Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5830
SOURCE: Whitfield, Stephen J. “The Mystique of Multiculturalism.” Virginia Quarterly Review 72, no. 3 (summer 1996): 429-45.
[In the following essay, Whitfield traces the evolution of multiculturalism as a field of academic study within the disciplines of history and literature since the 1950s, identifying several theoretical discrepancies and inconsistencies in multicultural scholarship.]
Little more than a century ago, the Atlantic Monthly published a poem entitled “The Unguarded Gates” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, one of those authors whom a Tammany Hall wit was fond of dismissing as “name-parted-in-the-middle aristocrats”:
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, And through them presses a wild motley throng— Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes, Featureless figures from the Hoang-Ho, Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav, Flying the Old World's poverty and scorn; These bring with them unknown gods and rites, Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws. In street and alley what strange tongues are these, Accents of menace alien to our air, Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
Nativism has hardly disappeared, and yet the gates are still unguarded. But the historian can only express astonishment at the alteration of national ethos, as diversity has ceased to be something to be feared and has become something to be celebrated. The ideal of heterogeneity has displaced homogeneity; almost no monoculturalists remain standing—at least on political platforms, if not in bar rooms. In the not-too-distant past, an historian of immigration remarked, ethnics were told to “melt or get off the pot.” This is no longer true, and some of its implications deserve criticism as well as reflection.
The decade of the 1950's was probably the last in which the assumptions of monoculturalism could be asserted with confidence, in which the American Way of Life could breezily be used in the singular. In 1959, for example, the editor of George W. Pierson's reconstruction of the ambience of a classic, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (1938), abbreviated the Yale historian's material on the French visitors' impressions of blacks, women and Indians; these were, the editor rationalized, “matters of lesser interest.” Such bowdlerization would now be unimaginable, and Tocqueville's views on these particular groups is precisely what drives some readers to pick up De la démocratie en Amérique. Or take Edmund Wilson's last great book, Patriotic Gore (1962). His massive and melancholy interpretation of the literary and ideological impact of the Civil War does not even mention Frederick Douglass, whose thought is unconsidered even in somewhat later works by scholars who themselves became astute analysts of racism: George Frederickson's The Inner Civil War (1965) and Daniel Aaron's The Unwritten War (1973).
Yet the former slave now occupies his own prominent place on the shelf in The Library of America (which was based on an idea by Edmund Wilson and brought to realization by Daniel Aaron). Now the subject of numerous studies in biography and in intellectual history, Douglass has even shoved aside the Hon. Stephen Douglas as the Middle Period counterweight to Lincoln, lest the American family album be dismissed as a white album. Such revisions of the past, which of course has rarely been stable, have accelerated, as scholars make stabs at new paradigms. Such changes have coincided with (but have hardly caused) the precipitous decline of American education, so that “as every schoolboy knows” is a phrase that has disappeared—and not only because it is gender-bound. But some pupils may now be more familiar with Rosa Parks' ride than with Paul Revere's, and with the March on Washington than with the errand into the wilderness.
The United States was once...
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the land of the Pilgrims' pride, the land where our fathers died. But Donna Shalala, who serves as secretary of Health and Human Services, has conceded: “My grandparents came from Lebanon. I don't identify with the Pilgrims at a personal level.” At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the team nickname of “Minuteman” has recently been attacked as “too macho, white and violent—‘If you're a woman or a person of color, he really can't represent you.’” Perhaps the patriotic icon could have been salvaged if hailed as an early anti-imperialist—or a successor could be substituted in the form of Disney's anachronistic Pocahontas, a princess of peace who condemns the Eurocentrism of the Virginians (“You think the only people who are people / Are the people who look and think like you. / But if you walk the footsteps in a stranger. / You'll learn things you never knew you never knew”). The national past has become so unstable, and an earlier version of it so discredited, that a Jules Feiffer cartoon, drawn well before multiculturalism reached cruising speed, marks the vertiginous change. “When I went to school,” a burly hard-hat asserts, “I learned George Washington never told a lie, slaves were happy on the plantation, the men who opened the West were giants, and we won every war because God was on our side. But where my kid goes to school, he learns George Washington was a slave owner, slaves hated slavery, the men who opened the West committed genocide, and the wars we won were victories for U.S. imperialism. No wonder my kid's not an American,” he concludes. “They're teaching him some other country's history.”
Any scholar who would now begin a book, as Perry Miller did in 1939, by assuming national homogeneity (“I have taken the liberty of treating the whole literature as thought it were the product of a single intelligence”), or who would in 1956 retrospectively announce as his “mission … expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States,” might find a promising academic career stalled at the outset. A scholarly organization like the American Studies Association now defines itself as one big tent, and those seeking positions of leadership within it make the concept of “diversity” integral to their campaign platforms. Were the term not in the dictionary, such office-seekers might be virtually mute; nor do their opponents ever seem to be against pluralism. A NEXIS scouring of major newspapers reveals that “multicultural” and its variations showed up in 40 articles in 1981, and in more than two thousand only eleven years later. In The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has warned against the divisiveness of much of what passes for the exaltation of roots. Yet even he claims to be a champion of multiculturalism and, without quite hailing fusion, has explained why he is troubled by fission. Schlesinger's father had, by contrast, listed the “melting pot” as one of the nation's ten most important contributions to civilization.
The more versions of identity, the merrier. For example, the mystique of multiculturalism has enabled a Chicana feminist writer to privilege her fellow homosexuals. Gloria Anzaldúa has exalted their status as “the supreme crossers of cultures … We come from all colors, all classes, all races, all time periods. Our role is to link people with each other—the Blacks with Jews with Indians with Asians with whites with extraterrestrials [sic].” Back on planet earth, however, little clarification has come from the state in defining who constitutes a minority. To advance a policy of affirmative action, the Department of Labor spearheaded federal recognition of the claims of four “affected” or “protected” “minorities” (other than women): African-Americans, Native Americans, “Orientals” and Spanish-surnamed Americans (now Hispanics). It's “a strange mix,” sociologist Nathan Glazer observed early in the ascendancy of multiculturalism. The inclusion of the first two minorities was intelligible and defensible. Blacks had been “subjects of state discrimination,” and Indian tribes even constituted “a ward of the state”; both remain among the poorest racial and ethnic groups.
But dark-skinned immigrants from India are oddly classified as “Orientals,” and are included among the 20 different Asian-American groups, several of which were historically subjected to discrimination. Nevertheless, Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans in particular have hardly needed Department of Labor “protection”; they are the most upwardly mobile and the most economically successful of all ethnic minorities (perhaps including Jews). Even before affirmative action was instituted, their rates of college graduation exceeded the white population. For decades Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans have been moving in the fast lane, while others have had trouble finding the on-ramp, so that making these two groups the beneficiaries of affirmative action undercuts the economic rationale for such policies. Perhaps, Professor Glazer speculated, “the government came rushing in to include them in ‘affirmative action’ … under the vague notion that any race aside from the white must be the victim of discrimination.” According to the 1990 census, for example, adults in the highest-earning Asian-American groups (which also include Pakistanis, Indians, Burmese and Sri Lankans) averaged ＄25,198 per year.
Despite the skin-deep justification for including all Asian-Americans, what was until recently the “Spanish-surnamed” category may nevertheless be the weirdest of all. Puerto Rico was a prize of the military victory over Spain; and since 1917 its residents have been citizens, enjoying formal freedom to live anywhere in the United States. By accepting commonwealth status, they were exempted from federal taxation, which has not prevented Puerto Ricans from suffering from worse poverty than anyone else. Though a Bureau of the Census pamphlet about Hispanics of the Southwest is entitled The United States Came to Us, subjugation by conquest did not befall the ancestors of the overwhelming majority of Mexican-Americans, who are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. It is unclear why all other immigrants from Latin America, including the flourishing Cubans concentrated in south Florida, are privileged under affirmative action policies—regardless of their economic or educational status. Sephardic Jews did not count as “Spanish-surnamed” individuals—nor did Filipinos, many of whom have Spanish surnames too. Even newcomers from Spain itself are included as Hispanics, distinguishing them from Italian-surnamed or Greek-surnamed or Portuguese-surnamed immigrants (or the descendants of such immigrants). Bebe Rebozo, or a middle-class immigrant from Peru, benefits from affirmative action programs; so does a newly arrived Samoan. But an impoverished immigrant from Palermo does not. Asked about their race, most Chicanos tell the Bureau of the Census that they consider themselves white. They nevertheless merit protection, while Americans of Turkish or Arabic ancestry (even if their pigmentation is darker) cannot claim to be “non-whites.”
Nor can such policies be justified as an effort to redress an historic wrong. One out of 12 Americans is foreign-born. By the mid-1980's, the large majority of legal immigrants became immediately eligible for benefits because of discrimination inflicted earlier in American history on others who happened to belong to their “racial” category. Glazer rightly wondered why “free immigrants who have come to this country voluntarily deserve the same protected treatment as the descendants of conquered people and slaves.” Specifying “affected” categories generates other anomalies too. Until recently the University of California included Filipinos (the second largest Asian-American group) but no other Asian-Americans in preferential admissions policies, whereas the City University of New York has included Italian-Americans. In 1979 Hasidic Jews asked the Small Business Administration to be designated a minority for purposes of affirmative action, a request that was rejected not because of social or economic deprivation but because of a possible collision with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment; they were deemed a religious group. The convolutions that politics, law, group definition and group assertion have been generating might well induce nostalgia for an earlier, simpler era. And indeed it once was simpler: in 1961, the application form for admission to the dental school at Emory was still offering candidates only three categories to choose from: Caucasian, Jew, Other.
Who is now entitled to brandish his or her ethnicity? That noun, in its current sense, is barely more than half a century old, thanks to sociologist Lloyd Warner's “Yankee City” volumes. Yankees are even counted among the 106 entities (from Acadians and Afghans to Zoroastrians) in the indispensable and illuminating reference work, the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980). Yet the most important historical account written according to multiculturalist premises, Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror (1983), mentions the English, once esteemed as a rather decisive part of the national experiment, only in passing—mostly for oppressing the Irish. Anyone consulting the index sees the British linked only with “colonialism,” and may notice that even the greatest of dead white Anglo-Saxon males—Abraham Lincoln—gets only as many citations as Rodney King. Such an interpretation looks narrower than virtually any “Eurocentric” account that Professor Takaki's book is designed to replace—to say nothing of recent, comprehensive histories of immigration, like Roger Daniels' Coming to America (1990), that incorporates the experiences of Asians and blacks and Latin Americans too. Ethnicity of sorts can be claimed even by the intelligentsia itself, a group that has been associated with the ideal of cosmopolitanism. Sociologist Milton Gordon's influential Assimilation in American Life (1964) observes how intellectuals “interact in such patterned ways as to form at least the elementary structure of a subsociety of their own.” They might constitute “a kind of incipient ethnic group.” The noun has taken on a kind of promiscuity, in which mystifications can readily multiply, and past definitions may not be a reliable guide. The situation is a little akin to what befell the grandmother of the former vice-mayor of New York City, Norman Steisel. He once informed the author that she had lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood so thickly Jewish that the only Gentiles ever encountered were of Italian ancestry. When blacks began moving in, Steisel's grandmother therefore called them by the only name she knew for these strangers: Italyaner.
In privileging the permutations of ethnicity, the multiculturalist mystique has also the effect of diminishing the importance of region. From Frederick Jackson Turner to Constance Rourke to Walter Prescott Webb to Wilbur J. Cash, regional identity and variation have long been indispensable to the social and historical analysis that American Studies has sanctioned. Even John Hope Franklin, the most honored of all black academicians, has classified himself as a scholar of the South, and did not teach Afro-American history in the last three decades of his career. Thinking of himself as a regionalist, the author of The Militant South (1956) and other works has thus elucidated pride of place and not only pride of race. But only a decade or so after the sodbusting optimism that Broadway cowboys belted out in Oklahoma! (“We know we belong to the land, / And the land we belong to is grand”), the hegemony of the regionalism that Turner made so salient was subjected to serious challenge. The publication of The Uprooted (1951) made Oscar Handlin the preeminent interpreter of immigration, for he pitted the saga of such movement against the centrality of the frontier and the West in Turner's historiography. In literary studies Handlin's counterpart has been Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel (1959) injected the racial dimension into the appreciation of canonical writers with such pungency that red-white-and-blue has inexorably become red-white-and-black. The emphasis in Fiedler's magnum opus upon the exclusion of female characters from the depiction of biracial brotherhood showed remarkable prescience as well on the part of a critic who would become an honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe in Montana, a celebrant of The Return of the Vanishing American (1968), a sympathizer with Freaks (1968), and a writer of unjustly neglected fiction packed with blacks, Jews, and Indians.
