A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism

A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism

Christopher Douglas
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 384
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    A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism
    Book Description:

    As an anthropology student studying with Franz Boas, Zora Neale Hurston recorded African American folklore in rural central Florida, studied hoodoo in New Orleans and voodoo in Haiti, talked with the last ex-slave to survive the Middle Passage, and collected music from Jamaica. Her ethnographic work would serve as the basis for her novels and other writings in which she shaped a vision of African American Southern rural folk culture articulated through an antiracist concept of culture championed by Boas: culture as plural, relative, and long-lived. Meanwhile, a very different antiracist model of culture learned from Robert Park's sociology allowed Richard Wright to imagine African American culture in terms of severed traditions, marginal consciousness, and generation gaps.

    In A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism, Christopher Douglas uncovers the largely unacknowledged role played by ideas from sociology and anthropology in nourishing the politics and forms of minority writers from diverse backgrounds. Douglas divides the history of multicultural writing in the United States into three periods. The first, which spans the 1920s and 1930s, features minority writers such as Hurston and D'Arcy McNickle, who were indebted to the work of Boas and his attempts to detach culture from race.

    The second period, from 1940 to the mid-1960s, was a time of assimilation and integration, as seen in the work of authors such as Richard Wright, Jade Snow Wong, John Okada, and Ralph Ellison, who were influenced by currents in sociological thought. The third period focuses on the writers we associate with contemporary literary multiculturalism, including Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday, Frank Chin, Ishmael Reed, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Douglas shows that these more recent writers advocated a literary nationalism that was based on a modified Boasian anthropology and that laid the pluralist grounds for our current conception of literary multiculturalism.

    Ultimately, Douglas's "unified field theory" of multicultural literature brings together divergent African American, Asian American, Mexican American, and Native American literary traditions into one story: of how we moved from thinking about groups as races to thinking about groups as cultures-and then back again.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5852-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Multiculturalism’s Cultural Revolution
    (pp. 1-20)

    A spectacular articulation of our current paradigm of multiculturalism comes at the end of Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible. Its occasion is a visit, by the three surviving and reunited Price sisters, to the royal palace at Abomey, the ancient seat of the kingdom of Dahomey, now a UNESCO world heritage site and a famous tourist attraction. One of its kings constructed his section of the palace with slaves’ blood rather than water in the mud walls; he was also buried with forty-one of his wives—that is, he was buried dead but they alive. For one sister,...

  5. Chapter 1 Zora Neale Hurston, D’Arcy McNickle, and the Culture of Anthropology
    (pp. 21-59)

    Zora Neale Hurston was part of the paradigm shift from racial anthropology to cultural anthropology. In the spring of 1926, her caliper exercises in Harlem were part of the work of refuting racial thinking, for which Herskovits credits Hurston in his 1928 report The American Negro, and his 1930 study The Anthropometry of the American Negro.¹ But Hurston did several important anthropology “jobs” in the years that followed. These included collecting African American folklore in rural central Florida, studying hoodoo in New Orleans and voodoo in Haiti, talking with the last ex-slave to survive the Middle Passage and collecting music...

  6. Chapter 2 Richard Wright, Robert Park, and the Literature of Sociology
    (pp. 60-96)

    Hurston’s famous August 11, 1955, letter to the Orlando Sentinel is a strange document, at once an anticommunist screed and a diatribe against the NAACP and its legal accomplishments in overturning segregation (see Kaplan 738–40). At its heart, however, is really Hurston’s opposition to the element of Boas’s anthropology that Hurston rejected: the implication that in contact with a larger, more powerful culture, members of smaller cultures would gradually desire to adopt the practices and values of the dominant one. Hurston opposed Brown v. Board of Education not solely because of its implication for black educational institutions (some of...

  7. Chapter 3 Jade Snow Wong, Ralph Ellison, and Desegregation
    (pp. 97-127)

    Thus far I have concentrated on the African American literary tradition, with a brief foray into Native American letters represented by D’Arcy McNickle. My more substantial turn in this chapter and the next to the Asian American literary tradition requires some explanation. It is my argument that a dynamic contest among rival models of culture marked what I am calling the first phase of the genealogy of literary multiculturalism, which generally begins with anthropological culture’s challenge to racial conceptions of group difference, and ends with the growing challenge to anthropological culture of sociological culture, whose dominance characterizes the second phase...

