Multiculturalism Criticism: The Effects Of Multiculturalism On Global Literature

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Hazel Rochman (essay date March-April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. “Against Borders.” Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 2 (March-April 1995): 144-57.

[In the following essay, Rochman explores how multicultural literature can introduce readers—particularly young adults—to a diverse range of cultures, transcending social, political, and personal barriers.]

If anyone had told me when I was growing up in South Africa that I would be living in Chicago one day and writing about multiculturalism in children's books, I would have thought they were crazy. I thought my place was really off the map; nothing could happen there that would interest the rest of the world. And I thought there was nothing connecting us. My view of Chicago, in fact of all the United States, came from Hollywood musicals and cowboy movies, and from stories about gangsters like Al Capone. Even today, that's how many South Africans imagine things here.

In the same way, many people in the U.S. imagine that South Africa—the whole of Africa—is a steamy jungle with exotic wild animals and primitive natives and Tarzan and a few people on safari. Recently images of suffering, starving babies and massacre, have gotten mixed in with the stereotypes, but it's all a vague picture of dark, primitive Africa.

Who would have thought that Nelson Mandela would one day be the most famous person in the world? Who would have dreamed South Africa would have multiracial elections and everyone would vote, including the eighteen million black people who had never voted before, and a black government would be elected to rule and the whole world would be watching? My husband went back to Cape Town to work for the African National Congress in the election. He stood with those people we saw on television, people lining up for hours and hours, some with babies on their backs, to vote for the first time in their lives. He brought back a copy of the ballot. My son says it's like having a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Walls were what apartheid was about. Walls and borders.

And now after all the long years of boycotts and sanctions, South Africa is no longer a pariah, but a member of the international community. It's strange to be bragging about my birthplace. I was always ashamed to say I was raised in South Africa. When strangers here told me they liked my accent and asked me where I was from, I usually mumbled something about having spent time in England. Or, if I said South Africa, I quickly went into a long denial about not being part of the apartheid regime.

But it wasn't as simple as that. I was part of it when I was growing up, even though I didn't realize it. I was against apartheid, but it didn't seem to have much to do with me. I grew up in a liberal home. I wasn't allowed to make racist remarks. I thought I was a good person. I didn't see what was going on around me. I never noticed that there were no black kids my age in my neighborhood; not one black student in my school. We weren't rich, but every white family I knew had at least one servant. I just accepted that the woman who cooked and cleaned for us and lived in a room in the backyard—we knew only her first name or referred to her as the “girl”—I never thought that her children lived far away and she was forced to leave them in order to come and look after me. I remember vaguely that one of her children died. I never asked her about her life. I couldn't imagine her story.

I wasn't into politics. My interest has always been in people, in personal relationships. I thought that those who marched with banners and slogans, who picketed and demonstrated, were a bore. I tried to be a “good girl.” To be a loyal and sensitive friend, a decent member of my community, to care about people. But “people” were white. The white South African writer Nadine Gordimer says that she once moved among blacks “as if they were trees or grass.”

It's not just South Africa. The poet Adrienne Rich talks about a similar experience growing up white in this country, about “the apartheid of...

(The entire section is 17,330 words.)