The policy of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, which lists Handlin as its consulting editor, had been formulated before the advent of multiculturalism and still acknowledges the influence of region. There are separate essays on “Appalachians,” “Mormons” and “Southerners” (though not on “Westerners” or “Easterners” or “Okies”). Similarly, among the volumes in sociologist Peter Rose's series on ethnic groups in comparative perspective is Lewis Killian's White Southerners (1985). Other sociologists (like John Shelton Reed) and historians (like Sheldon Hackney and George B. Tindall) have noted parallels between white Southerners in particular and (other) minority and ethnic groups. That is why “ethnic Southerners”—a filiopietistic bunch that has been cohesive enough and embattled enough to try to smash the Union—may represent the knottiest test case for the contemporary politics of multiculturalism.
Consider one anomaly. “Redneck,” historian C. Vann Woodward has complained, is “the only opprobrious epithet for an ethnic minority still permitted in polite society.” When a Harvard undergraduate asserted ethnic or regional pride by flying the Rebel flag outside her window at Kirkland House in 1991, black students (and others) understandably found the flag highly objectionable, denouncing it as a symbol of slavery. But what if Brigit Kerrigan had played her own version of capture-the-flag by disclaiming any such implication? What if she had denied that the Stars and Bars necessarily had such an association (since General Lee himself had opposed slavery, and some blacks fought under the banner as well)? What if she had reminded her fellow students, the night they nearly drove Old Dixie down, of the hold that The Band's 1969 song exercised on the national imagination, a song written by a Canadian, Robbie Robertson, whose mother was Mohawk and father was Jewish? Such complexities were not fully ventilated. Kerrigan's own ancestral pride was not exactly endorsed because, at least at Harvard, some heritages are more worthy of celebration than others, and some totems are taboo.
Religion tends to be another blind spot. A standard “multicultural reader” in women's history, Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois's Unequal Sisters (1994), professes to serve as a corrective, to expand “knowledge across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class and gender.” Yet religion, which undoubtedly dominated the lives of so many American women, is pointedly omitted from this litany. Fifteen per cent of all evangelical Christians, for example, are black, which means that such sects are doing a better job of satisfying current standards of “diversity” than many academic departments in the liberal arts. Religion, which has historically sanctioned practices that collide with contemporary feminism, therefore occupies an equivocal role in the multiculturalist mystique. The diversity that it exalts is simply presumed to pose no challenge to other enlightened and humane ideals, even though customs need not be progressive or worth preserving. Here one tradition associated with an Asian immigrant group contradicts legal norms. In Fresno, where about thirty thousand Hmong arrived over a decade ago, one of their customs has been designated by anthropologists “marriage by capture.” The label that has been used by local police and prosecutors differs; they call it rape.
Champions of multiculturalism profess to value a global vision as well as heightened sensitivity to international communication. But such appeals rarely get applied to so basic a curricular demand as the mastery of another tongue. Paradoxically, that academic requirement is imposed even less frequently than in the more homogenous past of, say, the Puritans. In the monoculturalist colonial era, Harvard College required four years study of Hebrew. At rival Yale, president Ezra Stiles dropped that requirement but continued to teach it himself as an elective. He stressed the practicality of Hebrew, since it would be the vernacular of heaven; and he hoped Yale graduates would be able to give a good account of themselves there. (This was a joke, his biographer Edmund Morgan suspects. Quite a card, that Ezra). However warranted the Yale Hebraicist's celestial conjecture may prove to be, it is indisputable that we inhabit a polyglot planet. Monolingualism is not logically compatible with it, though a common tongue like English will continue to be needed to transcend the sorts of barriers facing say, a venerable health maintenance organization in the Boston area. When the Harvard Community Health Plan recently surveyed its members, the following language options besides English were available: Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Khmer, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Other.
Probably the most consequential foreign language press in the United States is now in Spanish, yet even Hispanics seem to be reproducing the linguistic pattern that earlier generations of immigrants exhibited. Without necessarily abandoning Spanish, more than half of the second generation has opted for English fluency. That is not entirely bad. While Spanish has been designated an official language in New Mexico, that state is unlikely to imitate Quebec, a fulcrum of vexing linguistic conflict that elsewhere in the world has triggered violent riots. Unlike the Québécois, Hispanics are spread around the country. (Since the 1970's about 85 percent of the Mexican American population has been urban.) But even when ethnicity is geographically concentrated, American society is a great solvent, as though still bound by the Golden Spike that made the states united when the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point well over a century ago. A decade ago, when President François Mitterand convened the first summit conference of “countries having in common the use of French,” among the 41 entities represented was the commonwealth of Louisiana. As a political gesture, the participation of the Pelican State was utterly harmless. One of Mitterand's predecessors nevertheless put into perspective an “identity politics” rooted in ancestry, which is rarely adequate to define (or to illumine) the range of anyone's interests and hopes. When Mrs. John F. Kennedy met Charles De Gaulle, she confided: “My grandparents are French.” Not easily charmed, the French President assured the First Lady: “So are mine, Madame.” End of that line of conversation.
Yet politics inevitably tinctures any serious analysis of race and ethnicity in American life, and multiculturalism at least displays the virtue of political explicitness. Its advocates rarely profess to be members of the Non-Partisan League, and claim to voice the grievances of the excluded. At the 1987 convention of the American Historical Association, Richard Bernstein of The New York Times noticed, “everybody seemed to be studying what was closest to themselves,” which hints at “the true nature of multiculturalism—it is not an interest in the other so much as an insistence that the other be interested in me.” The genuine sufferings of the past also tend to get inflated, and the litany of victimization expanded. The work of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison cannot of course be reduced to such considerations. Yet it is a telling instance of the impact of such a sensibility that Beloved (1987) is dedicated to “Sixty Million and More”—a statistic of unknown provenance and authority. But surely it is no coincidence that the number is exactly ten times the roughly estimated death toll in the Holocaust—the century's standard of horror. Hanging on the page without context or complication, Morrison's number cannot encompass the melancholy curiosity of the most haunted of her great predecessors, Richard Wright, who could not help wondering—when he was about to meet the natives of West Africa—which of their ancestors had sold his ancestors into slavery. Nor could Ralph Waldo Ellison's praise of the text of Beloved obscure a certain distance from the exquisite sensibility that produced Invisible Man (1952). While that novel remains much admired, what now seems quaint is its creator's identification of and with “an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one's own anguish for gain or sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done.” Given the multiculturalist tendency to engage in comparative victimization, that tradition is weakening.
Equally quaint has been interest in variations in national character. When the thrust of American Studies had been holistic rather than pluralistic, its practitioners paid greater attention to how Americans differed from foreigners than to how Americans differed from one another. Of course explorations of the national character floundered on methodological and conceptual objections, and such scholarly efforts were often contaminated by biological determinism and genetic fixities (and fixations). Multiculturalism has recoiled from such blunders by defining “race” (like gender) as merely a construct, an invention that is culturally derived, a category that is social rather than innate. All disparities of power between whites and others, or between men and women, can then be ascribed entirely to Uncle Sam (and Mother Nature can be exonerated). Unlike scholars who once subscribed to a faith in American “exceptionalism” and in the beneficence of a redeemer nation, devotees of multiculturalism have had less need for a comparative framework (unless it can related to American imperialism). Unlike earlier generations of academicians, who needed—at least in principle—to demonstrate American uniqueness, multiculturalists have contributed little to comparative understanding—perhaps because it might only buttress national pride and reinforce patriotism. Its practitioners have been inclined to bang the drum slowly. An awareness of how some other parts of the world operates may complicate, if not enfeeble, an adversarial stance on native grounds, making unpersuasive the late Ayatollah Khomeini's view of the United States as the Great Satan. One example comes from a conversation the author recently had in Bucharest with a local professor of American literature, who had expressed political criticism of the pre-1989 Ceauçescu dictatorship by translating Frederick Douglass's autobiography into Romanian. Its readers may have become more struck by Communist economic mismanagement, since the meat rations Douglass recalled receiving in the slave quarters exceeded what Romanians themselves were allotted.
Relative prosperity, despite the ordeal of racism, is undoubtedly why the United States has lured immigrants from societies that are primarily black (like Jamaica, Trinidad and Haiti), and why the typical African-American, if contemplating relocation in Africa, would experience a dramatic decline in living standards. The five hundred million who live on the continent from below the Sahara and above South Africa produce as much as ten million Belgians and export as much as the five million who live in Hong Kong. No wonder then that even in the 1920's, when Africa was under imperialist rule and American society was permeated by gross discrimination and virulent bigotry, Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association was more effective in therapeutic terms than in transplantation to “Zion”; the Black Star Lines fulfilled a symbolic role rather than a migratory function.
Nor does the multiculturalist mystique yet offer a satisfactory account of the status of the Jews, the most “extraterritorial” of peoples and in terms of historic oppression the longest-suffering. Yet in the United States they have tended to be objects not of contempt but of envy. The vices that their adversaries ascribed to them did not stimulate their degradation but rather served as rationales for their success. By transforming their neighborhoods into enterprise zones, Jews have fulfilled the American Dream, which is why they sometimes do not make the cut as a minority group. (They are prominent in Takaki's book, the only white ethnic group other than the Irish to be featured.) In the well-known feminist and multicultural text, Ruiz and DuBois's Unequal Sisters, Jews (as labor union members) appear only twice in the index. Though this volume of nearly 600 pages purports to advance a more inclusive synthesis of women's history, the multiculturalist mystique tends to make Jews less visible than the historical narratives that it is supposed to have superseded. Their effect is to negate the trans-Atlantic legacy of the Jews, and to ignore a previous—if very distant—condition of servitude. What is erased is what befell them elsewhere, or earlier—indeed, as far back as ancient Egypt, when (as Tom Lehrer reminded his listeners) “even the Pharaohs / Had to import Hebrew braceros.”
The irony is that the dilemma of e pluribus unum that multiculturalism addresses was first resolved by an immigrant rabbi's son, Horace M. Kallen. He was the first manchild in the promised land to give it a stamp that legitimated the ideal of diversity. One scandal of ethnic studies is that no scholarly (or even unscholarly) biography of Kallen has ever been published, though the influences that shaped him are evident enough—from the polyglot Silesia of his birth, to the Boston of his upbringing (in the wake of the Irish accession to urban power), to the Harvard where he was not alone in his inability to resist the spell of William James. It was Professor Barrett Wendell, with his exemplary Yankee pedigree, who stirred Kallen's interest in his own ethnic origins, a concern that would draw him to Zionism and to an organ of Jewish cultural nascence, The Menorah Journal; the notion of Jewish culture that Kallen envisaged was termed “Hebraism.” A serious effort to theorize resistance to the ideal of assimilation was published early in 1915; the two-part article in the Nation, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” asserted that “men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent; they cannot change their grandfathers. Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be.” With only minor changes, the articles were woven into a volume dedicated to Professor Wendell, Culture and Democracy in the United States (1924). There the phrase “cultural pluralism” was first inscribed inside the covers of a book.
Positing an alternative to touchstones of Americanization like Israel Zangwill's 1908 melodrama, The Melting-Pot, and Mary Antin's 1912 autobiography, The Promised Land, Kallen wished for the uprooted to be implanted in the New World without jettisoning the traditions of the Old. His initial pronouncements as a cultural pluralist were therefore “radically anti-assimilationist,” the historian Philip Gleason has argued. Kallen envisioned “American nationality not as a distinctive something-in-itself but as a collocation of autonomous ethnic nationalities, each of which had its own spiritual enclave, all somehow coexisting harmoniously within the political entity called the United States.” But within a couple of generations, this formulation became softened, according to Professor Gleason, “a relaxed version of the classic melting pot ideal, which was precisely what Kallen meant to discredit and overthrow.” In championing the “melting pot” in DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974), for example, Justice William O. Douglas denied that this ideal had been “designed to homogenize people, making them uniform in consistency … It is a figure of speech that depicts the wide diversities tolerated by the First Amendment under one flag.” Mr. Zangwill, meet Mr. Kallen—whose theory almost achieved the status of conventional wisdom.
Which does not mean that “cultural pluralism” was valid or viable. In particular its determinism has made it vulnerable to objections bobbing easily to the surface amid a fluid and unsettled “association of citizens.” Identity is so rigid, Kallen believed, that Jews, for example, could not be Poles or Anglo-Saxons. But what if his “co-religionists” wanted to be? In fact America made it possible: one generation (say, the first) needed only to be assimilationist for the second generation to be assimilated for the third generation to pick a preferred grandfather. It's a free country, and destiny need not be programmed at birth. Kallen erred. Not only names and spouses and religions and residences could be switched. Race could sometimes be blurred and altered too; even the color line can be crossed, as the anonymous narrator does in an anonymously published 1912 novel, James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Medical surgery makes it possible to change sex as well. Why then should ancestry be innate and durable, a matter only of descent but not at all of consent?