  8. Chapter 4 John Okada and the Sociology of Internment
    (pp. 128-157)

    “If we are children of America and not the sons and daughters of our parents, it is because you have failed.” Such is the “message of great truth” offered by a young sociologist on a visit, of all places, to an internment camp during World War II in John Okada’s No-No Boy (125). This Japanese American sociologist, newly returned from graduate work “at a famous Eastern school” (124) lectures the older generation of Japanese Americans on not understanding their children. “How many of you,” the sociologist asks, “are able to sit down with your own sons and own daughters and...

  9. Chapter 5 Américo Paredes and the Folklore of the Border
    (pp. 158-183)

    In the summer of 1954, Américo Paredes collected 363 ballads and other songs from the Mexican American communities of the Lower Border area in South Texas. Brown v. Board of Education was only weeks old—it had been announced on May 17th of that year. John Okada was nearly finished writing No-No Boy, and Jade Snow Wong had toured Asia the year before to talk about Fifth Chinese Daughter. Ralph Ellison had won the National Book Award for Invisible Man the year before; N. Scott Momaday, another Southwesterner, would shortly attend the University of Virginia Law School, where he would...

  10. Chapter 6 Toni Morrison, Frank Chin, and Cultural Nationalisms, 1965–1975
    (pp. 184-219)

    Américo Paredes’s anthropology was a residual formation during the integrationist second phase of racialized minority literature (1940–1965), but it also anticipated the turn to anthropology’s culture characteristic of the cultural nationalisms developed in the following decade, nationalisms that went on to lay the foundations for our current paradigm of literary multiculturalism. As I will show in these next four chapters, these cultural nationalisms in the African American, Asian American, Native American, and Chicano traditions were instantiated through a double gesture of refuting assimilationist sociology and returning to the Boasian principles of cultural anthropology that had enabled authors like Zora...

  11. Chapter 7 N. Scott Momaday: Blood and Identity
    (pp. 220-259)

    In N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, the Jemez Pueblo protagonist Abel returns to his grandfather’s home in Walatowa, New Mexico, from fighting in the European theater in the Second World War. It is July 1945. The war in Europe is over and the war in the Pacific approaching its end. Ichiro is still in prison for saying No twice, and unreleased as yet are Ichiro’s parents, and Monica Sone’s parents from their concentration camp in Minidoka, Idaho. Jade Snow Wong is still working in the shipping industry, shortly to begin her pottery business in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Ralph...

  12. Chapter 8 Ishmael Reed and the Search for Survivals
    (pp. 260-285)

    Part of what was at stake for N. Scott Momaday’s work between 1967 and 1976, roughly coterminous with the cultural nationalism marking the first decade of the emerging paradigm of multiculturalism, was the problem of formulating a model for and substance of cultural continuity across many generations. That search for continuity was at stake for Momaday as a Kiowa, for his characters Abel as a Bahkyush and Ben as a Navajo, and it was no less true for the Mashpee trial that James Clifford examined in his essay in a decade in which multiculturalism was consolidated, even as it faced...

  13. Chapter 9 Gloria Anzaldúa, Aztlán, and Aztec Survivals
    (pp. 286-306)

    Although Ma Kilman, “sibyl,” has not learned the names of the African gods who crossed the Atlantic with the enslaved Africans, she nonetheless carries their sound in “the rivers of her blood,” and it is through their continued presence in the Caribbean that she finds the cure for Philoctete’s wound, a metaphor in Walcott’s poem for the ongoing destruction and (incomplete) cultural erasure wrought by historical slavery. The cure is enabled by a cultural survival somewhat like Reed’s—the enduring presence of African gods in the New World—and that is, again like Reed’s, manifested not so much historically but...

  14. Conclusion: The Multicultural Complex and the Incoherence of Literary Multiculturalism
    (pp. 307-326)

    In Imperceptible Mutabilities, the Naturalist sets loose some giant fake cockroaches, equipped with hidden cameras, in the kitchen of two African Americans. Gathering data about his subjects, he imagines the act of observation as itself invisible to his research group. The point of such knowledge will occur to “an inquisitive observer”: how do these minority subjects fit into American modernity? Problematically, “our subjects” devote a good deal of their “natural” conversation to discussing the abnormal size of the cockroaches, and how they strangely do not run when threatened. Parks captures the modern social science fantasy of being able to “observe...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 327-344)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 345-362)
  17. Index
    (pp. 363-372)