american ethnic literature essay

american ethnic literature essay

Exploring the Rich Tapestry of American Ethnic Literature

1. Introduction to American Ethnic Literature

American Ethnic Literature includes literature by and about Americans of Asian, African, Hispanic, and Native American heritage. It embraces, then, the peoples native to the United States; those brought here as slaves, a condition minimized by many thinking Americans; those whose ancestors immigrated north from the Caribbean, south from Mexico, and west from Central and South America; and those who remain novices by American standards of number and years. As subjects for literature, these peoples amply repay study. Their variety is endless: no two among them are alike in every detail, but each is a fascinating illustration of the uniqueness of human adaptation to the special turnings of human experience. Their historical, religious, political, and social contexts are varied, each offering a special set of cultural forces that keep the community shaped in its special mold. Each community produces its literature, providing valuable portraits of its components. These portraits, when unified, provide a composite nationality whose fascinating contours are far more advantageous than those of a melting pot in which all distinctions are indiscriminately fused.

What, exactly, does it mean to be a member of an ethnic group? Of course, virtually everyone belongs to a specific ethnic group, in the broadest sense of the term. Yet in our concern for ethnic identity, we often use this term much more narrowly, to distinguish and identify the very different specific cultural or racial groupings all linked by a tradition of common values, history, symbols, language, and customs. We tend to think of ethnic as a concept which is both narrower and more significant than its literal meaning. The ethnic groups within our American population represent an extraordinary variety of peoples and cultures. Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Island Americans and others of the over twenty-three major ethnic groups live, work, and struggle in America today. They have come directly as immigrants from other lands or have ancestors who did so. As members of specific ethnic groups in America, they have struggled to maintain their own common heritage while they have also become acculturated into mainstream American life. Many achievements, problems, and concerns are ethnically related, as are the organizations and associations designed to address these concerns and provide solutions.

2. Key Themes and Motifs in American Ethnic Literature

A thread common to all ethnic literature is the American dream confronted by a group’s struggle to survive as citizens in a society in which they have not always had full legal rights nor the authoritarianism and honesty of humanism that protect an individual’s survival and cultural persistence as a distinct personality. Ethnic writers use all the themes found in the human experience – rejection, self-hatred, upward mobility, love, marriage, joy, and creativity. Certainly, the beliefs allowed to be taught and disseminated affect the structure of the society in which we live. Literature provides a friend’s counsel and threatens the order. The main figures have suffered visible transgressions and material injustice in the society. The protagonists now have the assets to attract the reader’s attention. Their beauty, mystery, spiritual strength, tender passion, and defense against despair are qualities that change an anonymous human figure into an individual example worth experiencing, in print, anyway.

American ethnic literature is one of the strongest ways in which people of diverse backgrounds establish common bonds and cross bridges together. What is it that we have in common as human beings, not based on race, gender, and ethnicity, but what are common human experiences and shared social and historical conditions that hold us together as members of the human race? About thirty years ago, around 1966, in fact, literary scholars began to ask these questions of American literature. The result is what is now labeled ethnic literature, literature that has as its central purpose in showing the major human relevance and centrality of those groups labeled ethnic; literature with the aim of showing that these writers do possess an uncommon ethnic vision. Consequently, literature that shows the special contributions of all the collective experiences of the nation’s diverse voices to define the total experience of humanity as well as vice versa.

3. Notable Authors and Works in American Ethnic Literature

To compile anthologies of multiethnic authors, teachers should refer to works such as “Contemporary Creative Nonfiction” by Michael Martone and Robert Root and “Fiction of the Emerging Nations” by Alfred J. Cuzan. “Children of Many Cultures,” edited by Lucy M. Faucette, enables teachers and librarians to learn about the most popular children’s writers. Finally, the loose-leaf educator-magazine series, “Teaching the Multicultural Literature of the United States,” and the folios from the National Council of Teachers of English can also be very supportive. Finally, we cannot forget the methodological importance of “More Room” by Arthur Saltzman and “Ethnic Ground” by Mary Pat Tildesley. They are the ideal place for learning to teach in a literary manner numerous ethnic and ethnic writer situations.

