Narratives of a New Belonging: The Politics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary American Ethnic Literatures

Thesis (M.A.), 2004

139 Pages, Grade: 1,6 (A)


Table Of Content

1. ‘ Narratives of a New Belonging’ - Introduction and Aim of the Study

2. ‘Ethnic America Fights Back’ - Approaching Contemporary (Ethnic) America
2.1 ‘The Turn to Culture‘
- Approaching American (Ethnic) Studies
2.2 ‘From Melting Pot to Cosmopolitism’
- Approaching American (Ethnic) Ideologies
2.3 ‘Vanishing Race, Invisible Men and Forgotten People’
- Approaching American (Ethnic) Histories and Social Realities
2.4 ‘Ethnic America Writes Back’
- Approaching Contemporary American (Ethnic) Literatures

3. ‘ Stories of the Uprooted’ - The Politics of Memory and Identity in
Contemporary American Ethnic Literatures
3.1 ‘Identity Politics One’
- The Return-To-Roots Narrative
3.2 ‘Identity Politics Continued’
- Rewriting the Return-To-Roots Narratives
3.3 ‘Identity Politics at Work’
- Politics of Memory and Identity in American Ethnic Writing

4. ‘ The Search for a Sense of Place’
- Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima
4.1 ‘Living in the Borderlands’
- Antonio’s State of Alienation at the Beginning of the Novel
4.2 ‘Ultima’s Blessing and the Sacred Presence of the Land’
- Antonio’s Quest for a Collective Identity and a New Sense of Place
4.3 ‘Tony’s Development into a New World Person’
- Transculturation and Cultural Negotiation in Antonio’s Life

5. ‘ The Search for a Usable Past’
- Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day
5.1 ‘Struggling with Diaspora’
- Ophelia’s State of Alienation at the Beginning of the Novel
5.2 ‘Miranda’s Curing and the Magical Presence of the Past’
- Ophelia’s Quest for a Collective Identity and a Usable Past
5.3 ‘Baby Girl’s Development into a New World Person’
- Transculturation and Cultural Negotiation in Ophelia’s Life

6. ‘ The Search for a Community
- N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn
6.1 ‘Lacking the Right Words’
- Abel’s State of Alienation at the Beginning of the Novel
6.2 ‘ Pan-Indian Healing and the Sustaining Power of the Community’
- Abel’s Quest for a Collective Identity and a Sustaining Community
6.3 ‘Abel’s Development into a New World Person’
- Transculturation and Cultural Negotiation in Abel’s Life

7. ‘Narratives of a New Belonging and the Healing Power of the Word’
- Conclusion

8. References and Works Cited

1. ‘ Narratives of a New Belonging’ - Introduction and Aim of the Study

In March 1968 Robert Kennedy reported the following about the miserable living conditions on most Native American reservations to a Senate sub-committee: “The first Americans are still the last Americans in terms of income, employment, health and education. I believe this to be a national tragedy for all Americans, for we all are in some way responsible” (qtd. in Breidlid 1998: 6).

Opening this thesis with this rhetoric pun on the first and the last on the American continent has been a deliberate decision as Kennedy’s status quo report provides for a nice introduction to this thesis’ larger subject matter. When his dialogics of the first and the last are not only restricted to U.S. American Indian communities, the overall image evoked can in fact easily be applied to other U.S. ethnic groups as well. Having long settled the desert regions north of nowadays U.S. Mexican border, contemporary Hispanic Americans, for instance, as the descendents of an early mestizo population of Mexican-Indian, European-Spanish and Anglo-American ancestry, share a collective memory which far precedes the U.S. presence in North America. Likewise African Americans can provide for a historical legacy that through the Diaspora of the Middle Passage and the system of plantation slavery easily traces itself back to the very first beginnings of American civilization. When in recent years many other immigrant and minority groups have handed in similar claims, the overall picture of American history evoked is no longer one of a WASP unitarian sense of historiography, but of transcultural diversity and plurality which clearly contradicts the proclaimed assimilatory homogeneity of the American character. Having already started to re-imagine Ethnic American historical legacies in the U.S. as of having been among the first on the American continent, it still remains to provide for the respective present-day social realities as of being among the last in terms of power structures. With many Ethnic American communities still leading a marginal existence on the edge of U.S. society, torn between the opposing worlds of their split cultural heritage while at the same time confronted with rampant economic exploitation, overt political discrimination and far-reaching social oppression by a dominant Anglo-American elite, Kennedy’s report once more turns into a generic term to describe the living conditions of most Ethnic American communities within the contemporary United States. Along the lines of what W. E. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk at the turn to the 20th century has called the problem of the color line (cf. Du Bois 1970), traditional notions of American exceptionalism have only recently turned into contested myths. When the melting pot’s former vision of cultural integration and assimilation has only gradually given way to minority discourses and the collective experience of marginalization, alienation and cultural estrangement till the very day provide for modern threats to American Ethnic cultural survival as dangerous as the smallpox and slavery in the centuries before.

It is at the example of Chicano, American Indian and African American histories and social realities that the national tragedy of Kennedy’s ethnic dilemma becomes most obviously phrased. Contemporary Native, Hispanic and African Americans, however, are far from being helpless victims in the sense of a vanishing, invisible or forgotten race. Since the outbreak of the Civil Rights Movements as the first unified ethnic resistance movement against former U.S. assimilationist policies, Ethnic America has witnessed a number of major changes since the second half of the century. When in the aftermath of the Civil Rights’ political activisms a new generation of American Ethnic artists literally fought their ways into the U.S. cultural scene, political emancipation and active protest went hand in hand with a renaissance in Ethnic American arts and literatures. With the establishment of American Ethnic Studies as a university discipline in recent years, Ethnic American expressive cultures figure among the most prominent interdisciplinary academic research topics today and ample of scholarship has been dedicated to the study of U.S. minority discourses both within and outside of American university campuses.

Whereas most recent literary histories provide for a concise overview of the width and heterogeneity of the discipline of American Ethnic Studies, the following M.A. thesis has intentionally established a selective canon of only three major American Ethnic novels as seminal texts: Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972) and African American female author Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1984) Whereas extensive research has already been done on the three novels within their specific cultural contexts as seminal texts of a respectively American Indian, Chicano or African American literary renaissance, little critical interest so far has been devoted to a comparative reading of the novels’ identity and memory politics along transcultural terms, and the myriad ways of how the three texts provide for a set of strategies of transcultural survival. When contemporary critics, as for instance Günther Lenz and Lothar Bredella, have made convincing pleas for American Studies to eventually overcome former minority discourses and cultural nationalisms in favour of a dialogics of transcultural and international American Culture Studies and a truly cross-cultural assessment of America’s heterogeneous character (cf. Lenz 2002, Bredella 2002), this thesis’ reading of the three texts as narratives of a new transcultural sense of belonging can rely on a firm theoretical basis.

