Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

"Who I Was": Ethnic Identity and American Literary Ethnocentrism

I want to start by recounting two far-flung moments in American ethnic history. The second is from Booker T. Washington--the first is more recent. It comes from the New York Times News Service, February 2, 1994, the day after Deval Patrick was appointed assistant attorney general for civil rights. I offer it as a pointedly concentrated rendering of a familiar piece of the cultural liturgy. "Patrick's entire life," the Times intones, "has been one of overcoming obstacles. His rise from poverty to success is the kind of story that even some conservatives would cheer."1 The significance of this formula is precisely in its brevity. Its short-hand and unselfconscious reference to terms that are elaborated in countless texts, and its deliberate association of those terms with "conservative," which is to say self-consciously "American," identities suggest how thoroughly settled these terms are, by now, in our vocabularies. Only the barest hint is necessary since the operative language is so deeply embedded in the cultural code.

The generic story of self creation in America condensed by the Times is a simple and familiar one. A boy is born into obscure poverty.2 But, taking full advantage of such opportunities as life offers, and by dint of native abilities, hard work, and good character, he leaves his low past behind and achieves the solid American success he had barely dreamed for himself. The potency of this script is reflected in its broad use--so common as to seem almost natural, a cultural habit, a routine. As the official organizing interpretation and shaping ideal for numberless American narratives from Franklin's fragmented "Memoirs" to Nixon's, it has remained so powerful in our culture--even long after it had been made an object of parody by the militantly disillusioned like Nathaniel West--precisely because it embodies in individual terms the past and future of the nation. Patrick's appointment is so resonant because it encourages us to associate that promise of personal success and fufillment with a "civil right."

The second incident, from near the end of Booker T. Washington's work of automythography, Up from Slavery, relates what I take to be the defining moment of the book.3 Traveling by train in Georgia, Washington is invited to sit with two white Bostonian women of his acquaintance in a car full of white Georgia men. To Washington's discomfort and the obvious dismay of the Georgians, one of the women orders a meal, and, unable to get away, Washington rushes through his dinner under the glare of Southern eyes. Afterwards, Washington moves apprehensively to the smoking car to find out how things stand. But, once there,

-43-

Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this book

This book has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this book

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this page

Cited page

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies
Table of contents

Table of contents

Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen
/ 300

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.