Consider the most famous of all genealogical exercises: Roots (1976). Never mind for the moment its fraudulence, its pretense to be a work of history. Alex Haley got to pick his ancestors, air-brushing others out. Had he gone up his father's family tree rather than his mother's, as the novelist Ishmael Reed was savvy to note, the author of Roots “would have travelled twelve generations back to, not Gambia, but Ireland.” An authentic multiculturalism would be respectful of these twin inheritances—though the enduring pressures of racism have narrowed the choice of grandparents presented to, say, attorney Lani Guinier, actress Lisa Bonet, novelist Walter Mosley and the late historian Nathan I. Huggins (each of whom had a Jewish parent), or Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah (the son of an English mother). Kallen himself was a progressive in race relations. But he envisaged no instruments in his orchestra for Indians or Asian-Americans to play. “Cultural pluralism” neglected and excluded non-whites, nor did its theorist defy the common prejudice against blacks.
Earlier in the 20th century, Kallen sought to answer the question of how immigrants from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe—and their descendants—might be integrated into American society; and he insisted that they not be forcibly assimilated. Multiculturalism lacks a single spokesperson, but at the end of the century wonders how racial and “racial” minorities can be included without being forcibly assimilated. Cultural pluralism sought to validate the customs and values of what we would now call “white ethnics.” Multiculturalism tends to suspect them of being racists, or at least of having gained unfair advantages due to the privilege of skin color. They occupy a lesser place in the pantheon of minorities. Cultural pluralism was essentially celebratory. It admired the democratic opportunities that the United States seemed to provide and asked only that the newcomers be included without disparaging their talents and traditions. Multiculturalism also insists on rectifying the neglect and depreciation from which those with even darker skins have suffered. But its tone is different. It is bereft of the idealism and optimism that animated Kallen's philosophy, and is far more conscious of the persistence of discrimination, victimization, and hypocrisy. The adversaries of cultural pluralism were the nativists and the proponents of a coercive “Americanization.” The targets of multiculturalism are those who practice what the critic Bell Hooks has called “the politics of white supremacist capitalist patriarchal exclusion.”
Both cultural pluralism and multiculturalism reject the primacy of any single group or cultural patrimony. But the former does not directly discredit, as the latter tends to do, the traditional sanction that American society has granted to individualism. Kallen's proposition did not risk converting the citizenry into particular collectives, and was not vulnerable to the charge of Balkanization. Though he sought to legitimate a hyphenated identity, he did not traffic in the notion of group rights. He did not proclaim that filiopietism was desirable—merely that it is unavoidable, and therefore that it is a form of self-respect that the polity ought to respect. By later criteria, an appreciation for the particularity of non-whites, as well as those who were not male or heterosexual or outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, was (to put it mildly) often undeveloped. But the thrust of multiculturalism encourages the suspicion that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The sensibility that has replaced cultural pluralism tends to subvert the belief that particularity can be transcended, tends to discredit the faith in individual talent and in independence of mind. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far when, for example, Steven Spielberg felt compelled to ask Quincy Jones, who was set to co-produce the 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, whether a black or a female director should be hired for the film. Jones spoke for the ideal of cosmopolitanism—and for common sense—when he scoffed: “You didn't have to come from Mars to do E.T., did you?”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4617
SOURCE: Smoot, Jeanne J. “Multiculturalism, Censorship, and the Postmodern Assault on the Canon: Classical Answers to Contemporary Dilemmas.” Comparatist 24 (May 2000): 30-8.
[In the following essay, Smoot examines several of the dominant theories which helped multiculturalism reshape the literary canon in higher education in the United States.]
If we accept the simple premise that what we read influences who we are, then curricular matters in general and the concept of a canon in particular have profound political implications. Almost any dictator seeks to restrict what his subjects read, to control the flow of information, ideas, and philosophies. A free society, then, sustains itself by fostering an expansive and open canon. The idea of a literary canon itself suggests standards, the upholding or at least the respect for excellence in writing, creative expression, and dynamic ideas. The elasticity of this canon insures freedom, the ventilation of opposing ideas, and the development of new ways of thinking. James Madison makes a similar argument in Federalist Paper No. 10 to support, not the idea of an open canon, but democratic government and the need for factions in a free society.
Ironically today the notion of a canon is under attack from the very institution that in the past has been its primary incubator, the academy. Even more ironic, the canon is often under siege in the name of multiculturalism, which at its best should promote respect for all cultures and awareness of cultural differences. What passes for multiculturalism today, however, is sometimes a relentless assault on Western civilization.
John Ellis, in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, sees the race-gender-class critics, as he calls them, actually increasing divisiveness in postmodern society by focusing on the victim/victimizer paradigm. Ellis holds that such critics also harm literary study by selecting texts based on their ability to support particular social and political aims. So concerned was Ellis that literature was being neglected in favor of political and social agendas that he and others formed the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC), an international group, in 1994. While the ALSC's main purpose is to provide a forum for study and exchange for all those who value good literature (its members include classicists, literature professors and teachers of all types, creative writers, critics, editors, and people from other professions who simply have a love of the Word), the group also is concerned with fostering a climate in which good literature can flourish. For this reason, the ALSC has taken a closer look at what is actually being taught in the name of multiculturalism. The results, far from the respect for all cultures that one might have expected, are often deeply disturbing.
One of the ways the ALSC, which is mainly composed of US members, discerns the effect of some elements of multicultural studies is to ask its members to look at something so simple and seemingly benign as standards used to certify secondary school teachers in the fifty US states. While the ALSC saw much to praise, citing the California English language arts standards draft report as a particularly fine example of an evenhanded document that upholds the primacy of literature and refers to “universal themes in significant works of American, British and world literature,” the association was critical of the standards manual put out by the Texas State Board of Education, for example. The fall 1997 issue of the ALSC Newsletter noted what it saw as the deleterious effect of race-gender-class specialists on Texas certification standards. “Among the few authors mentioned, much space is devoted to Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and N. Scott Momaday, but none to, for example, Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dickens, or Twain.” (ALSC Newsletter 8). Perhaps the drafters of the Texas manual felt the authors they were highlighting had been underrepresented in the past or would be in the future. But public documents, at least in the United States, have a way of becoming standards, especially if they are written as guidance for certification; and the privileging of writers like Morrison, Hughes, and Momaday has the net effect of diminishing or perhaps even eliminating such giants as Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Instead of incorporating more recent canonical authors, such as Hughes and Brooks, into its curriculum in the way canon formation should work, the Texas document insinuates antagonisms. As the Newsletter noted, the state manual contains a “long passage from Momaday [that] praises the distinctive ‘vision’ of native Americans—their ‘unifying perception of the interconnectedness of all things’ and contrasts this with the ‘cultural nearsightedness of American society.’” “Here the respect demanded for all cultures seems absent,” the Newsletter continued. The use of one quotation, taken out of context, makes it seem as if Momaday, a distinguished Native American writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for the novel House Made of Dawn, is extolling his own ethnicity in the name of multiculturalism while indicting the rest of American society. Further, in praising the “vision” of Native Americans, he appears to group all 278 recognized tribes and bands in the United States into one monolithic culture. This stereotyping, which one assumes Momaday would not tolerate, also obscures the full extent of his own cultural heritage, which is both European (French through his mother) and Native American (Cherokee, in addition to the Kiowa tribe whose traditions he celebrates).
Does this tendency blindly to prioritize one culture over another, as seen in the Texas manual and its use of Momaday, occur just with Native American culture in relation to US culture at large? Of course not Rather, the attack on American culture is symptomatic of a wider assault on Western culture in general that valorizes anything non-Western over the then vilified and marginalized West. Ellis sees this assault deriving primarily and ironically from a very positive and distinctly Western impulse: the utopic desire. Always seeking the ideal, Western culture has tended to be self-analytic and, by extension, self-critical. When this impulse becomes exaggerated, however, or blinded to the positive things Western culture has produced, multiculturalism then becomes code for devaluation of anything Western. Postmodern critics who fall into this trap tend to see literature as a manifestation of the struggle among races, genders, and classes. Literature for them then becomes the validation and exaltation of their culture or group over another; and literature, which in the past has been seen as a unifying force, is now distorted to foreground divisiveness rather than diversity. Philosopher and educator Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) in his writings, and especially in his multivolume, unfinished work Order and History, envisioned this detrimental interplay between politics and literature, particularly in light of multiculturalism, a concept he understood before it came into vogue.
Robert V. Young in his recent book, At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education, sees the extremists among the multiculturalists and other postmodern critics as literally being at war with the Word itself, in all its mythic and deeply religious connotations. The Word is Logos, that which brings order and distinguishes human beings from other creatures. When we stress divisiveness among ourselves, we diminish not only literature but also our own humanity, says Young.
David H. Richter, author of the near-classic The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, takes a more cavalier approach, though on balance he too sees multicultural excesses as diminishing literary quality and appreciation. “Madonna Studies, anyone?” he asks at the end of a chapter on “New Historicism and Cultural Studies.” Here he expands the notion of multiculturalism to include cultures within cultures, groups within groups, like Madonna Studies within American or Western culture as a whole, with each group seeking to exalt its own particular identity or interest. While Richter is a distinctly contemporary commentator on the critical scene, he is at times reminiscent of a much stodgier and more conservative James Fenimore Cooper. An incredibly popular novelist, Cooper enraged some egalitarian contemporaries in 1838 by writing the satiric The American Democrat. Coming just after the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-37), the first American president of humble origins, this book calls into question exactly what democracy means. Does it mean, for instance, the lowest common denominator—prioritizing all cultures, so that the idea of excellence becomes meaningless? Praising all cultural expressions equally just because they are representative of a particular group, or “demos,” meaning “people”? Obviously the Yale-educated Cooper, who had just lived through Jackson's regime and learned of his frontiersmen supporters reeling through White House halls and using its floors as giant spittoons, thus destroying priceless rugs and other furnishings, thought otherwise.
Looking to our own time for an accurate or coherent definition of multiculturalism will leave us reeling as well. It also forces us to realize that the canon today, far from flourishing as the fluid and ideal instrument Virgil Nemoianu describes in his essay “Literary Canons and Social Value Options,” is being constricted by political intrusion.
Consider, for example, the University of Georgia undergraduate program. There it was determined that diversity meant reading about four specific ethnic groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. There is now a requirement at Georgia that students take a course in one of these four ethnic areas. Because this course can also fulfill the literature requirement, this proposal has the potential to gut the distinguished world literature courses and comparative literature program there, since students often opt for the easiest way to fulfill requirements. In the name of cultural diversity, the most extreme parochialism is being institutionalized in Georgia, as if only these four ethnic groups had enriched that state, or as if students could not emerge equally well educated if they took a course with such writers as Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Li Po, or Murasaki Shikibu. Other states are seeking other lofty goals, though with equally dubious methods. In Massachusetts there is a movement at the precollege level to make certain that all protected groups in the United States be represented in the literature taught. Must a healthy, heterosexual white male, such as Melville for instance, be displaced by Cervantes, who can join the high school curriculum only because he had a maimed hand and, hence, belonged to a protected group, the disabled? And will much of pre-1970 literature be excluded because depictions of women, African Americans, and others might show them in roles that are no longer acceptable or might not show them in the wide range of roles such individuals can enjoy and assume today? These questions may seem silly and extreme, but extremism is on the rise today both in America at large and in academe, and literary study is often under assault in the process.
Virtually no one in academe today—or in society at large for that matter—has a whit of sympathy for any form of censorship, least of all censorship from Church and State. The lists of books compiled by the Roman Catholic Church, the first official one being issued by Pope Gelasius I in 496, followed by other such lists, and then the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, first published in 1559, are anathema today. Similar such restrictions drawn up by other religious groups of whatever stripe are also repudiated by thinking individuals today as mind throttling. Governmental censorship is usually met with similar revulsion today, particularly in the more flagrant examples of Italy, Spain, and Germany prior to World War II or Stalinist Russia, when books were systematically confiscated and burned publicly. Political intrusion is political intrusion, whether from the Church or the State, the right or the left. Somehow, though, academics today seem more adept at seeing prior examples of such malfeasance and especially able to discern its encroachment when it comes from the right. They are less quick to see the threat of censorship—the ultimate closure of not just the canon but the lifeblood of literature and free thought itself—when it comes from the left.
No one ever censors anything for an ignoble reason—at least not outwardly. The Catholic Church stated that its lists were to preserve true religion, the souls of its parishioners, and their moral well-being. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, and others of their ilk said they were trying to build idealized states, to protect and nurture their citizens. But in each case, the initial results were the same. Free thought was diminished, and literature became an ideological tool rather than a means to greater truth, enlightenment, or revelation, or, perhaps more realistically, simply the means to the free exchange and ventilation of ideas.