On grounds of contemporary notions of texts as cultural artefacts that are not hermetically sealed, but point beyond themselves, scholarship in American Ethnic literatures is faced with a wide range of methodological approaches, opening themselves up to myriad interpretative ways. Based on sociological thought that in any minority discourse the process of identity recovery of the individual will always in a first step require the recreation of a shared sense of belonging through the subject’s search for his collective roots within a larger cultural context, any concise analysis of Ethnic American literature has to be grounded on what leading New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt has called “a full cultural analysis” (cf. Greenblatt 2001:225). Although most likely a cultural outsider to his or her subject culture, the critic respectively has to free himself from former New Critic paradigms of the primacy of text, in favour of what Louis Montrose, a second leading New Historicist, has called the textual anthropologist’s approach which requires the critic to acknowledge existing links between literary discourses and their neighbouring disciplines, as for instance archaeology, anthropology, cultural history medicine and religious sciences (cf. Montrose 1981). Most likely, however, a critic following Greenblatt’s agenda of culture as “a complex network of institutions, practices, and beliefs” (cf. Greenblatt 1982:6) will at some point be required to leave behind purely empirical grounds in favour of a study of his subject culture’s mythology and cultural psyche, which has been most prominently done by means of Myth Criticism. In combining Montrose’s textual anthropologist’s position with Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, the following thesis wants to provide for a concise analytical basis of the myriad ways of how the politics of identity and memory are realized in the novels within the framework of their given cultures and are consequently turned into powerful intracultural narrative strategies of identity formation. Based on sociological theory, the subject’s search for a collective identity, however, can only provide for one transitory stage within a more complex continuum of cultural negotiation and transculturation. On grounds of recent approaches in Postcolonial Theory, Diasporic Literary Criticism, Intercultural Contact Studies and Borderland Theories former New Historicist and Myth Critic approaches therefore have to be substituted by critical theories that provide for a firm analytical basis to the novels’ transcultural strategies of identity formation, in which former collective identities are eventually transformed into new hybrid identities of difference.

Along the lines with this thesis’ transcultural agenda, the following close-readings of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn therefore want to demonstrate how the complex interplay of memory and identity politics in the novels can be dissolved into a set of intracultural and intercultural strategies of cultural negotiation and transculturation. By means of illustration each text will focus on one single event - the search for a sense of place in Bless Me, Ultima, the search for a usable past in Mama Day and the search for a sustaining community in House Made of Dawn. The following comparative reading of the three texts in succession, with Bless Me, Ultima being the first to be followed by Mama Day and House Made of Dawn, will, however, make it soon obvious, how these strategies not only constantly relate to each other, but essentially all tie up to this thesis’ larger theme of cultural negotiation and transculturation as narratives of a new belonging.

2. ‘Ethnic America Fights Back’ – Approaching Contemporary (Ethnic) America

Along the lines of Bill Ashcroft’s catchy phrase “The Empire Writes Back” (Ashcroft 1989:1), which describes the overall development of postcolonial discourse in recent years, contemporary Ethnic America has experienced fundamental changes, too. Ever since the outbreak of the Civil Rights roughly five decades ago, the rhetorics of race pride and ethnic resistance have dominated American cultural discourses. When American Ethnic artists have finally written themselves back from the margins into the centers of U.S. cultural activity, Ethnic American literary achievement is powerfully reflected in the spread of American Ethnic Studies departments as a new interdisciplinary academic discipline both within and outside the United States. When recent scholarship has helped to overcome well established notions of cultural homogeneity and the American melting pot, the former myth of the nation’s alleged assimilatory powers has eventually turned into a contested idea. Based on a recent understanding of identity and memory politics as strategies of cultural negotiation and transculturation, recent criticism has gradually moved into the direction of a dialogics of transcultural American Culture Studies, in which former notions of cultural uniformity have been replaced by cosmopolitan discourse as a new paradigm of a future American (Ethnic) Studies When Ashcroft claims that the Empire has written back, it is at the example of contemporary Ethnic American literatures that these new attitudes towards texts, cultures and histories as mutually related becomes most obviously phrased. By means of cultural theory, ideological criticism, historiography, and literary discourses, the following subchapters want to present four interrelated introductory approaches towards the present state of Ethnic America, each of them highly selective in both content and subject matter, which will provide for a firm theoretical basis to this thesis’ analytical approach: a brief sketch on contemporary American (Ethnic) Studies as Cultural Studies will therefore be followed by a survey of American (Ethnic) ideological history from melting pot to cosmopolitanism, a short summary of American (Ethnic) historiography/ies, history/ies and social realitiy/ies and a concluding chapter on American (Ethnic) literatures.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Major Approaches towards Ethnic America

(Source: own chart)

2.1 ‘ The Turn to Culture‘
- Approaching American (Ethnic) Studies

As any academic discourse in Ethnic American Studies will ultimately have to relate to the overarching discipline of American Studies, the critic sees himself confronted with a wide array of possible critical approaches towards a concise description of the present state of Ethnic America. When over the past decades scholarship in contemporary American Studies has gradually moved away from the Myth and Symbols School’s obsession with Puritan foundational myths, former discourses on the American character as one of exceptional identity and endless Edenic possibility, wonderfully condensed in for instance R.W.B. Lewis’ 1955 study The American Adam (cf. Lewis 1955), have, too, been given up in favor of new paradigms. Based on recent understandings of American histories, cultures and identities as changing and conflicting narratives, American Studies have continuously expanded its field of interest, by incorporating disciplines as for instance Postcolonial Theory, Gender Studies, Minority Discourses, Borderland Theory and more recently Visual Culture and Performance Studies, into an increasingly inclusive and transcultural understanding of American culture/s. When likewise American Ethnic realities have become decisively multivocal, multilingual, cross-cultural, transnational and international, a future American Ethnic Studies, too, cannot any longer be bound by former cultural nationalist notions of minority discourses, but has to fully participate in this new interdisciplinary, comparative and dialogical academic debate, so persuasively called out for by critic Günther Lenz (cf. Lenz 2002, Lenz 2000a, Lenz 2000b). Along Russian Formalist Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism (cf. Bakhtin 1990), Lenz has repeatedly stated his claim for a “genuinely dialogical notion of cultural critique and of inter- and postnational American culture studies in order to bring into view the always two-directional processes of transculturation and rearticulation of the political role of American media, of the products of popular/mass culture […] and of the cultural repercussions and preconditions of the different processes of what is summarily called globalization” (Lenz 2002: 474).

(cf. Campbell 1994, Lauter 2001, Lenz 2000a/b, Lenz 2002, Maddox 1999, Rowe 2002)

According to Donald E. Pease, any reading of American Ethnic literatures along Lenz’s dialogics of a transcultural and international American Studies will eventually lead to Stephen Greenblatt’s theory of a Cultural Poetics which has significantly helped to uncover new relations between “public and cultural matters previously denied”, created crucial links between “otherwise unrelated political, economic, and historical materials” and offered new insights to “returning questions of class, race and gender from the political unconscious of American Studies” (Pease 1994: 23-32). Based on his agency of a “full cultural analysis” (cf. Greenblatt 2001: 225), Greenblatt - in opposition to former New Critic paradigms of the primacy of the text towards extra-textual circumstances - has developed a powerful critical theory in which literary texts are turned into mirror images of the “complex network of institutions, practices, and beliefs that constitute the culture as a whole” (cf. Greenblatt 1982: 6). Based on Louis Montrose’s definition of the critic as an “anthropological field-worker” (cf. Montrose 1981: 358), New Historical theory, again in clear contradiction to former New Critic ideas, cannot rely anymore on the exclusiveness of the literary discourse, but ultimately has to incorporate the rhetorics of neighbouring disciplines as for instance archaeology, anthropology, cultural history, medicine or religious sciences. Being the intellectual fathers of contemporary Cultural Studies theories, Greenblatt and Montrose have provided for a powerful analytical backbone to this thesis project, whose reading of the politics of memory and identity in contemporary American Ethnic literatures is firmly anchored in the New Historicist practice of turning “the text inside out and the context outside in” (Bercovitch 1991: xvii)

(cf. Elliot 2003, Greenblatt 1982, Greenblatt 2001, Montrose 1981, Montrose 1992)

