illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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Why is "breaking down cultural barriers" a theme in Alexie's "Superman and Me"?

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In Sherman Alexie's touching essay "Superman And Me," the writer discusses the idea of the "smart Indian." The essay revolves around Alexie's perception that people expected him and other members of his culture to be uneducated and unintelligent. Alexie writes, "They wanted me to stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers, for volunteers, for help. We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid." Nonetheless, regardless of these expectations, he strove to succeed in his academic pursuits; in school, he studied hard, he learned very much, and he became a renowned writer. Starting with a simple Superman comic, Alexie learned to read in his youth.

The essay is very much about the breaking down of cultural barriers primarily because of the expectations set up by both Natives and non-Natives alike. The expectation from all directions was for Alexie, and Natives in general, to struggle with the traditional academia that many white students could easily thrive in.

Alexie broke down these cultural barriers through his success as a student and, eventually, as a novelist. Determined not to be oppressed, broken down, or held back by others due to his race, Alexie read many books and eventually formed a unique and powerful literary voice that is studied in classrooms across the country.

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As Alexie notes in the essay, his fellow classmates on the reservation "wanted me to stay quiet" when it came to questions posed by the teacher. He goes on to say, "We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid." Being interested in books and wanting to engage in literary discussions made Alexie a social outlier among his peers. But, Alexie takes pains to underscore that his classmates' antipathy toward literacy was context specific: they didn't like displays of ability in the classroom but were, say, talented storytellers around the dinner table, or they'd be submissive toward their teachers but would "slug it out with the Indian bully who was 10 years older." What emerges here is that his peers were highly capable in a multitude of ways not always seen by the outside "white" world. So, Alexie challenges cultural barriers from both sides: he refuses to conform to what others would have him be on the reservation, but so too does he seek to overturn notions that Native students on the reservation weren't impressive in their own right.

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Alexie declares "a smart Indian is a dangerous person, widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and non-Indians alike" to explain why, in his opinion, the Indians he lived with on the Spokane Reservation did not value formal education in the reservation schools. Alexie recognizes that his peers had plenty of intelligence, citing the complexity of their stories, songs, and jokes, but that they did not want to display it.  

Alexie's family was different: they provided a home rich in books, and as he grew up, he sought out anything with text: auto repair manuals, cereal boxes, and books from the library and secondhand shops. He realizes his attitude is different from other Indians he knew, writing "I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant."

Near the end of his essay, Alexie observes that in today's reservation schools, he sees two kinds of Indian students: voracious readers who write their own poems, stories, and novels and "sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows. . . the pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen."

Alexie broke through cultural barriers—the pervasive culture of low expectations—to embrace education and the life of a writer, and in this essay he writes of his intention to keep visiting schools and trying to inspire Indian students because he is "trying to save our lives.

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