Those today who think literature should be chosen for what it says about women, or minorities, or other groups or ideologies, have similar lofty goals, and there is a place in the curriculum for such study, but not if it involves the denigration and vilification of anything that does not fit a prescribed political formula. Forcing all discourse into an ideological grid is, simply put, intellectual censorship. If that is the case, then why aren't more academics speaking out against such excesses? There are probably many reasons—sympathy for previously underrepresented groups and the fervent desire for their voices to be heard undoubtedly play a part. But there is perhaps another reason. Just as early opponents of the Roman Catholic List of Forbidden Books were called anti-Church, so those who oppose ideological selection of literature texts are sometimes called antifeminist, or antiethnic, or racist. Take, for example, Arizona State University Professor Jared Sakren, who was, in effect, fired for teaching canonical works. As recorded in a November 4, 1998, Wall Street Journal story titled “The Bard, Barred,” Shakespeare was singled out as one of those authors whom “the feminists” on campus found most objectionable. Sakren had taught at Yale and the Julliard School of Performing Arts before being hired by Arizona State “to establish a nationally respected actor training program.” And he had many successes to his credit, having trained movie actors Annette Bening, Kelly McGillis, and Val Kilmer, among others. Sakren was accused of a “conservatory approach” for focusing on such dramatists as Shakespeare, Congreve, and Ibsen. According to a letter from his department head, Lin Wright, “The feminists are offended by the selection [sic] works from a sexist European canon that is approached traditionally.” In another memo she charged, “there is a tension between the use of a European-American canon of dramatic literature and production vs. post-modern feminist/ethnic canons and production styles.”
Unfortunately, no amount of support from students both past and present, both male and female, or even from Annette Bening herself and another student who described herself as a feminist could halt the ax. In her memo to Sakren, Ms. Wright warned, “No one, in this political climate, is a free agent.” Sakren is now fighting fire with fire, suing the university and claiming racial discrimination against those of European background and the selection of European works. In the meantime, the Bard, William Shakespeare—if he is taught at all—is truly barred unless viewed through the filters of race-gender-class critics (Schaefer A22).
Is this really what literature is all about? Are we simply retrogrades slinging literary mud around, vilifying one another in the name of diversity? Perhaps here, it is helpful to look at the classics to get perspective and perhaps some idea of a true utopia, where different groups do, in fact, interact amiably. Interestingly, when Ellis in Literature Lost cites the utopic impulse run wild as the reason for discontent with Western culture and the concomitant valorization of non-Western traditions, he recalls the Roman historian Tacitus as an example of the similar process in antiquity. In his Germania (c. 98 CE), Tacitus repeatedly praises the vigor, bravery, and truthfulness of the German tribes, which he relentlessly juxtaposes to the effeteness of Roman society. As Ellis quotes Tacitus, who says of the Germans, “They live uncorrupted by the temptations of public shows or the excitements of banquets,” the reader realizes that Tacitus, who lived under Nero (37-68 CE), is really telling us more about Rome than about the Germans. When he writes that “good morality is more effective in Germany than good laws are elsewhere,” his implicit criticism of the Roman Empire becomes even more transparent (qtd. in Ellis 13, 14). Since the earliest times, then, valorizing one culture over another has sometimes been a form of self-criticism, as in Montaigne's essay, “Des cannibales,” and Montesquieu's Lettres persanes. These are healthy impulses, but in postmodern times there has been a deleterious tendency to take the exaggerated claims made for the exalted society too literally or to become demoralized by the sometimes equally exaggerated denigrating charges brought against one's own culture.
Far better, though, in truly characterizing a utopia and, by extension, speaking of what constitutes an ideal society, is Homer's approach in The Odyssey. In Book VI, he introduces the mythical realm of the Phaiákians, headed by the ideal couple, Alkínoös and his wife, Arêtê. Their names symbolize their claim to rule. Alkínoös means strong or high in intelligence. Arêtê means virtue. When virtue and intelligence are united, the kingdom is strong—whether it be German, Roman, or an American democracy. In contrast to the Phaiákians, whose kingdom is one of harmony, prosperity, and grace, are Penelope's suitors, whose drunken ringleader, Antínoös, has the telling name, Antí-noös, enemy of knowledge or intelligence. Homer is extolling absolute virtues and qualities, not one people over another, in his epic The Odyssey.
Just as Homer speaks in absolutist or universal terms when he discusses the ideal, he also generalizes about its opposite. The mythic Kyklopês cannot really be identified with any particular group, but they definitely can be identified with certain brutish attitudes. These “louts” are
without a law to bless them. In ignorance leaving the fruitage of the earth in mystery to the immortal gods, they neither plow nor sow by hand, nor till the ground, though grain— wild wheat and barley—grows untended, and wine-grapes, in clusters, ripen in heaven's rain. Kyklopês have no muster and no meeting, no consultation or old tribal ways, but each one dwells in his own mountain cave dealing out rough justice to wife and child, indifferent to what the others do.
This famous passage outlines what constitutes civilized society, all of which eludes the Kyklopês. Notice, too, Homer's attitude toward the law; it is a blessing not to be found among the Kyklopês. They also have no agriculture, not because nature has not made it clear to them how to utilize the bounty of the earth—“wild wheat and barley” grow “untended, and / wine-grapes, in clusters, ripen in heaven's rain”—but rather because they are lazy or too stupid to take advantage of opportunity. The Kyklopês have no sense of community, no ability to unify for the common good, and no sense of tradition (no “old tribal ways”). Instead, they live isolated, “indifferent to what others do,” “dealing out rough justice to wife and child,” the classical equivalent of the wife and child abuser. Throughout the description Homer goes from the general with the audience left to go to the particular in terms of their own lives and experiences. But this knowledge of what makes a civilized society, the union of virtue and intelligence, blessed by law and hard work, ingenuity, practical science and technology, and the guidance of traditional ways and a sense of community, was not easily gained by either Homer or his fictive hero. Assuming that one person actually composed both The Iliad and The Odyssey, the world of The Iliad differs greatly from the one presented in the chronologically later Odyssey. In the first part of The Iliad, loyalty is to the chieftain, or warlord. Some of the men besieging Troy follow Odysseus, others Achilles, and they all agree to heed Agamemnon—at least for a while. But even this scant order breaks down when Achilles and Agamemnon fight over a war prize, and Agamemnon in his arrogance and materialistic equation of things with power and prestige insults Achilles' manhood. Then, Achilles withdraws from the fray, and all his men do likewise. There is no loyalty to nation or creed, but only to an individual. Even in the war itself there are times when individual alliances or kinship or simply notions of honor itself outweigh all other allegiances. In Book VII, for example, Homer tells of Telemonian Aias and Hektor, who have just fought a life-threatening duel that is halted only because “It is a good thing to give way to the night-time” (1.293). Homer says these two fought each other in heart-consuming hate, then “joined with each other in close friendship, before they were parted” (301-02). The warriors exchange gifts as a further sign of mutual respect.
But this grand elevation of honor and the individual also brings much suffering. Because the Myrmidons, for instance, are so loyal to Achilles, they leave the fighting when he does; and scores of Achaians then lose their lives as the Trojans gain the advantage. Absolute loyalty to a principle or to an individual can be grand, as Homer shows. But it can also bring absolute chaos and destruction to society. There must be that concomitant sense of community, that sense of coming together, of “consultation,” and of “old tribal ways” that Homer exalts by inversion when he speaks of the deficiencies of the Kyklopês in The Odyssey.
Learning the need for order, concern for the community, responsible authority, and submission to a worthy leader—not a petulant man who sits on the sidelines hoping his own side will lose so that his personal stature and glory will be increased—is difficult. These are some of the many lessons that Odysseus learns before this weary, wayworn wanderer is tossed up on the shores of Phaiákia, the ideal kingdom of virtue and intelligence. Battle-scarred and swollen from two days in a turbulent sea, he has learned discipline and the quick-wittedness essential to survival. In a sense, his sea bath has been a purification that prepares him for the lessons of Phaiákia. At the same time, the reader notices that the idealized state of the Phaiákians has, in a sense, made them soft. Perpetually prosperous and able to live in harmony, they are no match for Odysseus in the games that follow, and he is easily able to win them with his words. And so, as Homer upholds Phaiákia as a utopia, he nevertheless bows to the reality that all Hellenes came to realize, and that is perhaps most eloquently expressed by the later Aeschylus in the Oresteia, that “[m]en must learn by suffering” (Agamemnon 1.168).
Learning by suffering to live in harmony with one another, with people of different types and interests, of different backgrounds and ethnicities, becomes as difficult for the person of classical antiquity as it is for the individual of today. Homer's response, elevating certain values and absolutes above any other loyalties, resonates but then ultimately strikes a different chord in the other great voice from antiquity, Virgil.
Virgil retains the great respect for the Law; in fact, in The Aeneid he sees the giving of the law as the greatest achievement of the Romans. But, whereas Homer goes always from the general or absolute to allow the audience to fill in the particulars, Virgil in both his thinking and style repeatedly goes from the particular to the universal, forever ending with the glorification of the Roman Empire above all civilizations.
In this process, Virgil's treatment of other groups, other tribes, parallels the way Edward Said says the West has always viewed the Orient. Rome, like the West for Said, is forever viewing others in negative terms. Given that Virgil wrote The Aeneid to glorify his patron, Caesar Augustus, the poet's preference for the Roman Empire is explicable. But even more than the desire to please his patron is Virgil's apparent conviction that Rome had indeed restored order to the world. Virgil (70-19 BCE), like others of his era, had experienced strife of all kinds, the constant dread of insurrection and outright civil war that staggered Rome prior to the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE. Virgil probably began The Aeneid as early as a year after that victory by Augustus, who was his friend as well as his patron. Like many an author and critic, Virgil then finds his judgment clouded by his own political and ethnocentric allegiances, and proceeds to write a masterpiece predicated on an illogicality: the reconciliation of Augustus's now imperial Rome with the virtues of the forever lost Republic. Aeneas, essentially a peace-loving man who goes to war only to preserve and protect the future of Rome, becomes the apotheosis of Augustus, the new emperor.
Not only does Virgil vilify anything non-Roman—the wildly barbarous and tyrannical Mezentius whose own people rise up against him in his war with Aeneas—but anything also that does not fit with Rome's manly militaristic view of the world. Indeed, Virgil's perception of virtue itself is colored by its etymological root in Latin, vir, viri, m. man. The frenzied Dido, the furious Allecto, the passionate, Amazon-like Camilla, or the foolish self-destructive Amata all must be destroyed or subverted along with the primitive, lawless tribes who inhabit the region Aeneas seeks to repopulate for the establishment of almighty, imperial Rome. Not so blatantly heavy-handed as some of the postmodern race-gender-class critics, however, Virgil deftly melds all the various tribes of the region into one mighty Latin race once Aeneas has trumped his noble but uncivilized adversary Turnus.
So, what do the classics teach us about multiculturalism and problems of whose voices will and should be heard? Much that we already know. Multiculturalism in antiquity, just as today, sometimes serves to glorify one group over another, as it does in Virgil's Aeneid as he proclaims the Super Race, the Romans sprung from the unification of the Trojan remnant and their leader Aeneas and the peoples of the Tiber Valley and surrounding regions. In Homer, however, we see a clearer vision. Here we see higher principles of true virtue, not the manliness of the Roman leader, Aeneas, but Arêtê, virtue personified significantly in the female ruler of Phaiákia. Virtue urges us to unite with Alkínoös, the one strong in knowledge, intelligence, and reason, not for the purpose of denigrating or subjugating another culture, but rather so that together we may, as the Kyklopês could not, “consult,” “meet,” learn from “old tribal ways,” “muster” only when necessary for the defense of the common good, cultivate the richness of the soil provided to us, use our ingenuity and craft to better our lives, and allow the law always to bless us, but never to allow us wantonly to crush another under our heel.
ALSC Newsletter 3.4 (Fall 1997).
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: U of Texas P, 1968.
Ellis, John. Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.
Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Trans. and introd. Richmond P. Lattimore. 10th ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1960.
———. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Anchor, 1963.
Nemoianu, Virgil. “Literary Canons and Social Value Options.” The Hospitable Canon: Essays on Literary Play, Scholarly Choice, and Popular Pressures. Eds. Virgil Nemoianu and Robert Royal. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1991. 215-47.
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.
Schaefer, Naomi. “The Bard, Barred.” Wall Street Journal. 4 Nov. 1998: A22.
Voegelin, Eric. Order and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1974.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. New York: Scribner's, 1951.
