Officially ridin’ swangas

Slab as tangible and intangible cultural heritage in Houston, Texas

Authored by: Langston Collin Wilkins

The Routledge Companion to Intangible Cultural Heritage

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138860551
eBook ISBN: 9781315716404
Adobe ISBN: 9781317506898

10.4324/9781315716404.ch15

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Abstract

In Houston’s working-class African American neighborhoods, young men, facing a myriad of social ills, use large motorized vehicles to express themselves and affirm their community. More specifically, they drive outmoded, but ingeniously upgraded, luxury vehicles that sit on extended spoked-wheels, with alternating rattling and knocking sounds coming from their trunks. Step foot into any predominately African American neighborhood around Houston and you will likely witness these cars swerve from lane to lane in a seemingly disordered, but obviously guided fashion. You may also hear them, as their stereo systems are powerful enough to shake the foundation of houses throughout their neighborhoods. You will most often see them stationary, supporting the weight of their owners as they converse with friends and family. This vehicle art form and related culture is called ‘slab’ and it emerged in Houston’s African American neighborhoods over thirty years ago (see Figure 15.1). The term ‘slab’ refers to the slabs of concrete that make up a street or paved road. It emerged in the early days of the culture, when the act of driving the modified car was known as ‘hitting the slab’. A cursory exploration could lead one to conclude that slabs are little more than products of vanity. A critical look, however, reveals that the cars reflect several layers of meaning for their owners. In late 2011, I began conducting field research on the Houston hip hop scene and immediately became interested in slabs seeing them both as products of local street culture and hip hop culture, and also as unique manifestations of the city’s larger motor vehicle culture. In this chapter, I offer an overview of slab culture in Houston, focusing on its aesthetics, history, meanings and the various ways participants safeguard the multi-faceted folk art form and practice.

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