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American Ethnic Literature
The word ‘ethnic’ denotes or derives from distinctive ways of living created by a group of people. Hence, American ethnic literature must be influenced by the ethnic or cultural ties of an ethnic American author, and must reveal to some extent the distinctive ways of living practiced by the ethnic group that the author represents. Biographical criticism entails a deeper comprehension of an author’s work by knowing the essential details of his or her life.
Because writers are real people, the literature that they write generally contains reflections of themselves, the kinds of people they encounter in their lives, and the circumstances that they face. Not all people in the United States belong to the white European race. The Indians were settled on our land before the European whites came along to change the history of the land for ever. Africans were initially brought by the European whites to work as slaves on plantations. The Hipics and the Asians also entered the land as immigrants.
Still, the dominant community in the United States, in terms of population, is that of the European whites. Theirs is the predominant culture in America, and their literature is known as mainstream American literature. At the same time, the Native Americans maintain some of their ancient rites, in spite of America’s predominant culture of the European whites. The African Africans continue to be influenced by the music that their ancestors made on the ships that brought slaves to America (McBride, 2007). The Hipic Americans and the Asian Americans also maintain aspects of their culture through their distinctive languages and foods.
Unsurprisingly, these cultural differences must reveal themselves in American ethnic literature as compared to mainstream American literature. American Ethnic Literature 2 All of the different groups representing the Americans today are maintaining their ethnic differences, even if many of their members feel that they are one with the mainstream culture. As a matter of fact, it is but natural for the various ethnicities representing America in our time to be maintaining cultural differences, while trying to fit into the mainstream culture.
As mentioned previously, the culture of different ethnic groups must reveal itself in the writings of ethnic American writers. When an American ethnic author does not reveal his or her distinctive culture in literature, however, it is reasonable to claim that the person’s writings represent mainstream American literature. Zane, for example, is an African American author of erotic fiction who is writing mainstream American literature. Although the author belongs to an American ethnic group, her writings do not reflect her ethnicity.
She sometimes uses middle-class African American characters in her novels, but she also employs white American characters. Even so, an American writer of European descent may also be expected to do the same. Besides, Zane does not make references in her books to her own race as opposed to the Americans of European descent, and neither does she complain about the problems that the Africans have gone through in America. Rather, the characters in Zane’s erotic novels could be people belonging to any number of races (Zane, 2001; Zane, 2005).
One of Zane’s novels, Afterburn, is about a chiropractor in Washington D. C. who visits his local bank because he is interested in one of the employees of the bank. He believes that she is too beautiful to be a single woman, which is the reason why he has never asked her out. When American Ethnic Literature 3 he does, however, he finds out that she has a history of disastrous relationships. He, too, has a broken heart. And so, the two of them finally get together (Zane, 2005). While forming their bond, the man and the woman have to meet a variety of characters who add spice to their relationship.
The woman has a fickle minded mother, the man has got playboys as buddies, and then there are lovers from the past that keep trying to disrupt the new relationship. Nevertheless, Zane manages to turn the relationship into a tie of deep love and longing (Zane, 2005). Most importantly, she creates a story that could happen in anybody’s life. Because Zane is an American, her literature must be considered mainstream American literature. She is an African American, but her literature cannot be considered American ethnic literature seeing that it does not solely reflect the culture and values of the African Americans.
Instead, Zane is one of those ethnic American writers who appear to have totally blended into the mainstream American culture. On a similar note, Jamaica Kincaid (1990) in her novel, Lucy, presents a nineteen year old young woman by the name of Lucy Josephine Potter who is trying to forget her roots in the West Indies. In the process, no doubt, the girl is trying to blend into the mainstream American culture. Kincaid is an American ethnic writer who was born in the West Indies (Benson & Hagseth, 2001). A biographical critic might assert that Lucy, the girl who came to North America as a nanny, is a reflection of the author.
Regardless, Kincaid’s novel about Lucy may be considered American ethnic literature only because it contains glimpses of the author’s ethnicity. Lucy hated her old home, a British colony; and yet memories of her mother continue to haunt her, taking her back to West Indies. Her mother acts as a symbol for Lucy’s motherland. The American Ethnic Literature 4 girl feels emotionally unattached to her mother, and finds a better motherly model in the United States by the name of Mariah, who acts as a symbol for the new land the girl has come to occupy.
Mariah replaces Lucy’s mother with respect to the kinds of feelings people are taught by nature or nurture to feel for their mothers. Moreover, Kincaid’s novel establishes a clear difference between Lucy’s mother and the character of Mariah. For example, Lucy’s mother was emotionally dependent on her daughter, to the point of becoming an emotional pain. The mother was also neglectful of the needs of her young daughter. Mariah, on the contrary, treats Lucy as a grownup. She exposes Lucy to the museums of America, and gives her presents.