Since the triumphant advance of New Historicist thought in the 1980’s as a new paradigm in American Studies, ample of discussion, has revolved over the debate whether the inclusiveness of contemporary Cultural Studies agendas would eventually weaken the value of the literary work proper. In citing the example of scholar Lean’tin L. Bracks, this thesis wants to provide for a convincing example of how both text and critical theory have significantly benefited from the above literary strategy of turning the text inside out and the context outside in. When in an introductory chapter to Writings on Black Women of the Diaspora Bracks describes her former feeling of dissatisfaction while reading texts by African American women writers, her alienation mainly resulted out of a New Critic attempt to assess the works on purely structural grounds. Only after having re-established the very texts within their larger cultural emplotment of the African American Diaspora, Bracks suddenly realized how “the stories came alive with meaning for today’s black women, who are in their communities living, loving, growing changing, and seeking control of their circumstances in empowering ways” (Bracks 1998: 3). When she then tries to rephrase this epiphanic experience of how the texts were all of a sudden stitched to her personal life by means of the metaphor of “literary quilting” (Bracks 1998:3), Bracks has not only provided for a powerful generic term of the imminent powers of New Historical thought, but has likewise shown how a critical approach towards literature has been lastingly changed.

(cf. Bracks 1998).

2.2 ‘ From Melting Pot to Cosmopolitism’
- Approaching American (Ethnic) Ideologies

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (qtd. in Breidlid 1996: 35) - since its founding days America has proclaimed an image of endless hospitability, physically manifested in the construction of the Statue of Liberty in 1886 and the 1906 inscription of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” (1883). Yet, when John Winthrop in his “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) sermon admonishes the colonialists to “be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” (qtd. in Boller 1996a: 23), the very origin of American exceptionalism can be traced back to early colonial allegories of the Puritans as of being God’s chosen people. It was in the Declaration of Independence then, that the Founding Fathers later reaffirmed earlier pre-national Puritan notions by making the United States a model nation for the world. Along these lines, the following chapter now wants to provide for a closer reading of changing American ideologies from the melting pot to the notion of cosmopolitanism.

(cf. Campbell 1992, Freese 1994, Mauk 1995)

According to Wilson Neate, the rhetorics of the melting pot, as yet another trope of an inherent belief in American exceptionalism, has dominated U.S. cultures ever since Puritan Edward Taylor’s poetic vision of a “Golden Crucible of Grace” (qtd. in Neate 1998: 90). Taken by the American ethos of unlimited possibilities, St. John de Crevecouer’s in his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer later describes the new nation as a country where “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world” (qtd. in Boyer 1996a: 90). When those early visions of America have been repeatedly reaffirmed by later European travelers, as for instance Alexis de Toqueville 19th century account about the creation of a “new Adam in a new Eden combining the best out of Europe’s different nationalities” (qtd. in Payant 1999: xvii), it is hardly surprising that the melting pot has roused the minds of Europe’s poor and adventurous ever since. At the turn to the 20th century, Frederick Jackson Turner in his groundbreaking frontier thesis, only once more recalls former notions of the melting pot, when he writes about “the crucible of the frontier [where] the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race […] the hope of the human race” (qtd. in Horwitz 2001: 90). Although Crevecoeur is commonly considered the melting pot’s most prominent advocate, the term proper, is usually credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in his Notebooks writes that in America “the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles & Cossacks, & all the European tribes, - of the Africans, & of Polynesians, will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, […] as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting pot of the Dark Ages” (qtd. in Freese 1994: 5). Having traced back the evolutionary history of the melting pot, it remains to say, that its popularity as one of the best known national icons ever, which has been haunting American classrooms and English classes abroad ever since, however, goes back to a respectively recent source: Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot (cf. Freese 1994). At the time of its being praised the most, however, the melting pot had already become subject of heated debates, revolving over its very validity in face of U.S. cultural imperialism. Based on a unilinear acculturation model - that to the extent as newcomers assimilate into the American culture they will gradually lose their ethnic identity - the melting pot made believe that the ethnic element in America would soon melt away. Through Marcus-Lee Hansen’s 1938 study “The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant”, however, the very existence of the melting pot was for the first time ever seriously questioned (cf. Hansen 1938). Having shown that the third immigrant generation did not as assumed strip itself off its remaining ethnic bonds, but vice versa started to reclaim a considerable part of their former ethnic memory again, Hansen third-generation-hypothesis has turned America’s most influential icon into a contested idea. Read from an indigenous point of view, America’s a posteriori invitation into the melting pot must have seemed blatantly ironic those American Ethnic communities whose collective memory in North America far preceded the presence of most Anglo-American immigrants to the New World. Seen along the lines of the Native American genocide, of Hispanic land theft and of the African American Diaspora, any concise reading of the American melting pot must finally lead to Nathan Glazer’s and Daniel Moynihan’s laconical statement that “the point about the melting pot […] is that it did not happen” (Glazer/Moynihan 1963: 290), or, to put it differently, that “the Melting Pot contains a lumpy stew; and the lumps will not cook away” (qtd. in Mc Knight 1974: 37). Bluntly speaking, the allegorical-ideological mechanisms of the melting pot have in fact always consisted out of a fundamental act of cultural imperialism, when a predominantly male White Anglo-Saxon Protestant leitkultur sent out two implied messages: to European immigrants it was “You will become like us whether you want or not”, whereas for non-European ethnic minorities the message was: “No matter how much like us you are, you will remain apart” (cf. Bredella 2002: 42).

(cf. Campbell 1994, Boelhower 1987, Neate 1998, Payant 1999, Singh 1996)

It is in the following poem by the African American artist Dudley Randall entitled “Melting Pot” (1968) that the true face of the melting pot if most drastically shown.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: Dudley Randall: “The Melting Pot”

(Source: Freese 1994: 13)

Along the lines of this poem, to Ethnic Americans assimilation was clearly out of reach, while at the same time the rhetorics of the melting pot turned them into a paradigmatic other, which by being the opposite of the dominant WASP identity consequently had to be erased, repressed or victimized. When in the lights of the Civil Rights Movements Randall’s lyrical I, however, refutes “the old pot” and decides to be “just what I am”, the old notion of the melting pot has been finally pushed aside in favor of a new national icon: “In view of such failure to melt and fuse, the metaphor of the melting pot is unfortunate and misleading. A more acute analogy would be a salad bowl […]. American civilization has not been homogenous and uniform; even today it is diverse and pluralistic. The evidence is all around us” (Degler 1970: 295). Glazer and Moynihan have made a similar claim by stating that “the ethnic pattern was American, more American than the assimilationist” (Glazer/Moynihan 1963: 17). Along these lines, both quotes provide for convincing examples, how American thinking has gradually shifted from a unilinear notion in the melting pot towards a new allegory of pluralism and multiculturalism, which led to the rise of several popular denominators of American civilization as of being a salad bowl, a pizza or a mosaic.

