Friday, July 4, 2008

American Diversity

It’s summer and people spend daylight hours in leisure activities, which means they’re not online that much. But I wanted to make something I said in the previous blog a bit clearer: if there really is no interest in these posts, I’m going to give myself a break and devote the time spent on them to other things. The sign of there being interest is discussion of the content.

It’s the national holiday, and my way of marking it, after noting that the majority of United States citizens are descended from Northern European immigrants, is to celebrate the minorities who are not. Beginning, obviously, with the first inhabitants of this continent, whose land those immigrants took from them. Which doesn’t mean that Indian nations are gone or that Indians haven’t made an incalculable contribution to our civilization. Our place names alone: more than a quarter of the States have mellifluous Indian names, hundreds of cities and towns do, and so do thousands of rivers, mountains, lakes, and swamplands. Many museums have collected the startlingly beautiful art made by our first nations, whose bold and subtle instinct for form and color is encapsulated in pottery, bone ivory, leatherwork, beadwork, weaving, jewelry, painting, wood and stone carving and domestic and sacred architecture (see the Mesa Verde, Taos and Acoma pueblos, and the numerous ritual mounds built at different points in Indian history). Also, we have examples of Indian poetry both in the original languages and in American English. For the latter, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Ai, and Carter Revard. (How many readers are aware, incidentally, that poets Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith have Indian ancestors?) Of the many excellent Indian fiction writers, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie are the most prominent. And then nearly everyone recognizes, I think, that much of the inspiration for today’s ecological or “Green” activism originated in Indian reverence for the natural world and commitment to a responsible stewardship of it.

I pass on to the staggering debt America owes to citizens descended from African ancestors. I’m going to put aside the vast material contribution made by enslaved peoples to the building of this country’s roads, plantations, canals, domestic and civic architecture (see Monticello and the University of Virginia), bridges, masonry and ironwork. I’ll also pass over the critically important work of social prophets and public servants like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunche, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Angela Davis, and Shirley Chisholm. Instead, let’s consider the artistic input. American English has been inflected and enriched by the variant speech patterns of its Africanist population. With his characteristic tactlessness and snobbery, Eliot said the he left his native St. Louis and came to Harvard speaking with “a n— drawl.” He soon got rid of it, but maybe he shouldn't have or, anyway, kept enough to enliven some of the dull patches in “Ash Wednesday” or “The Four Quartets.” The range of African American poetry is huge, which includes metrically skilled poets like Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Marilyn Nelson, but also artists drawing on less strictly codified folk sources like the hymnody of the “spirituals,” or blues form, or a verse counterpart to jazz improvisation, these techniques blended with the “free verse” approach to poetry. This group includes Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks again, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, Audre Lord, Yusef Komunyakaa, Thylias Moss, Elizabeth Alexander, and Natasha Trethewey. Needless to say, many of the best American novels are written by African Americans—Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Charles R. Johnson, and Ernest Gaines, to mention only the most famous. American literary culture has also been expanded and deepened by the work of original African American critics like Albert Murray, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, Darryl Pinckney, Ernest Gaines, and Hilton Als.

To take up the role that Africanist influences have had on American popular and classical music is too large a task for this blog. A few posts back, I described rock music as “America’s gift to the world,” but in fact it is really African Americans’ gift to the world, given that rock originates with Africanist syncopation, the blue-noted musical scale, and melodic ornamentation, as modulated through ragtime, blues, Dixieland, bebop, gospel, and free jazz. There are too many singers, instrumentalists, and composers drawing on these traditions to list here, but we all know who they are.

I turn to that part of the population with Iberian ancestors, among the very first immigrant peoples to inhabit this continent. Four or five of the States have Spanish names and, again, thesame is true for hundreds of cities and towns and geographical features. Actually, we have the fourth largest hispanophone community in the world, and Spanish language has contributed a notable number of words and idioms to American English. Within this part of the population there are wide differences: New Mexican Latino culture is not the same as Cuban American culture, which is not the same as Puerto Rican or Dominican or Colombian American culture. Dozens of writers on the contemporary scene are Latino or have Latino ancestors—among novelists, Julia De Burgos, Jaime Manrique, Julia Alvarez, Oscar Hijuelos, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz; among poets, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Gary Soto, Julia Alvarez, Alberto Rios, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Martin Espada, Sonia Sanchez, Pat Mora, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Rigoberto Gonzalez. (Also, the poet Dana Gioia, whose mother was Mexican American.) And if we turn to music the Latino contribution is among the liveliest on the scene, with the Latino community serving as a conduit and reviser of popular music from Latin America, whether dance styles like the samba, tango and salsa or small band and orchestral styles imported from Mexico or Cuba.

I often wonder if America has shown sufficient gratitude to its Asian American, its Italian American, its Greek American, its Middle Eastern, and its Jewish American communities. But I’ve been warned not to write long blogs, so I will stop here, on the assumption that the point has been made. When we praise the achievements of the United States, we are praising a mosaic made of many contrasting components, all of them caught up in a process of cultural osmosis that alters each contributor. There would be something entirely fitting if the next American President, in addition to possessing qualifications independent of ethnic origin, could also in his physical person symbolize that part of our nation whose ancestry is drawn from parts of the globe other than Northern Europe. Can we make that happen?


Lori Witzel said...

Well, I'm not sure I have much useful in the way of comments, but -- hope you don't mind -- I would like to link to your blog, especially re: a post I'll be setting out Monday morning.

Some of my blog-visitors are more prolix than I am, so you might get the commentators (and uncommontators) you'd like.

Alfred Corn said...

That's fine and consistent with the democratic spirit of the Internet, where everything is available to everyone.


R.L. Bourges said...

for the time being, you simply get a nod from a small town in France, via the link with lori witzel.
I'll be back to read further, no doubt about it. said...

I just discovered your blog via Eduardo Corral. In the blogosphere, you usually have to give some to get some.

Deborah at