Growing up in the context of no context.
A few years ago, my late friend D. G. Myers and I had a disagreement about the relationship between advertising and literary culture. Myers argued that the ads and articles in the Saturday Evening Post had a bearing on the stories F. Scott Fitzgerald initially published in the magazine, on the grounds that all three came out of the same cultural context. At the time, I was unpersuaded—the ads, I said, were just there to pay the bills—but I have come to see his point.
Last week, I rewatched an episode of Reading Rainbow that I have long cherished. As the episode begins, LeVar Burton, the show’s host, appears alone on a smog-filled dock on Charleston Harbor. Wearing a trench coat and fedora in the style of a hard-boiled detective, Burton is on the trail of Big Mama Blue. Suddenly we hear someone singing opera, and Burton introduces Mystery on The Docks, by Thacher Hurd. The story, narrated by Raúl Juliá, is about an opera-loving short-order cook who saves a famous singer from gangsters. All the characters are rats.
This episode of Reading Rainbow was copied at the end of a beloved VHS tape I had growing up, one of several which had been recorded just before my mother returned to Saint Lucia from the States, when I was barely a year old. The tape also included episodes of Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, Transformers, Jem, Zoobilee Zoo, and the opening of an episode of Dinosaucers. I was always thrilled by Reading Rainbow because I rarely made it through the entire tape, and so Burton’s show always seemed like a lagniappe.
The tape was the first physical object I ever loved. Many days it was my primary source of entertainment; my parents couldn’t read to me all day. But the tape—along with my second dictionary and my stack of National Geographic from the late eighties and early nineties—was eventually lost at the country school where my mother was appointed principal. (After five years of staying at home, she was off to work, and at the age of nine, I was finally forced to go to school.)
I have long thought that nostalgia died with the arrival of the Internet. (A computer never forgets, and so it has no memories.) But even though I’ve been able to track down the episodes I used to have on that VHS tape, for a long time there were some things I hadn’t been able to fully replicate that I now see were indelible parts of the experience: the running order and the commercials. Because I watched the cartoons so much, the entire tape became like a musical suite, with the disparate parts flowing seamlessly into each other. The commercials for Cabbage Patch Kids and Yahtzee seemed like such a natural part of my viewing experience that their absence felt like defacement.
But defacement of what? Though I would not be conscious of this until I was much older, the cartoons had all ceased production by the time I saw them. Even that episode of Reading Rainbow was originally broadcast before I was born. These shows really belonged to a cohort of kids six years older than I was. What’s even more striking was that I never actually watched more than a couple episodes of each show until decades later, on a YouTube channel dedicated to retro programing. (I would not witness the death of Optimus Prime—which one online magazine told me was one of the traumatic experiences of what I thought was my generation—until years later, by which time I’d already read about it on Wikipedia.)
What matters, I’ve found, is not my memory of the shows so much as my memory of the experience of watching the shows. And the memory of that experience is bound up with the context, which includes commercials. All that time, what I was watching was not just episodes of a show but the specific episodes that were broadcast on a specific day in a specific place and recorded in a specific order on a specific tape. In that way, perversely, mass advertising helped to individuate my childhood memories.
Lately I managed to find a few of the ads floating around; thank goodness for the people who have nothing better to do than to upload old TV to the Internet. When I watched the thirty-second commercial for the G.I. Joe Mobile Command Center or a promo for The Fall Guy, everything came rushing back: the way light flooded the living room before the extension was added to the house and the mango trees sprouted; the rabbit ears perched on top of the old Hitachi, which barely hauled in two channels on the good days; my grandfather and the cats sitting on the couch, scratching the sides in unison.
Matthew St. Ville Hunte lives in Saint Lucia. He is one of the Daily’s correspondents.