(cf. Boelhower 1987, Degler 1970, Glazer 1963, Freese 1994, Payant 1999)

With pluralism and multiculturalism widely praised as the new national metaphors to substitute the former image of the melting pot, it is only in recent years that these concepts, too, have become subject to critical debate. Along these lines, recent critics have convincingly argued that contemporary notions of minority discourses have fallen prey to the same racist attitudes and cultural nationalisms of the former rhetorics of the melting put. To David Hollinger in Postethnic America the present statistical division of U.S. population into an ethnic pentagon of Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans and Euro-Americans seems highly problematic, as it “replicates precisely the crude colloquial categories of black, yellow, white, red and brown” (Hollinger 1995: 8). Werner Sollers in “A Critique of Pure Pluralism”, too, vehemently attacks established notions of pluralism and multiculturalism, when he criticizes that the very same categories on which previous exclusivism was based are now used as commonly accepted organizing principles (cf. Sollers 1986a). In “Pluralism and Cosmopolitanism” Lothar Bredella further adds to this debate, when he describes pluralism as just another victim of what Franz Fanon has called a Manichean delirium of exclusion and suppression (cf. Fanon 1961), which “promises to satisfy the deep needs of belonging, but by regarding the ethnic group as a final frame of reference, it excludes those who do not belong” (cf. Bredella 2002: 37). Dissatisfied with the nominal restrictions of pluralist and multiculturalist thought, Werner Sollors’ Ethnicity School has taken a seemingly radical direction in the 1980’s, by suggesting that ethnicity, rather than being an essentialist condition acquired by biological descent, is in fact a cultural construct, in which a given community continually reinvents and renegotiates its ethnic identities by means of self-refashioning (cf. Sollers 1986b, 1989). Along Sollors’ lines Bredella has recently demanded a move beyond former pluralism and multiculturalism in favor a new concept which is more suspicious of the repressive nature of the group, when it encourages “the people to question the culture they live in, [whereas] pluralism is mainly interested in maintaining it” (Bredella 2002: 45). When Bredella introduces the notion of cosmopolitanism as a substitute to former pluralist thinking, what he aims at is less a question of definition, but a complete shift of thinking, powerful enough to connect Sollers’ Ethnicity school with Günther Lenz’s notion of a dialogics of transcultural and postnational American Culture Studies (cf. Lenz 2002, Sollers 1989). Unlike previous notions of minority discourses and cultural nationalisms, cosmopolitanism not only provides for a voice to so far silenced groups, but likewise allows for cultural negotiation and cross-cultural exchange, when it acknowledges the creation of hybrid identities out of the dynamics of a transcultural discourse between the dominant culture and its minority groups. Along these lines, Bredella’s notion of cosmopolitanism not only helps to transcend the nominal limitations of former concepts of the melting pot and pluralism/multiculturalism, but also provides for a powerful generic term within this thesis’ larger transcultural agenda of the politics of memory and identity in contemporary American Ethnic writing.

(cf. Bredella 2002, Hollinger 1995, Lenz 2002, Lenz 2000b, Sollers 1986b, Sollers 1989)

2.3 ‘ Vanishing Race, Invisible Man and Forgotten People’
- Approaching (American Ethnic) Histories and Social Realities

Having connected the development of American (Ethnic) Studies from its early beginning in the form of the Myth and Symbol School towards a more recent understanding of a dialogics of transnational and postnational American Cultural Studies to the larger theme of American ideological history from melting pot to cosmopolitanism, the previous subchapters have gradually moved away from a formerly unitarian view of American civilization towards a state of Bakthinean dialogism. When the following two subchapters respectively focus on Ethnic American social realities and their artistic emplotment in American Ethnic writing, this thesis aims at bridging the gap between formerly theoretical considerations and a more practical approach of how those new modes of thinking have influenced actual scholarship in American Ethnic Studies.

Parallel to the opening of literary studies towards New Historicist and Cultural Studies agendas, also the disciplines of history and historiography have seen paradigmatical shifts of thinking within the last few decades. Traditional concepts of historiography as cohesive and universally true have been given up in favour of more inclusive understandings of history/ies as contested discourses, in which the historic events proper have no intrinsic meaning except the one provided for by means of language and semiotics. In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation Hayden White refutes traditional notions of historical objectivity, as - according to his view - any representation of historic events always consists of a re-arrangement flawed by the act of interpretation and critical imagination, which eventually results in not only changing but even opposing narrative emplotments (cf. Hayden 1987). Similar to White, also Werner Sollers refuses traditional notions of historiography, when he explains in “National Identity and Diversity”, how Ethnic American discourses have evolved out of a former state of marginalization into independent American Ethnic histories proper (cf. Sollers 1994). When in “The Price of the Ticket: Collected Essays 1948-85” novelist James Baldwin has created an essayistic sketch of changing African American social realities between 1948-1985, his collection provides for a powerful example of the inherent difficulties connected to the reconstruction of an African American counterhistory proper along Sollers’ and White’s critical terms: “It comes to a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace […] has not […] evolved any place for you. […] I was taught in history books that Africa had no history and neither did I. I was a savage about whom the least said the better. […] You belonged where white people put you.” (Baldwin 1985: 404). Likewise Baldwin turns into an idiomatic example of a developing African American cultural consciousness, characteristic of the era after World War II. Opposed to former notions of American Ethnic histories as accounts of an either vanishing, invisible or forgotten people, the following chapter wants to sketch the establishment of an independent Ethnic American identity by means of recreating an Ethnic American history proper out of the dynamical discourse of marginalization and self-fashioning.

(cf. Sollers 1994, White 1987)

For centuries Ethnic Americans have suffered tremendously from the cultural crisis as of having to perform in the dominant Anglo-American world, while at the same time being culturally stigmatised and economically marginalized, which resulted in an intense feeling of cultural alienation and racial inferiority that has transcended well beyond former notions of individual suffering as yet another mirror image of Kennedy’s notion of the national tragedy behind the U.S. ethnic dilemma. Approaching American Ethnic histories as narratives of alienation and deprivation, however, would be clearly contradictory to White’s and Sollers’ belief in the re-creative energy of Ethnic American expressive voices as counternarratives to the oppressive forces at work. When ethnic participation in the Civil Rights Movements not only fundamentally changed the prevalent power structures in the U.S., but likewise led to the creation of a new sense of race pride and ethnic self-confidence, Ethnic American political activism provides for a nice example, of how former attitudes of racial inferiority have been finally overcome throughout the second half of the 20th century. Along the lines with this thesis’ understanding of Ethnic American histories and social realities as counterhistories against Anglo-American cultural infringement, victimization and paternalization, the significance of the Civil Rights Movements, as the major turning point in 20th century American politics, cannot be overestimated. By means of illustration, the following chart provides for a survey of major streams of Ethnic American participation within the larger movement which will now be discussed at greater detail.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3: Major Forms of Ethnic Resistance during the 1960s Civil Rights Movements

(Source: own chart based on Boyer 1996 Karrer/Lutz 1993, Takaki 1993)

Most scholars now agree on reading the 1955 Rosa Parks and Montgomery bus boycotts against Southern Jim Crow laws as the trigger event which finally caused the outburst of the Civil Rights Movements as America’s first nation-wide ethnic mass resistance movement. Under the lead of Martin Luther King Jr. the early stages of resistance were still strongly influenced by Ghandi’s Indian model of civil disobedience, as well as by King’s strong faith in Christian charity and his subsequent refusal of violent means. Yet, when peaceful boycotts, sit-ins and peace marches were faced with brutal police actions, King’s dream of mutual understanding by means of non-violent protest ultimately failed. When in the aftermath of his famous “I have a Dream” speech (qtd. in Breidlid 1996: 87) Martin Luther King had to confess that “I don’t see any American dream. I see an American nightmare” (qtd. in Takaki 1993: 410), the black resistance movement had entered a different stage. Identifying themselves with the Third World and Franz Fanon’s notion of a “Manichean Delirium” (cf. Fanon 1961) militant young blacks, now under the lead of Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power Movement, engaged in a violent struggle for liberation from white colonial domination along the lines of former black nationalist resistance by Martin Delany and Marcus Garvey, in which separatism and violent action, rather than integration and peaceful resistance became the new goals to be achieved. When in 1965 Malcom X, by that time one of the leading figures in Black Nationalism, proposed his treatise “The Ballot or the Bullet”, black civil rights activists had begun marching under his new slogan of “If ballots don’t work, bullets will” (qtd. in Breidlid 1996: 89), utterly convinced that violence has become a justifiable means to fight for equal rights. The shift from peaceful protest to overt violent action, however, was not a feature exclusive to Black Power and African American resistance, but was soon followed by respective ethnic counter-movements. After negotiations with the government through peaceful means (as for instance the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties) had failed, Native American of all tribes joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), also known as Red Power, in order to literally fight for improved living conditions on Native American reservations, which led to the subsequent occupation of Fort Alcatrazz and the historic battlefield of Wounded Knee. Similar developments towards increasing violence, separationism and cultural nationalisms can also be traced back in the course of the Chicano resistance movement from Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Association to Reis Lopéz’s Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres towards poet-politician Corky Gonzales’ ultimate dream of a separatist independent nation of Atzlan, which he had hoped to see realized in his El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán in1970

