The essence of multiculturalism is the placement of equal emphasis, and the placement of equal value or worth, on the broadest possible range of cultures so that none are seen as inferior or undervalued relative to others. Works of art or literature that aim for a certain level of multiculturalism often incorporate themes or references from multiple eras or periods of time. Given the advance of Western civilization over the past several hundred years, and the stagnancy that affected many of the world’s cultures in less developed regions, due in no small part to the legacy of colonialism and cultural imperialism, a multicultural work of art or literature will usually strive to ensure that the older, more pure cultures of the past – especially those that managed to survive Western imperialism, are adequately represented.
By drawing from the past, multicultural works help to better understand earlier civilizations and a more diverse array of ethnicities and nationalities. By portraying the customs, values, traditions, and practices of past cultures, contemporary students are exposed to a broader, and deeper, portrait of history. For example, incorporation of Native American cultures into a contemporary curriculum illuminates the values and traditions that were once the predominant cultural influences in North America, and the ramifications for a people of cultural genocide at the hands of European interlopers. Because of the history of slavery and racial segregation that is part of the American story, incorporation of African-American culture, especially as manifested in the arts – jazz, the blues, African-oriented paintings, and so on – enrich our current understanding of our country’s evolution, and help explain how we arrived at this point in time.
Few Americans are well-versed in the cultural imports that helped shape the United States, whether Chinese agricultural practices that helped shape the agricultural industry in the western United States, or the literary contributions that had their genesis in the Irish and Irish-American experience, for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, an early classic about the Irish-American experience in politics. Yet, these groups made great contributions not just to America’s political and economic development, but to its culture as well. The United States is a multicultural entity; it’s very origins lay in its incorporation of contributions by its myriad subcultures into a broader whole. Multicultural works draw from the past as well as the present because there is no other viable method of celebrating multiculturalism.