Twinkies, Dan White, and that raisin in the sun

By now you have probably heard the news that Hostess, makers of Twinkies, Wonder Bread, and Ho Hos, is closing.  A bankruptcy judge has ordered last-ditch mediation between company and union, but if things have gotten so bad that both union and company were willing to walk away from the table last week, I’m guessing there’s not much left to be salvaged.

My mom packed many Wonder Bread sandwiches (helps build strong bodies 12 ways!) in my lunch box during grade school.  Twinkies and Ding Dongs didn’t show up nearly as often, but a person of my generation in America would have been hard pressed to experience childhood without encountering Hostess baked treats at some point.

The association most strongly triggered for me by the news that Hostess was closing, though, was the “Twinkie defense” – a term used as a cultural shorthand to ridicule people for blaming the larger culture for their problems instead of accepting responsibility for their individual behavior.  

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor, whose place in history was tragically secured when he was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978.

At trial, White’s attorneys argued that their client had been suffering from depression at the time of the shootings, as evidenced by his shift from health-conscious eating to heavy consumption of sugary junk foods.  The jury found White guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder.  And the news media derisively dubbed this legal strategy the “Twinkie defense.”

However, what remains indelibly etched into my memory is footage of Dan White being interviewed by a television news reporter (at some point prior to the day of the assassinations) that appeared in The Times of Harvey Milk, a 1984 film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  It has been at least 25 years since I saw this film, but I’ve never forgotten watching Dan White struggle to put his angry thoughts into words.  How chilling it was to observe him, knowing what eventually happened, and see 1) how much anger he had bottled up inside, and 2) how very inarticulate he was.  The man was a walking time bomb whose detonation seemed inevitable.

Thinking of it today, I’m also reminded of a famous poem, “Harlem,” by one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes.  It asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”  Does it rot and become disgusting in a variety of other ways? 

Or, as the last line implies is the case,  “does it explode?

You can read the short poem in its entirety here at the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Dan White is not someone who garners sympathy, and my juxtaposition of his inarticulate rage with Langston Hughes’s poem may strike someone reading this post as a sacrilege.  I don’t mean to equate Dan White with Walter Lee Younger (one of the main characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play, “A Raisin in the Sun”).  But thinking about Twinkies has led me to reflect, via the strange associations things sometimes have, on how very important it is for people to have the means to express themselves. 

In fact, personal expression is one of the primary themes of Hansberry’s play.  Walter Lee, Jr., has big dreams, but all his talk seems to fall on deaf ears.

Man say to his woman: I got me a dream.  His woman say: Eat your eggs.  Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby!  And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work.  Man say: I got to change my life, I’m choking to death, baby!  And his woman say – Your eggs is getting cold!

WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE LISTEN TO ME TODAY!

Early on, his sister Beneatha continually experiments with new hobbies – guitar lessons, horseback riding lessons, and now her back-to-Africa exploration complete with a new boyfriend who is a Nigerian college student.  When Walter Lee and their mother, Lena, tease her about the way she flits from activity to activity, she defends her need for self-expression. 

Beneatha: People have to express themselves one way or another.

Mama: What is it you want to express?

Beneatha: Me!

Later, when Beneatha is dismayed that her mother intends to bring a spindly houseplant along to their new home in Clybourne Park, Lena retorts, with feeling: “It expresses me.” 

I teach communication, so no doubt I’m biased.  But it occurs to me that developing an ability to express oneself well may be the single most important life skill a person can learn.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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One Response to Twinkies, Dan White, and that raisin in the sun

  1. Interstesting take on the Twinkie! We’ll certainly miss it. lol

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