Young, R. V. At War with the Word. Wilmington: ISI Books, 1999.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6910
SOURCE: Grobman, Laurie. “Toward a Multicultural Pedagogy: Literary and Nonliterary Traditions.” MELUS 26, no. 1 (spring 2001): 221-40.
[In the following essay, Grobman explores how multicultural literature has—or has not—been integrated into the teaching of modern literary theory, commenting that, “[w]hen we allow and encourage our students to consider a text in its many literary and nonliterary traditions, we bring students into the debates of multiculturalism.”]
INTRODUCTION: MULTICULTURAL CRITICAL BACKGROUNDS
Over the last two decades, coincident with the broadening of the literary canon, multicultural scholars have produced a vast amount of critical and pedagogical literature. Despite these advances, though, and despite a broad consensus about the moral and political goals of our work in and out of the classroom—that we have, as Doris Davenport suggests, a “moral imperative” (66) to teach it—we lack a coherent pedagogy. John Alberti accurately asserts that multicultural scholarship has adequately addressed changing the texts we bring to class but inadequately addressed what we do with those texts in the classroom (xi-xii). Our natural inclination leads us to familiar ways of reading and teaching, but most scholars now recognize that conventional methods may not work in a multicultural literature classroom. However, the responses to this recent awareness provide little guidance, as each seems to exist in isolation, or even counterpoint, to the others. With this fragmentation in multicultural criticism, we lack a coherent framework for creating pedagogy.
A brief look at Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men can exemplify what I mean. An extremely difficult text primarily due its cross-cultural contexts but also a powerful and important story of the long-ignored experiences of Chinese-American men in America, China Men poses significant challenges for instructors and illustrates the larger problem of multicultural pedagogy.
Western-based critical studies of the narrator's male ancestors tend to focus on narratives of exploration and discovery in the spirit of rugged individualism and the making of America. This theme is initially raised through the first interchapter, “On Discovery,” which concerns early Chinese immigration to America in search of the Gold Mountain, and then reinforced again in “The Ghostmate,” which follows “The Father from China.” In this light, BaBa, both protagonist and antagonist in China Men, is a Gold Mountain sojourner, willing to risk it all in search of the American Dream. Like many others, BaBa is lured to America by the stories of the Gold Mountain, retold and relished in China:
“On the Gold Mountain, a man eats enough meat at one meal to feed a family for a month,” said Great Grandfather. “Yes, slabs of meat.” The hungrier the family got, the bigger the stories, the more real the meat and the gold. … “America—a peaceful county, a free country.” America. The Gold Mountain. The Beautiful Nation.
In many ways a prototypical immigrant, BaBa, who re-names himself Ed upon his arrival in America, buys into the ideals of America and what it means to live the American Dream, claiming the land as his own. He is lured by America-as-opportunity, the American spirit of rugged individualism. Making it to (and in) America takes wit, endurance, and the will to survive, as his story attests.
Western readings of the narratives of exploration and discovery in China Men can also compel revisionist analyses. As Walter Cummins suggests, Kingston raises two fundamental questions: What happens to those who search for freedom and prosperity but fail, and does political and economic freedom for some necessitate the exploitation and dehumanization of others? (141-42). Cummins argues that in “The Adventures of Lo Bun Sun,” Kingston revises features of William Defoe's Robinson Crusoe; specifically, Kingston emphasizes Sing Kay Ng's reunion with his father, whereas this reunion was ancillary in Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps Kingston intends to provide an antidote to Lo Bun Sun's rejection of his family and tradition. Cummins, however, argues otherwise, claiming that not only is Sing Kay Ng a cannibal, but also that family love does not necessarily resolve the limitations of self-contained individualism, given the “hostile environment of the wider world” (144). Unlike Crusoe (and Benjamin Franklin, whom Cummins sees as the American version of Crusoe, despite differences), the China Men cannot sever their ties to home and to their families, evidenced in Kingston's text by the ghosts living and dead.
Western discovery narratives also provide important contexts for interpreting the story of Kingston's grandfather, Ah Goong, who along with other China Men made major contributions to the building of the transcontinental railroad. However, a mainstream feminist perspective offers a further lens through which we might interpret China Men. Kingston presents China Men with dignity and physical prowess, the strength they exhibited in the demanding physical work of cutting through the granite mountains. However, mainstream feminist criticism problematizes what King-kok Cheung calls the “rhetorics of conquest” in the story of Ah Goong (109). In the wake of Annette Kolodny's landmark work, feminist critics have long argued that settlers of the New World depicted the continent as a woman, sometimes an Indian maiden, arms generously open, offering the riches of the new land to prospective immigrants. Much of the language associated with the conquest myth suggests this equation: the “fertility” of the “virgin land” and the “birth” of a new nation, for example. But much of the association of the “dual maternal and sexual aspect[s]” of the land is misogynistic and violent (Kolodny, “Land” 169). Kolodny's assertions can make sense of Ah Goong's explosion of pent up sexual energy when he masturbates into the valley below: “He grew a habit: whenever he was lowered in the basket, his blood rushed to his penis, and he fucked the world” (133). Moreover, Kingston chooses language of violence in her descriptions of the men's work: they were to “hack a farm out of the wilderness” (98), and as they did so, “the mud ran like blood” (103).
But there is an alternate way to interpret the aggressiveness and heightened sexuality of Kingston's male ancestors: through a Chinese-American lens. From its earliest inception, the Asian American literary enterprise has worked to unravel and counter stereotypes of the emasculated Chinese-American male and create Chinese-American masculinity by revising images of the feminized China Man. Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers, a defining moment in Asian American literary history, describes the “white stereotype of the acceptable and unacceptable Asian” as “utterly without manhood. Good or bad, the stereotypical Asian is nothing as a man. At worst, the Asian American is contemptible because he is womanly, effeminate, devoid of the traditionally masculine qualities originality, daring, physical courage, and creativity” (Chin 14-15). The tradition of Asian American literature, as constructed in and evidenced in Aiiieeeee!, focuses on stereotypes of male impotence and the attempt to reconstruct masculinity and heroism.
Kingston counteracts these stereotypes by giving her father and other China Men a voice; she not only tells their history but also simultaneously creates their identity and dispels Western stereotypes of the quiet, inscrutable Asian. As such, she writes within the Asian American literary tradition, as represented by Aiiieeeee!, through the rejection of the dual personality and the re-construction of Asian American manhood.
Finally, however, the intersection of race and gender might compel a reading of China Men through an Asian American feminist lens. The exploitation of China Men and their simultaneous exploitation of the land raise issues relevant to an Asian American feminist perspective, for China Men “at once employs feminist strategies and inverts certain feminist preconceptions” (Cheung 102). Specifically, Kingston uses silence as a strategy to emphasize the parallels between the plight of China Men in America and Chinese women throughout history, what Shu-mei Shih refers to as “double commentary” (65), a simultaneous critique of white racism and Chinese sexism. This discursive strategy is evident in BaBa's journey to the United States, which involved many of the same indignities women in Old China face upon marrying: changing one's parentage, changing one's name, and the feelings of entrapment and fear of a fate beyond one's control. Moreover, the men are housed on a floor below the women, which they perceive as deliberate humiliation by their white captors:
“The women are up there,” the father was told. Diabolical, inauspicious beginning—to be trodden over by women. “Living under women's legs,” said the superstitious old-fashioned men from the backward villages. “Climbed over by women,” It was bad luck even to walk under women's pants on clotheslines. No doubt the demons had deliberately planned this humiliation.
Clearly, Kingston derides the men's feelings of superiority over women.
The example of China Men thus illustrates the need for a broad-based study of this and other ethnic texts. By studying the text through multiple cultural and critical prisms, instructors avoid falling into the trap of convenient but single-minded approaches. In a sense, this strategy updates Gerald Graff's widely recognized “teach the conflicts” pedagogy, a call for involving students in the “conflicts occasioned by new interests, ideas, and constituencies” to enable them to function in our culturally diverse world (10). Though a significant contribution to multicultural pedagogy, “teach-the-conflicts” now tells only part of the multicultural story. In advocating that we make conflicts the center of pedagogy, Graff focuses on the “either/or choice we have been offered between teaching Western or non-Western culture,” concluding that “in a culturally diverse society, a wide range of cultures and values should and will be taught” (14). It is at the “points of intersection” with the dominant culture, he argues, that we should be teaching or understanding multicultural texts, as his example of Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart demonstrates (15).
Graff's position may no longer be tenable as ethnic and ethnic women's critics demand that multicultural literature be read and understood on its own terms. The debate over multiculturalism has extended far beyond the revisionist/traditionalist conflict that Graff's approach addressed and incorporated. The “conflicts occasioned by new interests, ideas, and constituencies,” now within the revisionist group, include the affinities of multicultural criticism with feminist criticism and the resulting tendency to understand and evaluate ethnic texts according to traditional paradigms and categories, the question of essentializing something we call “multicultural” literature, and racial divisions within the field. Once we recognize these conflicts and make them part of pedagogy, we will move in the direction of teaching these texts responsibly and sensitively. Teaching these conflicts means approaching an ethnic text as part of numerous and diverse literary and nonliterary traditions, and, as the example of China Men illustrates, providing multiple, varied, and interconnected perspectives.
MULTICULTURAL CRITICISM, MULTICULTURAL PEDAGOGY: CONSENSUS
Despite the conflicts within multicultural criticism, scholars do agree that we need innovative teaching approaches because multiethnic literature requires new critical categories. Few scholars of multicultural literature believe traditional categories of understanding, evaluating, and/or teaching literature are sufficient. As Anne Stavney notes, pedagogical changes must recognize that previously excluded texts often violate traditional categories of discourse and evaluation (153). We must revise these categories and create new ones. Can we value, for example, simplicity rather than complexity of language and meaning? Must a text be dense and ambiguous to be canonized? John Maitino and David Peck call for new criteria that emphasize the uniqueness of American ethnic literature and the strength of its cultural and historical context, as they urge instructors to bring these contexts into the classroom. However, little information exists about exactly what those strategies should be and how to break out of our patterns of analysis and evaluation. Multicultural criticism has tended to focus on reading, understanding, and evaluating works within the same conventions used for canonical literature: genres such as historical narrative and autobiography, literary forms such as the Bildungsroman or Kuntslerroman, and formalistic qualities such as innovation in language or narration and ambiguity of meaning.
Multicultural scholars also tend to agree on classroom methodology, arguing for the decentering of teacherly authority, even though, as Alberti reminds us, “the traditional classroom is, if nothing else, a centralized place, typically involving a single instructor, a single syllabus, and a single lecture” (xvii). Even as innovative teaching strategies like collaborative learning, integrated courses, and team teaching make their way into classrooms, traditional methods remain dominant. By decentering authority in multicultural classrooms, teachers underscore the notion that knowledge is socially constructed, that the canon, too, is a cultural and political construct, and that a particular curriculum or syllabus is highly political and personal. Drawing on Barbara Herrnstein Smith's ideas about the contingency of literary value, Alberti argues that New Criticism's stringent set of formalist aesthetic standards as well as its failure to account for a literary work's political, historical, cultural, or social contexts led to canon-formation and traditional classroom methodology. Identified by Paulo Freire as the “banking concept” of education, this methodology—lecture-oriented, with students memorizing and regurgitating information—assumes that learning is “the accumulation of correct interpretations or of the correct grounds for arguing about interpretations, be those interpretations traditional or on the cutting edge of theory” (Savage 287).
Taking their cue from both composition studies and feminist literary studies, instructors of multicultural literature tend to view education as a “dialogic process of cultural analysis rather than the static transmission of information” that involves students in the process of their own knowledge-making (Alberti xix). When teachers decenter their authority in multicultural classrooms, they give students greater responsibility for their own learning. Students enter into the specific conventions of the academic discourse community, thereby recognizing that knowledge is socially constructed. In such a pedagogy, teacher and student together create meaning and value.
However, a decentered, process-oriented approach also presents new challenges for instructors. First, how much power should students have in controlling the direction of the class? Should students construct the syllabus, as they do in Anne Bower's classes? Moreover, how do we reconcile Savage's claim that classroom discussion is successful only to the extent that we “find ways to empower students to set the agenda, to lead the class towards their own interests” (294) with the necessity for contextual knowledge in the reading of multicultural literatures? Without contextual, cultural, and historical knowledge, will an ethnic text be coopted, appropriated, and distorted? Decentered methodology compels us to be creative in finding ways for students to obtain knowledge of cultural and literary traditions without simply lecturing at them, perhaps through individual or collaborative student class presentations, a wide range of secondary readings, or guest speakers. Most instructors of multicultural literature agree in principle with the decentered classroom but struggle nonetheless with its practice.