For African American literature, some important works include Phillis Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” which was published in 1773; Frederick Douglass’s autobiography from 1845; and Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” published in 1977. Chinese American and Japanese American literature both have some works of memoirs and oral history that gained attention after World War II. Examples of contemporary interest in Japanese American literature include the works of sisters Cynthia Kadohata and Kristi Yamaguchi. Through their sports and picture books, they also introduce young readers to the world of Japanese culture. For Latino literature, children should know and nowadays most of them do know Cesar E. Chavez, his struggle, and his memoirs. A milestone of American Indian literature is Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel “Ceremony.” After the 1970s, the success of Indian author Louise Erdrich with “Love Medicine” put the genre on the contemporary literary map and opened the path to a modern and multicultural world for other writers.

4. Impact and Significance of American Ethnic Literature in Society

The realization that America contains people of many colors and heritages is gradually beginning to take hold. Literature can and has played an important role in advancing this recognition. The declaration that the ethnic literature, like the people who created it, is an integral part of the American tapestry can be better considered when one examines the historical roots, goals, relevancy, and current cultural impact of the many groups that now live in the United States. Over a hundred of ethnic groups live beside each other on the North American continent and writers on this area have described them in a variety of ways. Some have described the people in terms of Americanization, others in terms of the process of adjustment, and others simply in their visible differences.

Throughout the centuries, Americans have shared the struggle of putting into words the grief, racial tolerance, inequality, and the respect and acceptance level that is part of ethnic identity. This is the larger context within which to view the specific goals and dreams of Native American, African, Hispanic American, Asian American, and Jewish American ethnic literature. The majority of a multi-ethnic society have gradually come to understand, accept, and appreciate this diversity that is America. It is recognized that regardless of ethnic background, all Americans and indeed all people on this globe have much in common and share many universal ideas and images. Unfortunately, the gap is still great between how far ethnicity have come with literature as a bridge to understanding and tolerance and the actual on mutual respect that Americans have for one another.

5. Future Directions and Trends in American Ethnic Literature

It is towards this emerging distinctiveness that emerging voices in American Ethnic Literature appear to gravitate. The legacy of early ethnic literature is not lost. But the current critical rejection of assimilation into Eurocentric society – including a popular work, Beyond the Melting Pot, of the late sixties – signals new visions from the newly emerging ethnic authors and critics. With the publication of the 1994 Modern American Women Writers, women authors contribute promising works in every ethnic background, foundational Seminar and Symposium settings: the United States. Ethnic women authors may well be the key to further change in America’s Eurocentric-author based school literature textbooks. In addition, the continually cited need for non-gender-biased textbooks along with the pressing need for an America-based world literature mirrors the evolution of literature by authors of African background subjected to the importation of African texts into an American background found in anthropology accompanied by a later pressure applied by popular folklore collections (primarily African (Primarily Ghanaian) to counter the biased, insensitive undergraduate American (and British) introductions to course texts. Women authors included in some collections but lacking in others comprise part of this public pressure. With increasing mainstream publication availability, the question remains as to when this radical departure of Other, ethnic literature reference in the university-sponsored events will finally enter course texts, and may it coexist with traditional text selections?

The future of American Ethnic Literature will be tied not only to the growth of ethnic communities within the United States, but also to the growth and development of ethnic identity within the larger American society and within the context of world literature. The lines defining ethnicity will only blur more with the passage of time as communities identify with a host of cultures and ethnic backgrounds. The fall of the Soviet Union and, more recently, the mass expulsion of people of Hmong or Bosnian ethnicity from their homeland will help displace America’s melting pot from art forms and the role of this ethnic literature will continue to evolve into its own distinct category.

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