Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnic Outsiders: The Hyper-Ethnicized Narrator in Langston Hughes and Fred L. Gardaphe

Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnic Outsiders: The Hyper-Ethnicized Narrator in Langston Hughes and Fred L. Gardaphe

Article excerpt

   The very feeling of being outsiders, the estrangement from both
   old traditions and new ways, the clash of generations as the
   children of immigrants remade themselves outside the
   traditions--all this has been the very stuff of literature for
   Americans, Italians and otherwise.

   (Helen Barolini, Chiaroscuro 127)

How does a minority or "ethnic" author deal with this "very feeling of being an outsider" which Barolini discusses above? There are as many ways as there are genres of ethnic narrative. One of these ways is to compose an autobiography, to look back on one's own past as an "ethnic outsider" attempting to find a place in mainstream American society. But in a prior issue of MELUS, Petra Fachinger notes that such an ethnic autobiographer runs the danger of "creating an ethnic other," of deforming him or herself into some unattractive figure who cannot potentially take part in what she tells us that Bakhtinian scholar Jennifer Browdy De Hernandez called "a dialogue between collective ethnic memory and individual memory" (125). Certainly this critique of autobiography has validity; how many autobiographers are truly honest even with themselves, let alone with their readers, about themselves in narrative? Bearing in mind how difficult this honesty is, as well as how humorless much autobiography is, I would like to examine another way to characterize this ethnic otherness through the use of ethnic humor, an excellent means of coping with the individual experiencing such "otherness." An author can mitigate a sense of alienating otherness through the creation of a hyper-ethnicized narrator, a kind of "funkier-than-thou" wisdom or trickster figure who philosophizes about concerns relevant to all readers, not simply to those who are members of his or her own ethnic group.

Recently, Fred L. Gardaphe has published Moustache Pete is Dead!: Evivva Baffo Pietro!, a compilation of columns which appeared in Chicago's Fra Noi, during the 1980s when Gardaphe was Arts and Culture editor. Fra Noi is a monthly Italian American newspaper distributed mainly in the Chicago area, so one can assume that this character appealed primarily to an Italian American audience. "Moustache Pete" was a creation of the author, based upon a first generation Italian American immigrant man. Like other colorful social commentators, this "pasta-box" philosopher offers his heavily dialecticized view of the American "new world" in contrast to the Italian world he remembers. Clearly, this hyper-ethnicized narrator is not a traditional autobiographical figure.

Moustache Pete's origins can be generically traced to one of the greatest poet/authors of the twentieth century, Langston Hughes, and his own Harlem "juke-box" philosopher, the jazzy beer-drinking Jesse P. Simple. Like Moustache Pete, Jesse P. Simple is a hyper-ethnicized narrator, who appeared in a serialized column in both The New York Post and The Chicago Defender through the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jess Simple also presents a kind of folk wisdom about current events and fairly complex cultural realities. "Ace-boy Simple" appeared to a diverse audience via the mainstream Post as well as a primarily African American readership through the columns in the Defender. Through comparison and contrast of these two trickster figures, we will examine the purpose and function of the hyper-ethnicized narrator. (1)

Besides formal and thematic similarities, these two texts can be compared on the grounds of their use of humor. Writing about the use of humor in an ethnic context, John Lowe stated, "The post-modern ethnic writer ruthlessly exposes social ills, but deflects the pathetic in order to focus on the absurd" (110).

Furthermore, a relevant ground can be established for the comparison and contrast of Langston Hughes and Fred L. Gardaphe by examining the startling similarity between the critical receptions of each text. What happens when an author creates a narrator who is both a member of the author's own ethnic group but who also typifies the most extreme and visible forms of the stereotypes of that group? …

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