(cf. Boyer 1996, Takaki 1993, Karrer 1993)

With Martin Luther King’s dream of mutual understanding eventually dead after the first years of the Civil Rights struggles, the hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts had gradually decreased, torn into pieces by a growing sense of cultural nationalism, radical separationism and increasing Anglo-American hostility against Civil Rights activists. At the end of the 1960’s, reconciliation between the races seemed more unlikely than ever before. Yet, along White’s and Sollers’ argumentative lines, the true significance of the Civil Rights can only be understood by leaving behind the discourse of violence and separationism in favor of a larger reading as yet a transitory period within an ongoing struggle for equal rights and cultural survival, which has perpetuated American Ethnic histories ever since. When Manning Marable in Black American Politics explains that “identity is not something our oppressors forced upon us. It is a cultural and ethnic awareness we have collectively constructed for ourselves over hundreds of years” (Marable 1992: 295) he, too, recognizes the true legacy of the Civil Rights Movement that goes beyond mere notions of radical thought and violent action. According to Marable, it is through the rhetorics of a new historical and cultural American Ethnic awareness, that the Civil Rights Movements have decisively helped America’s ethnic minorities to finally overcome former victimization and marginalization by recreating a new sense of historical continuity to provide for a new cultural visions and independent Ethnic American identities. When Manning Marable writes that “African-American identity is much more than race. It is also the traditions, rituals, values, and belief systems of African American people […] our culture, history, art and literature […] our sense of ethnic consciousness and pride in our heritage of resistance against racism” (Marable 1992: 295), Marable defines the true legacy of the Civil Rights Movements by means of its imprints on the (Ethnic) American cultural scene. When political debate and the emergence of a public voice were at the same time followed by a regained interest in ethnic arts and cultural traditions, it is at the example of an emerging Ethnic American literary and cultural renaissance, the results of which will be subject of the following chapter, that the lasting influence of the Civil Rights Movements is most obviously phrased.

(cf. Karrer 1993, Marable 1992, Takaki 1993)

2.4 ‘Ethnic America Writes Back’
- Approaching Contemporary American Ethnic Literatures

“Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side, a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life, and new growth possible. It is this act of speech, of ‘talking back’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice” (qtd. in Mariani 1991: 340). According to African American critic bell hooks, American Ethnic artists have eventually found a public voice of liberation and self-determination and it is along these lines that their writings have turned into a powerful means of cultural resistance, continuity and survival. In Healing Narratives critic Gay Wilentz provided for a crucial link between American Ethnic literatures and ancient American Ethnic healing traditions, when contemporary ethnic writing ultimately refers to the ancient tradition of storytelling and mythmaking and the regenerative and transformative power of the word in traditional healing discourses (cf. Wilentz 2000). To the extent as contemporary Ethnic American authors have utterly relied on their ethnic perspectives, by incorporating elements of their oral tradition and their cultural past into their writings, they stand in direct succession to the tradition of Native American medicine men, African American griots and Hispanic curanderos. As mediators between the realms of their ethnic past and the requirements of the modern literary world, American Ethnic writers have therefore assumed the position of contemporary traditional storytellers so to speak, whose works offer cure to a people desperately in need of their new healing narratives.

(cf. Wilentz 2000)

Based on the indebtedness of contemporary American Ethnic literatures to myth and the ancient tradition of storytelling, western literary criticism has long shied away from ethnic writing as at its best highly exotic and mystified, but in any case literary inferior and no literature proper. As early as in 1917 Myth Critic Joseph Campbell in his landmark study The Hero With a Thousand Faces already summarized some common critical misconceptions and misuses of mythology “as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature […], as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times” (qtd. in Campbell 1917:13). Less reserved critics, however, have become increasingly aware of myth’s inherent significance “as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group […] and as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights” (qtd. in Campbell 1917:13). According to contemporary critic Mark Schorer “myth is fundamental, the dramatic representation of our deepest instinctual life, of a primary awareness of man in the universe, capable of many configurations, upon which all particular opinions and attitudes depend” (qtd. in Guerin et al. 1999:159) . Along these lines N. Scott Momaday writes that “man tells stories in order to understand his experience, whatever it may be. The possibilities of storytelling are precisely those of understanding the human experience” (qtd. in Jacobs 2001:20). It is through the stories and myths of their childhood days that children are initiated into their community, learn about its shared history and gradually develop a collective identity themselves. Although not all of the stories will make sense immediately, they still come to a gradual understanding of what they mean and how they define them as a people, and how they, too, have become carriers of these stories. Based on this fundamental understanding of myth as a meaningful presence in one’s contemporary existence, contemporary New Historicist and Cultural Studies notions of texts as cultural artefacts and the gradual opening up of literary discourse to neighbouring disciplines, as for instance anthropology, archaeology or cultural history can only be unilaterally effective, as they lack a closer understanding of the significance of mythmaking in contemporary American Ethnic literatures. Any full cultural analysis of the politics of memory and identity in contemporary Ethnic American literatures, if it claims to be properly done, will therefore at some point be required to leave behind former empirical discourses in favour of a closer analysis of a given culture’s mythological repertoire and its cultural psychology. Yet, the overall question remains: is a non-Native American critic, for instance, as a cultural outsider to his subject matter ever able to really understand Native American literature “written by Indians, about Indians, and with decidedly Indian articulation of life” (Kloppenburg 1999:20). Whereas cultural purists stress that no outsider will ever be able to really understand the myth structures inherent to a specific culture, universalists claim that although each people has its own distinctive mythology, which is reflected in a specific set of legends, ideologies and iconographies, myth is in a general sense universal as it relies on the existence of a shared repertoire of archetypical images, characters, narrative designs and themes common to all world literatures, which allow for a cross-cultural analysis. The task of the myth critic, therefore is a special one. Unlike Louis Montrose’s notion of the critic as a textual anthropologist, who works predominantly with empirical evidence, as for instance cultural history or the biography of a writer, the myth critic is more interested “in mythic time and the biography of the gods” (Guerin et al. 1999:167). Likewise, also this thesis’ analytical approach has to mediate between previously discussed New Historical/Cultural Studies discourses and the field of Myth Criticism which will be introduced at a greater detail in the following paragraph.

