Academic journal article MELUS

Navigating the Mainstream: Metaphors and Multiethnic Literature

Academic journal article MELUS

Navigating the Mainstream: Metaphors and Multiethnic Literature

Article excerpt

I come to the study of multiethnic literature not as a theorist, but as a poet. Accordingly, I am drawn to the metaphors employed in discussions of diversity and multiculturalism and find in them a means to understand where we are in the teaching of multiethnic literature and where we are trying to go. Undergirding this effort is a notion of metaphor as fundamental to thinking, a notion compatible with the discipline of literature and one articulated in a particularly lucid way by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their groundbreaking book, Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson make clear that metaphor is not merely form into which we pour our thoughts to give them more audience appeal. Rather, metaphor informs and influences thinking. When we think of an argument in terms of war, Lakoff and Johnson point out, then we focus on attacking and defending, winning or losing. If, however, we could think of an argument as a dance, then we'd be more apt to value performance and aesthetically pleasing movement (5). In like fashion, metaphors we use in discussions of multiethnic literature structure our thought and our teaching. Whatever metaphor we employ reveals some possibilities and implications and obscures others.

Two metaphors have historically dominated discussions of multiculturalism within the United States: the melting pot and the mosaic. I have taught and continue to teach courses whose underlying logic is based on either the melting pot or the mosaic metaphor. I sometimes teach the most popular literature course on my campus, a multi-genre Introduction to Literature course, with about one-third devoted to poetry, one-third to fiction, and one-third to drama. Within this framework, I try, as do most of the anthologies, to make the course multiethnic. We read poems by Gwendolyn Brooks along with some by William Wordsworth and William Shakespeare to exemplify the sonnet: poems by Pat Mora to demonstrate symbolism, works by Simon Ortiz to teach imagery: and stories by James Alan McPherson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Amiri Baraka as illustrations of various narrative techniques.

But with the double aim, to introduce writers from a multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds and to appreciate literary forms, sometimes one or the other aim gets lost. Sometimes I assume students know that former Poet Laureate of the United States Rita Dove is African American or Louise Erdrich is Indian, but often they don't. I sometimes feel awkward saying, "Oh, by the way, she's African American or Chippewa, or part Ojibwa," whatever the case may be. And when students recognize the ethnicity of the writer, it is usually because the subject matter deals with racial oppression. I became aware of how my mostly white students tend to conclude that everyone is as White as they and I and, unless that person is specifically identified as a person of color, that people of color write only about racial oppression, and maybe even that whites are not affected by racism and cannot write with feeling and conviction about racial injustice.

I began to realize as well how in this melting pot approach, all authors melted into the pot of one literary tradition, problematically defined. As Gregory Jay says about assimilation, it "meant either accepting the superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture or melting into the pot of white European pluralism" (72). In terms of defining literary traditions, Gwendolyn Brooks may serve as an example. Poems like her sonnets employ forms and techniques that write her into a tradition of poetry in English. But to study her simply as a sonneteer is to neglect other strands in her writing and to oversimplify the rich synthesis of influences in her work.

Trudier Harris has written about this same issue in terms of Ralph Ellison, whose monumental work Invisible Man found acceptance among some white critics on the grounds that it depicted an Odyssean journey. Such thinking, Harris points out, was based on a faulty assumption, with reasoning along these lines:

"Ellison wasn't writing exclusively about black culture, but he had joined hands with the great international, universal adventure, whatever the heck that is" (212). …

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