What role is implied by the speaker's self-presentation in Sherman Alexie's Superman and Me?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Superman and Me is an autobiographical indictment of the moral and intellectual destruction inflicted on the Native American population by European interlopers.  Sherman Alexie doesn’t come right out and say that, of course.  His brief essay does, however, emphasize the legacy of the historical treatment of Native populations by white settlers and governments that forced the indigenous tribes off their tribal lands and onto reservations while purposefully subverting their cultures and customs.  The opening of the second paragraph of Alexie’s essay alludes to that history when he writes that his father, an “avid reader” of all manner of literature, had been “one of the few Indians who went to Catholic school on purpose.”  The American Government (as well as others like the Australian Government) had maintained a practice of forcing Native Americans to forget their cultures and customs and adopt Western cultures and customs as their own, a sure recipe for disaster.

Alexie writes in the third person because, as he indicates in Superman and Me, his status as an “Indian boy” has condemned him to nothingness.  In his essay he refers to his own childhood as an intellectually curious student who uncharacteristically applied himself in school:

“If he’d been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy.  But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity.  He grows into a man who speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it will somehow dull the pain and make him sound more modest about his talents.”

Alexie is emphasizing the depths to which the Native American community has descended and the degree to which it represents an almost forgotten social entity.  He references a Superman comic book he read as a child, which depicts the superhero breaking down a door in his efforts to save mankind (one person at a time). The comic serves as a metaphor for Alexie’s own desperation to break down the mental barriers that separate him from those Indian children who refuse to learn – a sorrowful legacy of the culture of indifference that resulted from the aforementioned destruction of previously vibrant cultures.  He ends his essay with a depiction of one such effort at “reaching” these children, writing “I throw my weight against their locked doors.  The doors hold.”  Alexie is acknowledging that he is no superhero.  He cannot prevail over the culture of ambivalence that has permeated his community. 

In that one brief paragraph – and Alexie emphasizes the literal and metaphorical importance of paragraphs as self-contained units – where the author reverts to a third-person narrative, and in which he notes that the educated but emotionally-distanced adult begins to “speak of his childhood in the third-person,” he is distancing himself from his own history because he hopes, unsuccessfully, that it will help “dull the pain” of having grown up in a culture that rejected the academic pursuit of knowledge, a pursuit that he had embraced.

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