(cf. Campbell 1917, Guerin et al. 1999, Kloppenburg 1999)

Based on Jungian psychology, Mircea Eliade’s research on religious history and James C. Frazer’s comparative study of world mythologies in The Golden Bough, Joseph Campbell in his landmark study The Hero With A Thousand Faces has developed a for a most powerful analytical framework in Myth Criticism by means of his theory of the monomyth of the cultural hero, which he considers as innate to all world cultures and which by means of illustration can be condensed into the following scheme:

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Figure 4: The Monomyth of Joseph Campbell’s Universal Hero Pattern

(Source: Own chart based on Campbell 1917)

In The Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell himself provides for a condense summary of his pattern of the universal hero: “The ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellowman” (Campbell 1917:30). According to Campbell, all people share an innate understanding of this pattern, since it forms part of what Jung has called a collective or archetypical unconscious. As Campbell has shown elsewhere, the actual course of the universal hero’s sacred quest, however, provides for various several thematic variations to his underlying theme.

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Figure 5: Major Events in Campbell’s Sacred Quest of the Questing Hero

(Source: Campbell 1917: 245)

Based on Campbell’s elaboration on the monomyth in the introduction to The Hero With A Thousand Faces, the thematic core of the universal hero’s sacred quest, however, can be defined by the following. As an outsider within his cultural surrounding at the beginning of Campbell’s mythical round, the cultural hero suffers greatly from his feeling of alienation, often symbolically phrased by means of a physical malaise. Unable to come to terms with his surrounding community, the hero is eventually forced to separate himself from the world of the commonday and sets out onto a quest of cosmic relevance, which takes him from the spheres of present-day social reality into the realms of myth. Under the companionship of helping spirits who throughout the sacred journey provide for spiritual guidance to the hero, he journeys through a world full of adventures and tasks of cosmic relevance. At the nadir of the mythological round, often introduced by the hero’s symbolic descent into the world of darkness, the hero has to face up with his final ordeal, which first requires him to symbolically re-experience his own death to and then lead to his reemergence by means of a powerful community vision to provide him with a deeper understanding of not only his own existence, but also of his connection to the larger pattern of the myth. Having gained his reward, the hero again returns from the world of myth into contemporary reality and when he finally returns to his people, he is no longer an outsider any more, but the return is the one of a new spiritual leader. When the cultural hero narrates his story to the community, his storytelling turns into a highly symbolic event of cultural continuity in which his individual story is turned into one of communal significance as a new myth. Extensive research has been done on the application of Campbell’s hero pattern on American Ethnic writing, as for instance by literary critic William Bevis in “Native American Novels: Homing I”. Based on structural grounds Bevis claims that Native American discourses, as opposed to the American notion of a “leaving plot” (Bevis 1993:16) which requires its protagonists leave behind their cultural past in order to fully pay into the success story of the American Dream, adhere to what Bevis has respectively called a “homing plot” (Bevis 1993:16), which refers to the monomyth’s cyclical pattern of separation and return of the cultural hero into a “circular, holistic blending of past, present, and future, and of the individual, the family, and the community (Kloppenburg 1999:22). Along Bevis’ lines, Native American writing is therefore not “eccentric, centrifugal, diverging, expanding”, but rather “incentric, centripetal, converging, contracting” (Bevis 1993:16), focusing on the collective gain behind the protagonist’s successful return home, rather than his personal success story. Along Bevis’ terms, the following close readings of Bless Me, Ultima, Mama Day and House Made of Dawn will provide for convincing examples of how contemporary American Ethnic literatures not only significantly benefit from Myth Critical thought, but likewise neatly open up towards a reading along Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth of the questing universal hero.

(cf. Campbell 1917)

When the true purpose of Campbell’s mythical round, however, lies in the regenerative powers of myth to transform the life story of the individual into the classic impersonal narrative of the questing cultural hero, it not only serves as a powerful didactic means to connect the individual to his community, but likewise provides for yet another underlying pattern in contemporary American Ethnic literary discourse which significantly adds to the former notion of mythmaking: the agency of cultural negotiation. According to Bonnie TuSmith in All My Relations, Americans, spoiled by the rhetorics of the American self-made man and the American Dream, have long lost access to the world of myths and its regenerative community vision (cf. TuSmith 1993). Along these lines Campbell has written that “[t]he problem of mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great co-ordinating mythologies which now are known as lies. Then all meaning was in the group […] today no meaning is in the group - none in the world. All is in the individual.” (Campbell 1917:18). When Ethnic American writers, however, recreated the ancient community vision of myth into their writing, Ethnic American literatures have turned into powerful counternarratives to the Anglo-American discourse of individualism. In addition to Joseph Campbell, also Wolfgang Karrer and Hartmut Lutz in “Minority Literatures in North America from Cultural Nationalism to Liminality” have provided for a larger framework of approaching American Ethnic literatures as narratives of a new transcultural sense of belonging, which results out of the cultural discourse of negotiation and change (cf. Karrer/Lutz 1993). When in terms of language Ethnic American authors seem to rely on Standard English as their only means of communication, their inherent transcultural agencies of cultural translation, distortion and negotiation - by means of subtly overcoding the text’s surface layer with ritual, magic or spiritual connotations of their specific cultural tradition - only become obvious to the linguistically and culturally cautious reader. Considering the ways how Ethnic American writers refuse to adhere to traditional notions of the western literary tradition by constantly crossing boundaries between established literary genres and the notions of fiction and non-fiction, contemporary Ethnic American writing provides for yet another example of its inherent transcultural agendas of negotiation and change, which will again be subject matter of the following chapter on the politics of memory and identity in contemporary American Ethnic literatures.

(cf. Karrer/Lutz 1993, TuSmith 1993)

Having provided for a brief sketch of the significance of mythmaking and cultural negotiation as two powerful analytical frameworks to define contemporary American Ethnic writing, the following story by Elaine Jahner wants to conclude this survey chapter, by again referring to Gay Wilentz’s previous notions of contemporary American Ethnic literatures as wellness narratives and Discourses of healing.

Recently a young woman who was attempting to learn more about her own tribe’s traditional tales visited her grandmother hoping to share her grandmother’s extensive knowledge of narrative. Just before the visit, the young woman had broken her engagement, but she did not feel ready to discuss the matter. Her grandmother, of course, noticed the absence of the engagement ring, but respected the granddaughter’s privacy and refrained from questioning her. In responding to the granddaughter’s desire to learn traditional tales, she drew from her extensive knowledge of traditional motifs dozens of elements likely to touch the young woman’s pain and confusion about the cancelled wedding. (Jahner 1983: 213)

To Jahner the old grandmother has turned into the prototypical figure of the American Ethnic writer, when she provides for a powerful example of how the discourse of myth and cultural negotiation has helped to create a new narrative of healing in the story. Things which don’t shift are dead things, and in order to give meaning to their stories, contemporary American Ethnic cannot merely repeat the old myths as they have always been, but need to transform them into new stories evolving out of a specific social reality and need. In Retelling/Reading: The Fate of Storytelling in Modern Times, Karl Kroeber emphasizes the importance of retelling and recreating one’s stories: Being passed on to successive generations, each adding new elements to the story proper, the story-line will never be outdated, nor will it ever be final (cf. Kroeber 1992). According to Jahner meaning in the stories is, however, never explicative to the reader per se, but always needs to be reconstructed through the active and passive interplay between “narrative performance” and “auditor’s participation” (Jahner 1983: 213). Coming back to previous notions of the interplay between contemporary American Ethnic literatures and traditional healing discourses Gay Wilentz claims that contemporary ethnic writing ultimately has the power to heal cultural sickness when it “transforms binary modes of thinking in both form and content, and creates stories to begin this healing discourse - one in which critics and readers alike can participate” (Wilentz 2000:5). According to Wilentz, being well personally is associated with being in touch with oneself and one’s heritage, however complicated. For a concise understanding of the politics of memory and identity inherent to contemporary Ethnic American writing, reader and critic alike therefore need to participate both in the act of mythmaking and the discourse of cultural negotiation, in order to see how the recreative powers of the stories work and how cultural reconstruction and survival have turned American Ethnic literatures into new narratives of cultural healing and belonging.

