Literature as Engagement: Teaching African American Literature to Korean Students

By Kim, Myung Ja | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Literature as Engagement: Teaching African American Literature to Korean Students


Kim, Myung Ja, MELUS


Teaching African American literature to Korean students has special cultural implications regarding Koreans' perception of and attitudes toward African Americans, especially after the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Although many of the problems which caused the riots derived from the racial history of the United States, the media played an influential role in focusing upon and contributing toward creating and perpetuating the myth of Black-Korean conflict, which Elaine Kim rightly termed "another case of visual media racism" in her Newsweek article soon after the riots. Kim claimed that the media "diverted attention away from a long tradition of racial violence that was not created by African-Americans or Korean-Americans" and the so-called Black-Korean problem is "a decontextualized manifestation of a much larger problem." During and after the riots, the major media and some European Americans discussed the conflicts as if they were watching a "dogfight" or a "boxing match" (E. Kim, "Home" 3) (1) which enraged many Koreans.

These attitudes remind me of the "battle royal" scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, in which young blindfolded "shines" are forced to fight against each other in the ring and later struggle for the prize money of fake gold coins on the electrified mat for the amusement of the white audience (27). The parties in conflict at the end of the twentieth century are the so-called "problem people," the Blacks and some Asian horde, pitted against each other "over the crumbs of a broken society" (E. Kim, "Self-Defense"). Like the boys in the battle royal scene, both groups are blindfolded symbolically with "white cloth"; instead of hitting the white audience who put them in the ring, African Americans attack and scapegoat Koreans as "middleman minorities" (Pyong Gap Min, qtd. in Chang and Diaz-Veizades 35). This view is supported by Cornel West, a leading African American scholar and activist, who points out in his interview with me on Black-Korean relations that "they [African Americans] strike out at those [Korean Americans] who are closest to them and those whom they view as a symbol of power which they do not have" (M. Kim 316).

Without acknowledging the real source of their bitterness, Korean Americans and African Americans were represented as being at war as both victims and perpetrators of violence against one another during and after the Los Angeles riots which were termed "America's first multi-ethnic riots" (Chang and Diaz-Veizades 6). What could be done to improve the bad relations between these two communities caused by a bitter portrayal of misunderstanding and hatred? As Amritjit Singh pointed out in his "Op-Ed" piece in the Chicago Tribune after the riots, "we need to fight not one another, but against discriminatory practices such as redlining which have hindered minorities" (27). Singh also suggested that "by learning more about the long experience of Blacks and Native Americans in fighting discrimination, all Asian American immigrants might develop a sense of responsible connection to the national history they embrace through their new citizenship" (27). This corresponds with the views of Ronald Takaki, who called for new urgency in the pursuit of a more accurate history: "what is lacking is historical context.... How can African Americans and Korean Americans work it out unless they learn about each other's cultures, histories, and also economic situations?" (5).

The outcome of the riots painfully reminded us how ignorant different racial or ethnic groups are of each other's history and culture, and this ignorance hinders the coalition among colored peoples because "the conflict between ethnic groups can be conceptualized as developing in the 'border zones' where the two cultures meet, intermingle, and sometimes clash" (William Tierney, qtd. in Chang and Diaz-Veizades 38). The result of a survey of African American and Korean American perceptions of inter-group relations, conducted by Edward Chang and Jeannette Diaz-Veizades, proves this. …

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