She also looks out for the well-being of the young Lucy during the time that she is adjusting to the new environment (Kincaid). Lucy feels far from her roots in West Indies. She would not read her mother’s letters that arrive in the mail. She wants to avoid the emotional pain that her mother brought into her life, by being oppressively reliant on her daughter. Furthermore, Lucy is trying to leave colonialism behind. She had shown rebellion in West Indies toward the oppressive invasion of the British. She had refused to sing in her school choir, “Rule, Britannia!
” Just as her mother keeps on being brought to mind, colonialism surfaces in young Lucy’s flashbacks of West Indies. She wants to get away from it all. In America and on her own, the young girl would like to be an individualist, able to make her own decisions, and forgetting all that was painful and negative about the past (Kincaid). Because the focus of Kincaid’s book is the girl’s desire to blend into the mainstream American culture while forgetting the past, the novel may also be termed mainstream American American Ethnic Literature 5 literature.
Given that it describes the author’s ethnicity thoroughly, however, it must be considered in part American ethnic literature. Amy Tan’s (1989) The Joy Luck Club is similarly part mainstream and part ethnic American literature. Containing sixteen stories that revolve around conflicts between old-fashioned mothers who are Chinese immigrants, and modern daughters who have been raised in the United States, the novel describes the mainstream American culture in addition to the Chinese culture. Tan is an Asian American author, and therefore her writing should have been ethnic American in its entirety.
However, her writing reveals that an Asian American author feels like an American before she can relate to the Asian experience. Additionally, although the writer tries to bridge the gap between the two cultures that she is supposed to represent by having her characters travel to China, it is a fact that the American experience cannot be discounted by any means. The only ethnic American authors who write American ethnic literature must be ones who reflect solely on their ethnicity in their works, showing utter disregard for the mainstream American culture.
The following passage describes some of these authors: During the years preceding the Civil War, America’s ethnic and racial minorities began to publish novels, poems, histories, and autobiographies that explored what it meant to be an outsider in a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society. The result was a unique body of ethnic writing chronicling the distinctive experience and changing self-image of ethnic Americans. One of the earliest forms of African American literature was the slave narrative, graphic American Ethnic Literature 6
first-person accounts of life in bondage, written by former slaves, including William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Josiah Henson… These volumes not only awoke readers to the hardships and cruelties of life under slavery, they also described the ingenious strategies that fugitive slaves used to escape from bondage. William and Ellen Craft, for example, disguised themselves as master and slave; Henry “Box” Brown had himself crated in a box and shipped north. …Native Americans, too, produced firsthand accounts of their lives. Among the most
notable is the Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-she-kia-Kiak or Black Hawk (1833), a classic spiritual and secular biography, in which the Sauk warrior explains why he resisted white efforts to seize Indian land in northwestern Illinois during the Black Hawk War (1832). William Apes, a Pequod, published one of the earliest histories from an Indian vantage point in 1836. John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee journalist, published the first novel by an Indian in 1850, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, which recounts the heroic adventures of a Robin Hood–
like bandit in California who protects Mexican Americans from white exploitation. Much more than a simple adventure story, this novel is also a thinly veiled protest of the treatment of Native Americans by someone who had personally experienced the removal of the Cherokees from their tribal homelands in Georgia (“American Ethnic Literature,” 2007). Such is truly American ethnic literature. It focuses solely on the ethnicity of the author, while disregarding if not rejecting the mainstream culture.
On the other hand, novels by ethnic American authors that reveal the differences between mainstream American culture as opposed American Ethnic Literature 7 to the authors’ respective ethnicities are not true American ethnic literature. This is due to the fact that the authors as well as their characters have attempted to blend into the mainstream culture by getting rid of their ethnic identities to a large extent. American Ethnic Literature 8 References American Ethnic Literature. (2007). Digital History. Retrieved September 24, 2007, from
http://www. digitalhistory. uh. edu/database/article_display. cfm? HHID=646. Benson, K. M. , & Hagseth, C. (2001). Jamaica Kincaid. Voices from the Gaps. Retrieved September 24, 2007, from http://voices. cla. umn. edu/vg/Bios/entries/kincaid_jamaica. html. Kincaid, J. (1990). Lucy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. McBride, J. (2007, April). Hip Hop Planet. National Geographic. Tan, A. (1989). The Joy Luck Club. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Zane. (2001). Addicted. New York: Atria Books. ——. (2005). Afterburn. New York: Atria Books.