Academic journal article MELUS

Racial Conflict and Multiculturalism: Bernard Malamud's "The Tenants." (Black-Jewish Relations)

Academic journal article MELUS

Racial Conflict and Multiculturalism: Bernard Malamud's "The Tenants." (Black-Jewish Relations)

Article excerpt

W.E.B. Du Bois warned in 1903 that the main problem of the twentieth century would be the color line; indeed, the burning issues of economic, social, and cultural inequality among racial groups in America were not solved, but instead became ever more complex and urgent. Today, at the end of the twentieth century, American society remains shaped in part by the melting pot and visions of ethnic harmony, but it is just as well, or perhaps even predominantly, characterized by ethnic differences and racial conflict. The political and social reality of this multi-faceted conflict is reflected in many areas of American literature after 1940. Ever since Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), but especially since the 1960s, there has been a flood of depictions of racial and ethnic conflicts in American literary works. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has recently agreed with, as well as expanded upon, the predictions of W.E.B. Du Bois:

We might as well argue that the problem of the twenty-first century

will be the problem of ethnic differences, as these conspire with complex

differences in color, gender, and class.

In the same context, Gates pushes his argument further:

As actual cultural differences between social and ethnic groups are being

brought to bear to justify the subordination of one group by another,

the matter of multiculturalism becomes politically fraught. Until

these differences are understood in an era of emergent nationalism, the

challenge of mutual understanding among the world's multifarious

cultures will be the single greatest task that we face, after the failure of

the world to feed itself. (Gates, Loose Canons xii)

Gates has here introduced one of the most discussed, but also most overused and trivialized expressions of our time: multiculturalism. Many definitions of this term are possible; the one posited by the Afro-American scholar Gerald Early in 1993 is appropriate and comprehensive. Early places multiculturalism into the intellectual environment of postmodernism. and emphasizes the analytical and openly political actions which it necessitates:

Multiculturalism, as I have argued, is embedded in the postmodern

intellectual movement. Ethnic studies and women's studies programs

were indeed simple areas of opportunity for postmodernist intellectual

theories to make themselves felt in dethroning the narrative "assumptions"

of American education, simplistically conceived. On one

level, Afrocentrism and gynocentrism, for instance, are ways of "subverting"

(a popular postmodernist term) white male western "hegemony"....

Postmodernism's goal is to expose the bourgeois intellectual

order as inherently political and interested, as all political orders are,

in maintaining the set of social and political relations that give it both

authority and prestige. In short, what postmodernism, through submovements

such as gynocentrism and Afrocentrism, wishes to accomplish

is undermining bourgeois intellectualism's assumption about a

search for universal truth and the ideal of objectivity by arguing that

bourgeois intellectualism's fetishization of objectivity and universal

truth were illusions to mask its own quest for power by hiding the

epistemological roots of its own politicization. (Early, "Education"


One of the initial aims of multiculturalism, to critically investigate the cultural and political relations of individual peoples and races in the United States before a more appropriate national synthesis may be constructed, has recently not been limited exclusively to the social and political spheres. In fact, the creation of literary texts, as well as their critical reception and political role in society, have themselves become highly sensitive areas contributing to ethnic and racial conflict. …

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