Furthermore, in our efforts to broaden both the canon and our students' minds, how do we encourage students to be active thinkers rather than passive recipients of the multicultural mission? How do we avoid turning our classrooms into indoctrination sessions, given our commitments to the values of multiculturalism? Decentering does not wipe away teachers' authority and influence over students' views, and thus scholar-teachers nationwide are wrestling with such questions (see Friend, Olson).
MULTICULTURAL CRITICISM, MULTICULTURAL PEDAGOGY: CONFLICTS
Apart from agreement over decentered, process-oriented methodologies, there is little coherent multicultural pedagogy or coherent body of multicultural criticism to guide us. Indeed, important multicultural critical projects that attempt to provide guides for teaching ethnic literature, even as they approach the literature from varied perspectives, emphasize the need to construct critical and pedagogical frameworks. Alberti, for example, writes in his introduction to The Canon in the Classroom (1995) that the move away from New Critical methods for literary evaluation and interpretation provides an opportunity for a multiculturalism that will be a “truly radical critique” that he hopes his edited collection will initiate (xii). Asserting that conventional literary criticism is insufficient for ethnic texts, Maitino and Peck claim that the essays in Teaching American Ethnic Literatures (1996) will forge a “new criticism” that incorporates issues related to ethnicity, race, gender, and class (4). Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd view their edited collection, The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse (1990), as part of a large effort to create and define a “minority discourse,” identifying the elements that link various minority cultures with one another, particularly as they share marginalization by the dominant culture (ix). In The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions (1995), David Palumbo-Liu calls for a “critical multiculturalism” (14) that resists the appropriation of ethnic texts by the liberal establishment by “reinstat[ing] the cultural politics of reading and interpreting ethnic literatures” (18-19). Bonnie TuSmith and Gerald Bergevin, editors of Colorizing Literary Theory, a special issue of Modern Language Studies (1996), note the urgency to remedy the dearth of multiethnic theory (1). Bruce Goebel and James Hall, editors of Teaching a “New Canon”? (1995), reflect on their recognition of the “need for systematic exploration about the relationship between classroom practice and the institutionalization of cultural democratic ideals” (xiv). In turn, their collection helps teachers serve their students and the idea of a “new canon” (xiv). Finally, Lil Brannon and Brenda M. Greene assert that Rethinking American Literature (1997) reflects the “larger conversation” over multiculturalism and American literature: “the theoretical orientations that cause teachers of literature to question their ideas of ‘American,’ of ‘literature,’ and of who they are as teachers and what they do in the classroom” (vii). While these major multicultural projects vary in the perspectives they bring to ethnic literature, they all address the inadequacy of current multicultural criticism and pedagogy.
My answer to these inadequacies resides in identifying and including in the classroom the conflicts that now divide the field. Such a pedagogy recognizes the broad range of perspectives through which we can interpret multicultural texts.
One current conflict in multicultural studies is the tendency to view minority works in relationship to traditional categories and paradigms, which resulted from multiculturalism's early affinity with feminist literary criticism. Feminist criticism's challenge to the literary canon opened the canon to minority writers and, following feminist criticism's groundbreaking work, multicultural criticism also challenges the canon, critical categories and paradigms, and criteria for literary excellence. Both concern themselves with the oppressive and exclusionary nature of the Western and American critical and literary canon, the reevaluation and reinterpretation of such texts to reveal gender and/or racist biases and stereotypes, and the recovery of long-excluded voices and texts.
Well-known scholars such as Paul Lauter, Gregory Jay, Jane Tompkins, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Harold Kolb, among many others, were at the forefront of this multicultural movement, arguing for a broadening of the literary canon and questioning, with feminist critics, criteria for literary value. Despite the fact that these ground-breaking multicultural scholars desire new critical categories to define, understand, and evaluate ethnic literature, the pedagogy that derives from multicultural criticism's challenge to the traditional canon still tends to understand minority texts within or against problematic paradigms and critical categories. We can see the limitations of this view in Alan Purves' remark that in such a paradigm, “literary texts from the ‘minority’ cultures play against the ‘majority’ culture” (511), for as Barbara Roche Rico and Sandra Mano assert, such revisionist approaches can “privilege the more established, more canonical work—making [it] the central subtext” and the noncanonical works “other versions of that story” (103). As a result, these approaches deemphasize diversity, tension, and cultural difference (Rico and Mano 103). By valuing noncanonical works insofar as they set off the more canonical ones, ignoring elements present in the noncanonical texts if they are not present in the others, such approaches lead to charges of appropriation by some ethnic scholars (see Palumbo-Liu). The problem is evident in China Men where strictly Western approaches ignore culture-specific concerns. It is also apparent, for example, in a text like Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street if studied solely in the Western Bildungsroman tradition or Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller if limited to autobiography.
Jacqueline Bacon's and Martha Cutter's classroom approaches demonstrate the inherent limitations of pedagogy steeped in conventional paradigms. In her “dialogical approach” (a reference to Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination), which “place[s] canonical texts into ‘conversation’ with noncanonical works in the classroom” and enables students to interrogate cultural constructions and conceptions of race and ethnicity, Bacon argues that viewing a text such as Toni Morrison's Beloved against traditional renderings of American slavery enhances students' understanding (511). But what about more culturally-based readings, such as against the backdrop of the African folklore tradition, the African American jazz tradition, or the slave narrative tradition? Similarly, Cutter's “canon, anticanon” approach, based on the interconnectedness of canonical and noncanonical texts, begins with a text that supports the dominant ideology of the period and then presents for contrast “anticanon” works that challenge dominant aesthetic and ideological structures while moving toward alternative models (122). Although Cutter stresses that the term “anticanon” is not intended to be derogatory, her assumption that “noncanonical texts are also dependent on canonical works because they critique the dominant ideologies that enfranchised voices (often) inscribe” (122) is problematic. By emphasizing the “anticanon” work in its relationship to canonical texts, this approach potentially fails to account for the richness and difference of literary and cultural traditions.
Multicultural criticism's affinity with feminist criticism may also be problematic as a way of defining, understanding, and evaluating ethnic women's literature because many scholars have recognized the limitations of feminist criticism in dealing with the concerns of women of multicultural backgrounds. These scholars argue that mainstream feminist criticism fails to wholly account for the concerns of ethnic women who are doubly (or more) marginalized by factors of gender, race, class, and even language.1 Some ethnic women's literature scholars accuse mainstream feminists critics of ignoring issues unrelated to patriarchal structures, institutions, or language (see Allen). They also claim that the effort to identify and define a women's tradition in literature excluded ethnic women's writing and that mainstream feminist critics have more in common with white males than with ethnic women. Certainly, these concerns are valid; while I do not agree with extremist claims that mainstream and ethnic women's criticism are wholly incompatible, I do believe their differences compel scholar-teachers to consider ethnic women's texts from multiple perspectives, for mainstream feminist criticism cannot alone lead to meaningful understanding.
The second conflict I identify in multicultural discourses arises from responses to the charge that multicultural criticism remains embedded within the white literary establishment. Some scholars advocate a criticism that defines, understands, and evaluates ethnic writing within a generalized ethnic tradition, but others believe that such a generalized ethnic tradition reduces difference. JanMohamed and Lloyd posit a “minority discourse” they define as the “theoretical articulation of the political and cultural structures that connect different minority cultures in their subjugation and opposition to the dominant culture” (ix). Minority status itself links members of various ethnic groups. Rather than homogenizing ethnics, a minority discourse provides a sense of solidarity among marginalized people from a variety of oppressed groups. Ironically, though, by steeping minority discourse within the common thread “subjugation and opposition to the dominant culture,” JanMohamed and Lloyd may inadvertently lead us back to the trap of familiar paradigms and revisionary writing by ignoring culture-specific contexts. Moreover, such a focus on subjugation and oppression largely ignores the enormously important cultural celebrations and contributions in multicultural literature.
Many scholars disagree with the idea of grouping ethnic writing together into one category due to the possibilities for ghettoizing, essentializing, tokenism, and stereotyping. By treating ethnic writers as part of the larger term, “minority,” instead of in terms of particular cultures and ethnicities, instructors promulgate what Barbara Hiura calls a “patriarchal assimilationist view” that “‘erase[s]’” difference (qtd. in Kafka 181). Instead, these scholars call for a contextual criticism and pedagogy. By providing students with cultural understanding beyond one writer's vision, instructors can avoid leading students to believe one writer speaks for all ethnic groups or individuals. Such scholars as Maitino and Peck, Rico and Mano, Arlene Elder, and TuSmith (“Cultural”) emphasize the importance of culture-specific knowledge for understanding and teaching ethnic texts.
Again, the either/or position limits meaningful understanding of these texts. We can reasonably assume that ethnic Americans and, even more specifically, ethnic American women share certain sociological, historical, and political realities that influence their lives and their writing. But like the complex relationship of ethnic writers to the dominant culture, these cross-relationships do not exclude culture-specific realities that also influence ethnic texts. We can avoid reducing difference when we seek to identify patterns common to ethnic and ethnic women writers if we simultaneously pay attention to those cultural differences.
Finally, racial conflicts also divide our field. As Arnold Krupat regretfully acknowledges, the “critical world today … has changed; it is very much a place of ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Turn 2). While debates over theory are the lifeblood of English studies, racialized debates are divisive rather than productive. Within multicultural studies today, European-derived theories currently dominating English studies are seen by many, both white and non-white, as reserved for white European American intellectuals.2 Like questions over literary value and canonical status, the debate over theory involves questions of authority, of what is authorized—and by whom—as “theoretical enough,” and whether only one kind of theory is acceptable. TuSmith, for example, has felt compelled to defend the theoretical integrity of her work against charges that her scholarship is void of theory. In response, she criticizes theorists who subscribe to “the Big-T” (“Opening” 60), a “narrowly specialized discourse” that TuSmith assails as “unintelligible” (60), “overspecialized” (64), “elitist” (64), and “mostly irrelevant” (64).
Clearly, this division over theory will not serve the multicultural mission in literary studies. Those of us of all races who have taught canonical and noncanonical texts can attest that the “Big-T” is not the only way to read ethnic texts, a necessary way to read ethnic texts, nor the exclusive domain of whites. As Trudy Palmer rightfully asserts, we must break free of the mistaken assumption that life experience is necessary for ethnic texts, an assumption premised on a misunderstanding of these texts as “sociology rather than art,” demanding “lived experience” rather than scholarly tools applicable to canonical texts (221). At the same time, though, we should not summarily dismiss Eurocentric theories and other traditional ways of reading, understanding, and evaluating multiethnic texts because these writers must negotiate within the numerous cultures intersecting the dominant one. These theories can unlock multicultural texts in meaningful ways.
Many practitioners of ethnically-derived theory believe they are devalued by colleagues in literary studies and by the realities of the rewards system in higher education, yet some of these same scholars decry white scholars and instructors for practicing and teaching ethnic literature. “Identity politics,” which comes down to who can appropriately interpret, evaluate, and teach multicultural literature, poses a substantial threat to multicultural literary studies.3 When, for example, JanMohamed and Lloyd urge ethnic scholars of minority discourse to “theoretically scrutinize our critical tools and methods and the very categories of our epistemology, aesthetics, and politics” (“Introduction” 9, emphasis added), their language falls into the same subjective trap that excluded minorities and women from the canon in the first place. In their articulation of a minority discourse, JanMohamed and Lloyd appear to exclude white scholars of multicultural literature. Their reference to the “minority intellectual” includes only “those who, despite their marginalization, actually constitute the majority” and who “should be able collectively to examine the nature and content of their collective marginalization and to develop strategies for their reempowerment” (2), a clear rejection of white scholars of multicultural literature. They claim that most minority intellectuals speak in Western languages that are not their own and that Western humanism today still thrives on marginalization of the Other, indeed has as its goal the continued oppression of minority cultures. Citing the National Endowment for the Humanities' rejection of funding for the 1986 conference “The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse” as evidence for these broad claims, JanMohamed and Lloyd assert that Western humanists consider minority discourse to be “babble” (4), believe ethnic groups have nothing relevant to say to one another, and fear letting minority groups get “close” to one another (5).4
These are dangerous and misguided generalizations. This rhetoric excludes the non-minority instructor/critic, undermining the most important lessons we wish to impart to our students: fairness, inclusiveness, and equality. The call for greater attention to theoretical issues in an effort to resist appropriation by the literary establishment, particularly in terms of multiculturalism's tendency to fall in line with and reinforce dominant assumptions, would be more forceful if it were not steeped in divisive rhetoric.
The identity politics argument is simply untenable, for it would be utterly counterproductive to limit one's teaching to texts representative of one's culture(s). Multicultural literature has a particular power to affect multicultural understanding, for these texts provide opportunities for students to experience unfamiliar worlds. The answer is not to dictate who can (and cannot) teach what, but to teach multicultural texts in the most meaningful, informed ways. Linda Alcoff provides a basic guide for determining when we might appropriately speak for/about others, acknowledging the potential dangers of keeping silent about multicultural issues in our classrooms: “will it enable the empowerment of oppressed peoples?” (24). We cannot keep silent if our silence reverses the inroads we have made through opening the canon.