(cf. Jahner 1983, Kroeber 1992, Wilentz 2000)

3. ‘ Stories of the Uprooted’ – The Politics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary American Ethnic Literatures

Many Indians, even those who are pure bloods, have adopted White ways […] What is Indian? I don’t know. Perhaps that is because I have been raised in White society […] People say, “It doesn’t matter how much Indian you are if you feel Indian.” I don’t “feel” Indian. […] I search for something to validate myself as an Indian. I can make general statements about Indians such as: they are sharing and giving people, they lack materialism and live close to nature. But these apply only to Indians of the past who have lived close to the old culture. The true Indians are all but gone. […] I feel like an outsider. When I was growing up, I feared being rejected for my dark skin. I saw drunkenness and poverty when I visited the reservations during the summer. I wanted to be accepted in White society […] I was ashamed of being Indian. […] I set out to prove that I was White (Nabokov 1992:412)

The quote above comes from a young mixed-blood student of the Santa Fe Institute of American Indian Arts who was asked to write an essay on the topic “What am I”. In The Death of Jim Loney Blackfoot author James Welsh paints a very similar scene in a conversation between the protagonist and his Anglo-American girlfriend: “[Rhea said] ‘Oh, you are so lucky to have two sets of ancestors. Just think you can be Indian one day and white the next. Whichever suits you’ […] Loney thought, it would be nice to think that, but it would be nicer to be one or the other all the time […]. It would be nice to think that one was one or the other, Indian or white.”(Welch 1979:14). In Souls of Black Folk African American critic W. B. Du Bois writes about the “peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (qtd. in Breidlid 1998:83) he has provided for a powerful generic term to describe the feeling of uprootedness and cultural alienation evoked by the two quotes above. When he later adds to this image by calling it a state of being “gifted with second-sight in this American world” (qtd. in Breidlid 1998:83), Du Bois, however, likewise provides for a powerful example of memory and identity politics as equivocal terms in which a language of victimization has been successively rephrased into a discourse of cultural reconstruction and continuity. Seen in the context of the sociopolitical and ideological changes briefly sketched in the previous introductory chapters, Du Bois’ concept of the double-consciousness therefore provides for “a useful bifocal lens, and not as the crippling diplopia of the past” (Singh 1996:9). When Du Bois writes that “the history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self” (qtd. in Breidlid 1998:83), this quote therefore does not refer to the former rhetorics of the American melting pot, but provides for a powerful vision of cultural negotiation and transculturation. On common grounds with recent approaches towards ethnic identities as hybrid constructions of consent, Du Bois’ notion of the double-consciousness - precisely a hundred years after he coined the term - still serves as a powerful to describe contemporary Ethnic America along the lines of Günther Lenz’s plea of a dialogics of transnational American Cultural Studies (cf. Lenz 2002) and Lothar Bredella’s metaphor of cosmopolitanism (cf. Bredella 2002). Based on these theoretical premises, the following chapter will provide for a survey reading of the myriad ways of how politics of identity and memory are realized in contemporary Ethnic American writing and reality to provide for powerful strategies of cultural negotiation and transculturation.

(cf. Bakthin 1990, Bredella 2002, Campbell 1997, Lenz 2002, Singh 1996)

Already around the turn of the century Joseph Campbell was triggered by the interplay between individual and collective identity, when he writes in The Hero With A Thousand Faces that the individual away from his community is a nothing, as a meaningful identity can only evolve out of one’s connection to his or her specific community (cf. Campbell 1907). Along these lines Jamaican critic Stuart Hall in his 1990 published essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” has developed a powerful theory of identity reconstruction in diasporic cultures, which provides for a basic framework to analyze how memory and identity emerge in contemporary Ethnic America. According to Stuart Hall “identity is not as transparent and unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, with the new cultural practices then present, we should instead think of identity as a production which is never complete but always in process, and which is always constituted within, not outside, representation” (Hall 1996: 110). In “Narrative Identity” Paul Ricoeur bridges the gap between former sociological discourses and literature studies when he emphasizes the power of the narrative in the process of identity reconstruction: “self-knowledge is an interpretation; self-interpretation, in its turn, finds in narrative […] a privileged mediation; this mediation draws on history as much as it does on fiction, turning the story of a life into a fictional story or a historical fiction” (Ricoeur 1991: 188). Similar to Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, also Hall and Ricoeur put the individual’s quest from alienation to belonging into the center of their critical works, when they suggest that texts which represent the marginalized ethnic self should be read as narratives of self-knowledge and self-interpretations which will essentially, by drawing and mediating sources from one’s ethnic past with present-day elements, lead to a new sense of identity and belonging and the construction of a usable past as well as a usable present and future.

(cf. Campbell 1907, Hall 1996, Ricoeur 1991)

3.1 ‘Identity Politics One’
- The Return-To-Roots Narrative

At the example of his own biography as a native of Jamaica and a later resident of Great Britain, Stuart Hall in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” has turned his life-story into a powerful postcolonial theory of identity reconstruction, in which identity is seen as the result of constant shift and repositioning along a continuum of identity politics. Hall’s first position - which he has elsewhere called “Identity Politics One” (Hall 1991: 52) and which closely resembles Campbell’s approach of the monomyth and the sacred quest - focuses primarily on the individual’s search for his or her roots within a collectively shared culture, a sort of collective one true self to reflect common historical experiences and shared cultural codes. Hall repeatedly refers to the impossibility of discussing African American history and contemporary cultural politics without that notion of a collective identity through the return to one’s African cultural roots. Ethnicity in this respect is therefore a major device in bonding the individual to his community, to the extent as it provides for a rich ethnic repertoire of resistance in contrast to the fragmented ways of how dominant discourses have defined minority cultures.

(cf. Bredella 2002, Hall 1996)

Along the lines of Paul Ricoeur’s notion of narrative identity, critic Rüdiger Kunow has coined the term “return-to-roots-narrative” in order to describe how Stuart Hall’s “Identity Politics One” are realized in contemporary American Ethnic writing (Kunow 2002: 186). In the introduction to Minority Literatures in North America: Contemporary Perspectives Wolfgang Karrer and Hartmut Lutz provide for a powerful model of assessing Kunow’s return-to-roots formula on structural grounds by suggesting three crucial intracultural narrative strategies inherent to Hall’s theory of identity recovery:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 6: Identity Politics One – Towards a Collective Identity

(Source: own chart based on Hall 1996 and Karrer/Lutz 1993)

