhetoric of Koreamerican identity as performed by Koreamericans in Korea and explored its possibilities for social transformation. By approaching the restaurants as rhetorical practices that mediate their hybrid identity with the dominant Han identity, we investigated the ways in which the physical appearance and locations of their stores, menus, and references challenged the ontology of Han minjok (one people) to transform traditional Korean understandings of Korean identity.

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The particular memories shared among the co-founders of the restaurants are aspects of their identities which are reflected in their menu creations. Restaurants such as Vatos and Coreanos provide a physical place where layered memories are performed and where diners can enjoy the food they have missed from both homelands. Therefore, to a degree, their rhetoric is invitational; they create an environment that accepts Koreans who identify themselves in ways that would not necessarily line up with the nationalistic discourse of Korean identity. Those restaurants, therefore, ultimately serve to bridge a nationalistic distance between Koreans and Koreamericans. Pilcher (2014) argues that “the physical experiences of taste may well help to encourage the acceptance and naturalization of people” (p. 459) which allows Koreamericans to claim cultural citizenship in South Korea and make acceptable a new geocultural identity. As Pilcher further notes, “outsiders offer fresh perspectives on our society and help to reinterpret what it means to be Old Stock” (2014, p. 460).

Along with such possibility, the articulation of Koreamerican identity entails a potential to dismantle the essentialism undergirding Korean identity. This essentialism is sutured in Korean identity in terms of its ethnic specificity and results in cultivating the very particular way in which a notion of “foreign” is socially and culturally perceived, defined, and understood in identity discourses in South Korea. Pollock (1994) points out that, “Identity is so often a matter of origins” (p. 83), making a degree of connection between identity and nativity, the location of origin. This (un)conscious link is political to and has been “languaged” (Hall, 1986, cited in Grossberg) in Korean nationalist discourse. The predominant idea of the Korean identity, perpetuated by ethnic nationalism, has resulted in the conflation of national identity and cultural identity for Koreans. The distinction between those two different ways of defining identity becomes impossible to separate. Such a conflation in Korean identity discourse has brought about a very exclusionary identity politics in Korean culture and society. Thus, the construction of a delimited sense of Korean identity has benefited certain groups at the expense of others. Those whose identity would be defined with hyphens have been excluded from the mainstream discourse of identity and belonging in Korean. The articulation of a hybrid identity complicates the assumptions embedded in Korean identity discourse, assumptions which restrict the ways in which Koreans can imagine and define themselves. Within this circumstance, the presence and influence of Koreamericans attests to a gradual liberation from Korean essentialism. A fuller acknowledgement of the notion of Korean cultural identity and its variations disrupts the bedrock of the national identity discourse. Such disruptions possess the potential to facilitate constructive changes in identity politics of Korea.

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Koreamericans enrich the meaning of what it means to be Korean through the newly constructed and acknowledged differences they project at the very heart of Korean society. Their acceptance as cultural citizens enriches the composite threads of the Korean people. Their visibility shifts not only the physical landscape of the urban space but also the cultural landscape of Korea. Those places, Vatos and Coreanos, invite people to enjoy the transnational exchange and difference and in so doing ultimately celebrate them. As such, the rhetorical practices in those places reveal the arbitrary set of divisions woven into identity politics in Korean culture. The dichotomy between Korean and foreign becomes obsolete for grasping their (Korean) identity.

Furthermore, debunking essentialism in the construction of Korean identity, the participation of Koreamericans leads us to reconsider the undoubtedly accepted and shared idea of home and the sense of ethnic and cultural purity. On one hand, the idea of home connotes a certain degree of purity and absolutism. In this sense, the idea of home is delimited, clear-cut either/or, and exclusive. However, as this essay has shown, for many, hybridized culture itself is home. In this sense, “home” is a product of movement animated by memory. The cultural and social meaning of home is refined in understanding Koreamericans’ rhetoric expressing their cultural identities through their own spaces. As Calafell (2004) states, “home was no longer a physical space but the feeling or affect created through the community” (p. 183). Koreamericans dislocated from their physical home not only expand but also complicate its meaning—home—as it is where you make yourself at home; where you feel home.

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The restaurants, the spaces of enactments of a transnational hybrid being, invite people walking in the city to vicariously experience transformations through border-living. Their material rhetoric, then, opens opportunities to reflect on the extent to which essentialism is seeded in Koreans’ perceptions of identities. Through the process of place-making, those restaurants as the embodied rhetoric of sojourners who are back in the land of their cultural heritage facilitate spaces for intercultural dialogue. Mediating their (re)territorializing of identities, those places are both the reflections of their identities as well as the sites of identity negotiations. In other words, Vatos and Coreanos are more or less the reflection of the consciousness of hybrid cultural identities. The restaurants act as “performative transgressions and potential transformations” (Cooks, 2009, p. 96). Therefore, these restaurants located on the cultural urbanscape of Itaewon function as “constitutive elements in the identity” (Dickinson, 1997, p. 19) for Koreamericans as well as Koreans in relation to Koreamericans. Those sites continue to (re)construct a community (of Koreamericans and their allies) through an ongoing public performance of identities, and promisingly, in a long term, establish ways in which memories of those identities are remembered in more culturally inclusive terms.


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VI, 192
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VI, 192 pp., 9 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Ahmet Atay (Volume editor) Yea-Wen Chen (Volume editor) Alberto González (Volume editor)

Ahmet Atay (Ph.D., Southern Illinois University-Carbondale) is Associate Professor of Communication at the College of Wooster. He is the author of Globalization’s Impact on Identity Formation: Queer Diasporic Males in Cyberspace (2015) and the co-editor of 11 books, including Queer Communication Pedagogy . His scholarship has appeared in numerous journals and edited books. Yea-Wen Chen (Ph.D., University of New Mexico) is Associate Professor in the School of Communication at San Diego State University. Dr. Chen has published over 40 works in Communication Monographs , Journal of International and Intercultural Communication , and Departures in Critical Qualitative Research . Also, she has co-edited Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication, 6th Edition (2015). Alberto González (Ph.D., The Ohio State University) is Distinguished University Professor in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University. He is a co-editor of The Rhetorical Legacy of Wangari Maathai: Planting the Future (2018) and Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication, 6th Edition (2015).


Title: Intercultural Memories