This “us versus them” mentality is not only unproductive and antithetical to the larger purpose of teaching multicultural literature, but it also adds fuel to conservative claims that multiculturalism in education will lead to balkanization and further hostility among America's racial and ethnic groups. It is time to move toward fruitful debate and dialogue. As Nancy Peterson suggests, “by joining together across race and other boundaries as critical pedagogues, by using diverse strategies to accomplish similar goals in our classrooms, we can help bring into being a multicultural America where critical debate and dialogue thrive” (40). We should encourage all teachers to include ethnic texts on their syllabi and help them teach these texts responsibly and sensitively. Teacher-scholars should also model cross-cultural and cross-racial understanding and communication for our students, despite our discipline's disagreements.
MULTICULTURAL CRITICISM, MULTICULTURAL PEDAGOGY: “LITERARY AND NONLITERARY TRADITIONS”
We can move in this more productive direction by considering an ethnic text within and against various traditions, literary and nonliterary. Rather than choosing one method of interpretation over another, this approach recognizes the complexity of an ethnic writer's positioning within a wide range of cultures and subcultures. Joining literary traditions with their cultural, social, and political contexts, this pedagogy broadens the traditional notion of “literary tradition” in terms of a work's formal and aesthetic relationship with preceding and succeeding ones.
Responding to Michael Worton and Judith Still's assertion that “the theory of intertextuality insists that a text … cannot exist as a hermetic or self-sufficient whole, and so does not function as a closed system” (1), I view an “intertext” to be a literary text, literary tradition, historical moment, or any cultural practice. An ethnic text exists within a complex network of literary, social, political, economic, and cultural systems. Intertextualists often cite T. S. Eliot's seminal essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” to convey the power of literary interactions: “not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their mortality most vigorously” (43). But Eliot conceived of the tradition as a white male, Western one. An ethnic writer's “historical sense” (49), to use Eliot's term, is more encompassing, drawing from a vast array of literary and cultural traditions.
As Maitino and Peck assert, minority literature is “fundamentally unique” because the “cultural and historical context is so strong” (6). But we cannot ignore that part of its uniqueness results from cultural structures that subjugate minorities. Consequently, nonliterary traditions are as significant as literary ones because literature and politics are not always separable categories. According to Donald Keesey, the intertextual critic favors “studying the monuments themselves” as the best way to learn the conventions, dismissing literary study based on other disciplines (263). But such an approach is based on a narrow conception of “the monuments” and their relationship to culture. When Western tradition was considered the tradition (subsuming Greek, English, American, etc. under the umbrella, “Western”), as if no others existed, cultural factors seemed unimportant, presumed to be shared by everyone who writes or reads the texts. But once we acknowledge a number of traditions, cultural and literary, we cannot assume this shared basis. Louis Renza remarks that even in current criticism a focus on the ways literary works “comprise revision or updating of their textual antecedents … perform[s] a conservative cultural function,” enforcing the “homogeneity and continuity of the Western ‘literary’ tradition” (186), but that a broadened conception of influence allows for “other voices—other texts—even to those other disciplines themselves supposedly influencing the study of literature” (201). By employing this broadened perspective on intertextuality, instructors become part of the process that allows other voices to be heard.
Among these other voices are ethnic texts. When TuSmith comments that the effort involved in understanding (and teaching) ethnic texts is akin to “reinvent[ing] the wheel” (“Cultural” 20), I am reminded of Eliot's remark in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that literary tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour” (43). It is difficult to break from familiar patterns, and it is humbling to venture into areas outside one's own expertise. But we must try.5 As Elder suggests, ethnic writers “reflect a multiplicity of cultural influences on their artistry” (5), so we must exert tremendous effort to teach these texts competently and compassionately. As instructors, we have a duty to take on the writer's multiplicity as we teach the literary and nonliterary traditions of multicultural texts.
CONCLUSION: TEACHING THE NEWER CONFLICTS
Juan Bruce-Novoa rightfully asserts that “criticism must accept, and should acknowledge, its incompleteness” (159). However, this acknowledgment should not preclude striving for completeness, particularly when we transform criticism into pedagogy. Scholars and instructors committed to competent, balanced teaching can avert the continued dominance of traditional paradigms and categories as they embrace new literatures. When we allow and encourage our students to consider a text in its many literary and nonliterary traditions, we bring students into the debates of multiculturalism. To choose only one among the positions within multiculturalism ignores the valid “other” perspective and undermines the theoretical, moral, and intellectual basis of this field. When we admit to students our discipline's conflicts, we teach them that multiple perspectives exist and aid in broadening their visions.
For a more detailed analysis of these issues, as well as what ethnic women's pedagogists might learn from mainstream pedagogy, see Grobman.
This split also exists within specific ethnic critical communities, including Native American, African American, and Chicano/a. The literature in this area is extensive, but interested readers can begin with Krupat (For Those), Gates, and Saldivar.
Mayberry defines identity politics as the “negotiation of and for power derived from minority group affiliation” (2).
I agree that the NEH reviewer's comment that “it is not clear” that specialists in particular minority literatures “will have much to say” to specialists in others is naive; however, we cannot forget these comments were made in 1985, and we have come a long way in our discipline since then. Unfortunately, however, identity politics has become more divisive.
Kolodny recognized a similar challenge as the canon opened to women writers, asserting that “radical breaks” from what we choose to read, teach, or “canonize” are “tiring, demanding, uncomfortable, and sometimes wholly beyond our comprehension” (“Dancing” 282).
Alberti, John. “Introduction: Reconstructing the Pedagogical Canon.” The Canon in the Classroom: The Pedagogical Implications of Canon Revision in American Literature. Ed. John Alberti. New York: Garland, 1995. xi-xxx.
Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (Winter 1991-92): 5-32.
Allen, Paula Gunn. “‘Border Studies’: The Intersection of Gender and Color.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: MLA, 1992. 303-19. Rpt. in The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 31-47.
Bacon, Jacqueline. “Impasse or Tension? Pedagogy and the Canon Controversy.” College English 55.5 (1993): 501-14.
Bahktin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Ed. M. Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Bower, Anne L. “Sharing Responsibility for American Lit: ‘A Spectacular and Dangerous World of Choice.’” The Canon in the Classroom: The Pedagogical Implications of Canon Revision in American Literature. Ed. John Alberti. New York: Garland, 1995. 221-40.
Brannon, Lil, and Brenda M. Greene. “Introduction.” Rethinking American Literature. Ed. Lil Brannon and Brenda M. Greene. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. vii-xi.
Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Chicano Literary Space: Cultural Criticism/Cultural Production.” Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature. Houston: Arte Publico, 1990. 157-75.
Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
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Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1991.
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Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. New York: Knopf, 1921. 42-53.
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Goebel, Bruce A., and James C. Hall. “Introduction.” Teaching a “New Canon”? Students, Teachers, and Texts in the College Literature Classroom. Ed. Bruce A. Goebel and James C. Hall. Urbana: NCTE, 1995. xi-xv.
Graff, Gerald. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York: Norton, 1992.
Grobman, Laurie. “Recognizing Cultural Differences: Toward an Ethnic Women's Criticism and Pedagogy.” MAWA Review, forthcoming.
JanMohamed, Abdul R. and David Lloyd. “Introduction: Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse: What Is to Be Done?”. The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Eds. Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. 1-16.
———. “Preface.” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. ix-xi.
Joyce, Joyce A. Warriors, Conjurers and Priests: Defining African-Centered Criticism. Chicago: Third World P, 1994.
Kafka, Phillipa. “A Multicultural Introduction to Literature.” Practicing Theory in Introductory College Literature Courses. Ed. James M. Cahalan and David B. Downing. Urbana: NCTE, 1991. 179-88.
Keesey, Donald. “Intertextual Criticism: Literature as Context.” Contexts for Criticism. 2nd ed. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1994. 257-70.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. China Men. 1977. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminist Studies 6 (1980): 1-25. Rpt. in Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1994. 278-85.
———. “The Land-as-Woman: Literary Convention and Latent Psychological Content.” Women's Studies 1 (1973): 167-82.
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———. The Turn to the Native: Studies in Criticism and Culture. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996.
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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3821
SOURCE: TuSmith, Bonnie. “The Significance of the ‘Multi’ in ‘Multiethnic Literatures of the U.S.’” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2002): 5-14.
[In the following essay, derived from a lecture delivered at the 2001 MELUS Conference, TuSmith challenges teachers to deal directly and frankly with the issue of race and racial identity in teaching multicultural texts.]
“She starts up the stairs to bed. ‘Don't get me up with the rest in the morning.’ ‘But I thought you were having midterms.’ ‘Oh, those,’ she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly, ‘in a couple of years when we'll all be atom-dead they won't matter a bit.’” Some of you will no doubt recognize this passage from Tillie Olsen's often-anthologized mother-daughter story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Well, half a century after the publication of the daughter Emily's glum prediction, we're still here. In a way, studying, reading, and writing imaginative literature implicates all of us in Emily's worldview. “Why bother?” outsiders ask us—and at times we ask ourselves. Today, American youth say “AS IF …”—or, “Do I care?”—to render this point. Obviously, some of us—we “suckers” at this conference, for example—do care. And this is the foundation to build on.
As people who believe that literature by ethnic Americans matters, we have the opportunity to challenge Emily's fatalism. Through an act of faith, we can reclaim two syllables in the English language and convert “AS IF” from a dismissal to a promise. We continue to create works of art and to share these creations with others because life has value and we are not “atom-dead.” As long as life has value, ethnic literature is valuable—for this body of literature brilliantly captures the life experiences and complex worldviews of a culturally and racially diverse people known as “Americans.”
I did not find my way back to academia until my mid-thirties, and to the study of multiethnic literatures of the United States until my doctoral dissertation in American studies. The first time around in college I had gravitated toward the newer discipline of comparative literature. At Queens College in New York, I instinctively knew that the English curriculum in literature was hopelessly entrenched—leaving marginalized “searchers” like me no room to expand my thinking. I took shelter in a crossover program that allowed me to include classical Chinese poetry, modern French novels, and seventeenth-century Spanish drama in their original languages. This seemingly eclectic menu taught me respect for the written word; it cultivated my interest in peoples and cultures across time and space. What was also built into the field of comparative literature, however, was the notion that American literature was a poor relation of “great world literature.” Europe was often equated with “the world,” and white male writers and professors were assumed to be—by birthright—unequivocally “great.” After a progressively alienating couple of years toward a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I dropped out of academia.
So here I am at the dawning of the new millennium, back in academia and the president of MELUS. Having served the first year of my three-year term, what would I like to say to all of you who made the effort to be here today? Well, presenting my argument for an ethnical approach to the study of American literature is a start. As a multicultural, multiracial society, our literary productions are both culture-specific and nation-bound. Emphasizing ethnicity—as MELUS does—is decidedly a political stance. We should not take our academic positioning lightly. I submit that when we use the term “multiethnic,” we should mean it. “Multiethnic” means that our separately categorized ethnic identities—be they African American, Latino/a, American Indian, or whatever—should be approached cross-culturally. Each of us is a member of at least one ethnic community that embraces other ethnicities, thereby moving all of us past the “us” against “them” habit of thought.
The model of multiethnicity undercuts balkanization. In announcing the theme of this year's conference the MELUS call for papers asked the question: “What is the relationship between the literature of particular ethnic groups and the broader study of multiethnic literature, and what are the possible tensions?”. I expect this and other key questions in the profession to be hashed out among us as we “take stock” of what we do. Speaking for myself, permit me to reiterate my position as stated in the preface to my 1993 book, All My Relatives: “To some academics claiming multiethnic knowledge or expertise means that the scholar is ‘asking for it,’ meaning that she or he can expect to be attacked from all sides for encroaching on others' ‘turfs.’ I am well aware of the risks and pitfalls of my critical approach. It might have been “safer” for me to have written a book on Asian American literature.” However, I went on to say, “if we continue to overlook the relationships and connections among American cultures and persist in separatism, we scholars are guilty of perpetuating misunderstandings that even now have serious repercussions in educational institutions and in the larger society.”