According to Karrer and Lutz, the experience of being part of a tightly knit social and cultural organism, summarised in their heading “Kinship: All My Relations” (Karrer/Lutz 1993: 28), is at the centre of contemporary American Ethnic writing. Torn between the split world of a double heritage in a feeling of uprootedness and alienation, contemporary American Ethnic writing experiences a clash of two divergent forces: a centripetal one, pulling to one’s ancestral ethnic origins, and a centrifugal one, luring away towards the temptations of the dominant Anglo-American society. To the extent as Ethnic Americans are denied access to the American Dream in a world of racial discrimination and social oppression, a feeling of belonging along the lines of Stuart Hall’s “Identity Politics One”, can only be achieved through the return to one’s cultural roots. A simple coming home to one’s people, however, hardly suffices for ultimate healing, but requires a holistic reintegration of the individual into the triangle of kinship, place and time. When in a scene in D’Arcy McNickle’s Native American novel Wind from an Enemy Sky a grandfather talks to the protagonist who has just returned from boarding school: “Now grandson, some day you will need to know where our people came from, and what it was like in the beginning. Perhaps your own son will ask you about it, and it will shame you if you can’t tell him” (McNickle 1978: 203), the simple act of returning to the reservation does not itself lead to identity reconstruction. Concluded from this quote, cultural identity goes beyond present-day kinship patterns of the extended family, the clan or the tribe, to the extent as it requires a holistic understanding of one’s existence within one’s cyclical and concentric embodiment in time, place and existence. Under the heading “Time: Seven Generations”(Karrer/Lutz 1993: 32) Karrer and Lutz move beyond European notions of linearity or chronology, in favour of a circular understanding of past, present and future as a never-ending cycle, in which individual identity, just as myth, oral tradition and recorded history, merges into the seamless web of cultural continuity. From an ethnic point of view, also place as in “Land: Mother Earth” (Karrer/Lutz 1993: 35) transcends mere spatial dimensions, when it demands for a reading along spiritual terms, in which one’s place of origin is seen as a spiritual site of one’s present existence. Self-knowledge and recovery of a collective identity along these lines can only be achieved through a holistic reintegration of the individual into his or her physical and spiritual landscape. According to Karrer and Lutz, collective identity is therefore never a stable entity that simply exists for itself, but always needs to be recreated in the return-to-roots narrative through active participation of the protagonist in this quest for a sense of place, a usable past and a renewed sense of community. Ultimate reinitiation into the triangle of kinship, place and time can only be achieved when the protagonist not only learns about his cultural identity, but to the same time symbolically participates his collective identity in the sense of Campbell’s theory of the monomtyh and the sacred quest of the universal hero, discussed in a previous chapter.

(cf. Karrer/Lutz 1993, Kunow 2002)

At the example of Karrer’s and Lutz’s intracultural approach to what Kunow has called the return-to-the roots formula in contemporary American Ethnic literatures, it becomes obvious, that the politics of identity are always at the same time a politics of memory. Following Hall’s “Identity Politics One”, cultural identity always comes from “a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context’, positioned [sic!]” (Hall 1996: 110). Since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s early claim that “memory is a primary and fundamental faculty, without which none other can work” (qtd. in Hebel 2003: ix), immense academic interest has been granted to the study of memory, and to the myriad ways of how individual and cultural memory are used as a major source of identity reconstruction in recent years. According to a contemporary understanding of the interplay between remembering and the remembered as clearly reciprocal, not only the individual deliberately decides what to forget and what to remember in order to maintain a specific repertoire of memories that he or she thinks necessary for survival, but at the same time the collective memory of a given culture always interferes with the individual’s life (cf. Singh 1996). Along these lines Maurice Haberwachs in his 1950 study The Collective Memory claimed that we do not only remember things that actually happened to us personally, but that we also, and perhaps even more importantly, remember past events, attitudes and values that are part of our collective memory (qtd. in Singh 1994: 3). Reading memory along these lines as “the place and process where past and present interact in instances of individual and communal self-positionings and definition” (Hebel 2003: x) provides for an important mnemotechnical strategy of cultural recovery. Along these lines William Boelhower writes that through the act of remembering “the non-ethnic sign is radically transformed; that is, it becomes ethnic. […] The new genealogical alignment produced through ethnic interpretation represents both a strategy of construction and a cultural construct, a pragmatic activity and a semantic system” (Boelhower 1987: 89). In combining Karrer’s and Lutz’s intracultural model with recent approaches in Memory Studies, we are provided with a powerful interpretative tool in discussing the myriad ways of how dysfunctional personal identities and fragmented memories are recreated through the act of remembering and recreating into a new form of collective identity and memory.

(cf. Hebel 2003, Singh 1994, Singh 1996)

3.2 ‘Identity Politics Continued’
- Rewriting the Return-To-Roots Narratives

When Stuart Hall based on his own life story writes that everyone in the Caribbean must sooner or later come to terms with his or her African heritage, he is well aware that the original Africa, in the sense of an archaic pre-European and pre-colonial state, does no longer exist. Stuart Hall’s “Identity Politics One” and the search for a collective back-to-roots identity can therefore only represent a first step within a continuing politics of identity formation: “I have been deracinated for four hundred years. The last thing I am going to do is to dress up in some native Jamaican costume and appear in the spectacle of multiculturalism” (Hall 1991: 56). For Hall the Africa he had to come to terms with, has neither been the pre-European Africa of his ancestors nor what Edward Said in his 1978 monograph Orientalism has called the constructed paradigmatic other of the western mind (cf. Said 1991), but instead “what we have made of ‘Africa’: ‘Africa’ – as we re-tell it through politics, memory and desire” (Hall 1990: 234). In similar terms African American cultural critic Anthony Appiah writes that “if I had to choose between Uncle Tom and Black Power, I would, of course, choose the latter. But I would like not to have to choose. I would like other options” (Appiah 1996: 99). For Hall and Appiah the established notions of memory and identity as stable entities in “Identity Politics One”, now in a second step, need to be given up again in favor of a recent understanding of the politics of memory and identity as “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past” (Hall 1996: 112). Living in what postcolonial criticism has called an imaginative geography and history (cf. Said 1991), Stuart Hall, in referring to his own life story as a postcolonial subject, sees himself as part of a hybrid contact zone where the African and European presence of his ethnic past meet and merge with the myriad influences of his contemporary postcolonial world. Along these lines cultural identities are no fixed entities in the sense of a once-and-for-all, but in fact undergo constant changes to the extent as the politics of identities are in turn always a politics of positionings, so that there will always be points of deep and significant difference within a given group’s collective identity. According to Stuart Hall, it is precisely these ruptures and discontinuities - which he has defined as identities of cultural difference and the diaspora - that constitute the cultural uniqueness and cultural identity of the Caribbean and in a more general sense of all postcolonial and Diasporic cultures. With this brief summary of Hall’s theory of cultural identity it has becomes obvious, how Hall gradually moves from his search for single collective identity in “Identity Politics One” towards the notion of identities of difference as cultural constructs, when he writes that “cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning [sic!]” (Hall 1996: 113). To the extent as Stuart Hall rejects multiculturalism and pluralism as too restrictive terms of describing the actual diversity of the postcolonial world, his theory of cultural identities can be read along the lines of Lenz’s and Bredella’s concepts of a dialogics of transcultural and cosmopolitan American Cultural Studies that “shares with universalism a suspicion of closed groups and puts the emphasis on the individual, although it is critical of universalism in so much as it ignores cultural differences brief rejecting an ethnic identity solely based on cultural nationalist grounds” (Bredella 2002: 46).

(cf. Bredella 2002, Hall 1990, Hall 1991)


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Narratives of a New Belonging: The Politics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary American Ethnic Literatures
University of Regensburg  (Insitute for American Studies)
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Narratives, Belonging, Politics, Memory, Identity, Contemporary, American, Ethnic, Literatures
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M.A. / B.A. / LAss Michael Fink (Author), 2004, Narratives of a New Belonging: The Politics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary American Ethnic Literatures, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 1/14/2012

    Excellent treatment of Bless Me, Ultima. Comprehensive and convincing

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Title: Narratives of a New Belonging: The Politics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary American Ethnic Literatures

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