Now I know that some will say it is not possible to study so many ethnic literatures and cultures. Any one grouping, such as African American or Asian American, is already a full-time job. It is understandable that people of Mexican ancestry, for example, would gravitate toward Chicano/a Studies, or black academics would be found in African American Studies. I think that this is both understandable and desirable. Having to deny one's racial and ethnic identity has been a special burden for people of color in the US educational system. However, the expectation that an ethnic person of color can teach only his or her color is equally problematic. There's also the knee-jerk suspicion when white folks do the “colored” thing, or “colored” folks do the “white” thing. From the various ways that we self-select without adequately examining our assumptions, I think we do the profession a great disservice. The pursuit of learning is not advanced by allowing an individual's “subject position”—these days, meaning what a person looks like—to dictate what the person can study or teach.
So I believe that in ethnic literature, we need to study a single ethnic group—perhaps the one with which we most identify—while, at the same time, study multiethnically. This means that as a professional, a Latina literature scholar should view both her Latino/a organization andMELUS as her “home base.” From this ethnical perspective, MELUS is not a luxury—an extra conference to attend if one has additional money and time—but a necessity. For it is here that we have the opportunity to engage one another in a more meaningful way. Yes, the MLA, ASA, ALA, NCTE, etc., are larger organizations that are also including ethnic literature in their conference sessions. Therefore, some would argue, the vital role that MELUS once played no longer obtains. But has the mom-and-pop organization that was formed at the MLA convention twenty-seven years ago become irrelevant? I don't think so. By featuring multiethnicity, MELUS continues to serve a vital function in the study of American literature. In listening to the stories of America's ethnic communities, we have a better chance of working through the societal ills wrought by self-serving individualism and greed.
For our cross-cultural conversations to really make a difference in the American educational system and, through it, in the broader American society, we must take more responsibility for what we do and how we go about doing it. When you think about it, MELUS is premised on equality—with all the accompanying risks and messiness that true equality entails. When each and every ethnically identified work of literature is welcomed at the table with the premise that it is equally worthy, then serious evaluation can and should take place. As readers and scholars, we can begin to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of a literary work based on a set of openly identified criteria. We should also be prepared to have our criteria challenged and our assessment of a specific text altered through this challenge. Intellectual debates like these will help make us better readers and stronger writers.
At this point you might be saying to yourselves, but this is what literature people do—you're not telling us anything new. It is my contention that, while we know what we should do in the profession, thus far in the decanonization of American literature we have barely scratched the surface of literary criticism. Our approaches to ethnic texts often fall short of substantive critical analyses. We find ourselves overlooking linguistic limitations, inadequate narrative structures, clueless implied authors, poorly researched “facts,” for example—all in the name of “multiculturalism.” We are quick to excavate and promote hitherto bypassed works from marginalized groups, but we hesitate to evaluate these works for fear of exposing our individual cultural limitations and personal prejudices. Better to tout cultural relativism, we tell ourselves. But the cultural relativist stance has its pitfalls. A few years ago there was a news story of a Chinese man in the Midwest who shot and killed his wife. Apparently, the American judge agreed that killing one's wife for adultery might have been perfectly acceptable in China and so, out of respect for the man's “cultural difference,” he was found not guilty.
Multiculturalism should not be confused with cultural relativism. The former concept simply acknowledges the existence of various human communities—a self-evident condition that the hegemonic American culture would like to deny—while the latter concept disavows our individual and collective responsibility toward one another in our common humanity. Admittedly, navigating the cultural beliefs and practices of various peoples is tricky. When it comes to multiethnic literary studies, retaining a clear sense of one's discipline is a good start. John Reilly's 1978 MELUS article, “Criticism of Ethnic Literature: Seeing the Whole Story,” asks us to do just this. According to Reilly,
Literature refers to reality filtered through verbal structures that are governed by laws of their own. As a result, the assertion of ethnicity in literature can be made only through a procedure by which a writer resolves formal problems, and it can be completed only as the audience makes sense of it in terms of their competence with literary expression. What moves from recognition of identity to creation of a strategy for handling reality still is not literature until the individual author sustains her or his ethnic identity through a sequence of formal choices.
The study of literature necessarily involves studying the series of formal choices made by the author. When a piece of writing is called literature, the label points to its constructedness, its craft. Literature is art, and a work with literary merit is a literary artifact. The ethnic cultural context of a short story, poem, or novel does not detract from its artistic merit. If, as critics, scholars, and teachers, we read ethnically identified texts exclusively for their cultural content, their political message, their historicity, or whatever, we are not really treating them as literary works of art—as artistic creations. The reader's “competence with literary expression” is assumed to be irrelevant when it comes to evaluating an ethnic work. The fallacy of this approach has struck me time and again.
I think that in our efforts toward cultural inclusiveness we have at times gone overboard. A memorable experience for me is a conference session I once attended on Bharati Mukherjee's novel Jasmine. The first two presenters—both South Asian Americans—attacked the novel for its assimilationist heroine and her series of relationships with white men. Neither presentation engaged the text as a fictional work but, rather, faulted the author for presenting an Asian Indian woman and her culture in an unattractive light. The third presenter, an English graduate student from Europe, gave a thorough critical reading of the novel that concluded in a generally positive assessment of the work. While her paper offered significant insights that demonstrated her competency, she was, alas!, “white”—and a European to boot. The audience ignored her analysis and joined the two “cultural insiders” in bashing Mukherjee. It didn't matter to anyone that the presumed experts were in anthropology and psychology, respectively, and showed little comprehension of Jasmine as a work of art. It seemed that as long as a reader claimed common ethnicity with the writer, he or she was competent—even entitled—to judge the literary work.
If we students of literature do not insist on professionally valid appraisals of ethnic texts, we are encouraging this type of essentialist thinking and behavior. Literature by ethnic writers becomes fair game for anyone with a chip on his shoulder, any opportunist seeking a shortcut to glory. To counteract this trend, we must be willing to engage one another in open dialogue and honest assessment. We must be willing to hold one another accountable for imposing double standards and invalid, extra-literary criteria on ethnic texts. For example, when one of the few studies published to date on John Wideman's opus measured the success of each work against a norm of Afrocentricity, or when stories by African American women were labeled “good” only if they featured sufficiently strong black women, we should have stepped forward to challenge the critics' premise. Did the fact that, in both examples, the critics in question were African American and some of us were not deter us from publicly debating the criteria applied to these ethnic writers? If so, and the idea isn't that far-fetched, we have a real problem.
People of color are confused. White people are confused. Given the tainted history of American society and our generally unsuccessful attempts at moving past deep-seated mistrust among the “races,” how do we begin to engage one another in honest dialogue? Nearly a decade ago, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell published Faces at the Bottom of the Well with the subtitle, “The Permanence of Racism.” Resistance against racial oppression, even if racism is immutable, seems the best Bell and others are able to offer. In the context of today's conference, if “racism” is as American as apple pie, where does this leave MELUS? For one thing, the literature that we study offers us a unique opportunity to be better people. For some time we have known that since there is no significant biological difference among humans, race is manmade. The suffering caused by racist beliefs and attitudes, however, has been very real. So, through the study of ethnic literature, we have the chance to work on our own racial prejudices and offer a serious challenge to “the permanence of racism.”
In an undergraduate course I taught on Alice Walker and Ernest Gaines a couple of years ago, a student wrote the following in her self-assessment paper:
The saddest part of the class was its own racial lines that were drawn in the seating arrangements by the student themselves. The class was mainly white with three “minorities” (whatever that means) that sat in their own pocket up in the front of the class. I didn't notice this segregation until two weeks into the quarter. Here we are, living in America, the land of the free, yet we can't integrate on our own. I found it utterly depressing. And, of course, I didn't go up and say, “Hi, my name is Jessie. What's yours?” NO, that would be wrong and could turn out to be extremely embarrassing. It makes me so mad that I am constrained by my own ideologies, and that knowing this, I do nothing to change them.
An African American student from the class made this statement in his assessment piece: “Everything was as close to perfect as you could get in a class, except for the people. But, who cares about the people. You made the class very enjoyable.” Also in the same class, I can't forget what happened when a Chicana student sitting in the back of the room—actually, someone who had given me a hard time in a Latino/a literature course a year earlier—spoke up one day when her classmates started to complain about an assignment. “Professor TuSmith is an excellent teacher,” she told the class. She then explained why she thought I was so excellent. The upshot of this bold gesture was social ostracism. Not one classmate supported her effort that day, and I noted with pain that the white students gave her the cold shoulder for the rest of the term.
Such classroom dynamics and student self-reports have taught me that we must find better ways of confronting the “Big R” in our professional and personal lives—and that none of us can do this alone. Would the white majority students in this particular class have behaved differently if my defender had been white? Was there any way that the Chicana student's opinion could have been taken in stride, leading to an open discussion between her and her peers? In a course on African American writers taught by an Asian American woman, did our interaction necessarily have to break down along racial lines? The complexities of teaching ethnic American literature in our increasingly segregated society cannot be underestimated.
My vision for MELUS is that we learn to take risks with one another to help transcend the color line in American society. The three students I cited here—one white, one black, one Latina—all suffered from the unnamed racial divide. Peer pressure mandated that no one crossed the line. So, while the students might have gained a great deal from the writers that we studied, they also “policed” one another to ensure that the lessons they learned from these powerful writers did not change their interpersonal interaction. They hid behind politically correct behavior and kept the potentially life-transforming message gleaned from Walker and Gaines at arms length. And I witnessed their resistance, their denial, their pain.
From my years as a multiethnic literature teacher and scholar I have concluded that the first thing we need to give up is our investment in appearing nonracist. Whether you think you are less racist than the next person is not the issue. I am talking about the energy that people on college campuses seem to invest in not seeming racist—in not being accused of being racist. The way to accomplish this—students in my classes would like to believe—is to ignore race. Individuals devote so much energy to this task that they literally have no room to interact with one another in a meaningful way. A few years ago I gave a talk at a private university in the Midwest. Before stepping up to the podium I half jokingly asked my host, “Is there anything I'm not allowed to talk about with this audience?”. “Oh, you can say anything,” she hastened to assure me. Then she added, “The only thing we don't talk about around here is race.” I'm going to be lynched was my immediate thought.
I may be dating myself, but do you remember the commercial for an ant-trap back in the 1980s? All the ants needed to hear was one word—Raid!—and they ran for their lives. Well, the “R” word that has the same effect in academia is race. The problem is, race continues to be a hot issue in many of the ethnic works that we MELUS folks study and teach. For us to do the works justice, we necessarily have to work through our own fears and discomfort with the subject. If we're not just ivory-tower intellectuals and mind-deadening pedagogues, if we believe that our labor in higher education means something and can make a difference, then we need to practice what we preach. Each of us must make the commitment to challenge racist behavior and racist thought—both in others and in ourselves.
Now some of you might be thinking, if I were to address racial issues more openly in my classroom, I could get into a lot of trouble. I could hurt myself professionally since no one would understand that I took chances because I believed in education. I have two responses to this objection. First, some of you know that Maureen Reddy and I are working on a collection of essays titled Race in the College Classroom. Judging from the 70 submissions we received nationwide and the commitment everyone has shown toward this project so far, I would say that you are not alone. My second response comes from a point Alice Walker made many years ago. According to Walker, when Zora Neale Hurston won second place for her play Color Struck, she marched into a reception, threw her scarf over her shoulder, and yelled, “Color Struck!”. Walker's comment was, you have to admire someone who refuses to be humbled by second place. This anecdote has stayed with me over the years. Besides Hurston's unconventional ways and Walker's appreciation of them, the fundamental issue is that second place isn't bad in a game whose rules you didn't make up. Especially for people of color in the US, sometimes second place is equivalent to first place.
So what does this have to do with the objection about taking risks? Well, we must remember that the game is rigged. Always abiding by unspoken rules—no matter how senseless they might be—and hoping to stay “safe” by doing this has contributed to our interracial problems, I believe. Whether we're talking about students in ethnic literature courses or members of MELUS, the invisible color line—the one that dictates segregated seating or tells us that a white man can't challenge a woman of color if he disagrees with her (as a MELUS member recently confided to me)—is truly alive and well in America. When seasoned MELUS folks still tiptoe around one another on issues of race, we are not very good role models for our students. So I urge you, I urge all of us, to take the opportunity at this year's conference to engage one another as ethnical multiculturalists in confronting the demon of race. Do what the white woman in my class wished she had the courage to do. Walk up to someone who looks different from you and say, “Hi, my name's Jessie. What's yours?”.
In the novel Mother Tongue by Demétria Martinez, I found a memorable line that I'd like to close with. Referring to her Salvadoran refugee lover, the Chicana narrator says, “He told me that in the darkness, with the santos, no one can tell he's an illegal. I told him no human being on earth is illegal” Considering how many Americans—first generation, second generation, indigenous, or whatever—have unthinkingly convinced ourselves that humans can be “illegal,” this quiet passage tucked away in a small book serves as a wake-up call. “No human being on earth is illegal”—ultimately, this reflects the spirit of the “multi” in “multiethnic literatures of the United States.”