Friday, April 15, 2011
April 15, 2011: What Would Change 4, The Melting Pot
[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
Multicultural scholars and writers have long recognized a central, if very inconvenient, truth about the ideal of the melting pot: that while in the official narrative of that concept every arrival to America (from everywhere) goes into the pot and comes out part of a new, combinatory identity that isn’t like (or at least isn’t the same as) any of them, in the most commonly constructed versions of that narrative the formula has been quite different; in those, everybody who isn’t an Anglo-American goes into the pot and comes out closer to that Anglo-American culture and identity. After all, if, as I argued a couple posts ago, we often mean “Anglo-” or at least “white American” when we say “All-American” (for example), that would certainly likewise imply that the Americans whom the melting pot produces are similarly linked to that specific and very limiting idea of a dominant national culture and identity. For this reason, one of multicultural’s central tenets has long been the need to reject the melting pot narrative in favor of other possibilities: one popular alternative has been the stew pot, in which the ingredients remain more distinct and all contribute to the flavor.
I agree entirely about what the melting pot has meant in practice far too much of the time, but would also argue that the stew pot narrative and its ilk don’t emphasize nearly enough the complicated mixture of ingredients that has not only defined America from its beginnings, but likewise changed entirely each individual ingredient. I will admit that I haven’t quite worked out a pitch-perfect alternative image through which to capture my idea of cross-cultural transformation, but one possibility would be a stained-glass window: such a window is indeed composed of colored pieces that begin with individual and separate identities, but the beauty and power of the window lies precisely in the combination, in the way in which the colors work together and influence each other and create an overall effect that would be impossible without the full, interconnected whole. And, of course, a stained-glass window’s beauty is only truly apparent, or at least can only truly be perceived and appreciated, when the light hits it—and of course I believe that the light of a new and more complex historical and national understanding is vitally important for all Americans if we are to perceive and celebrate our true communal identity and possibility, and hope in my small way to have contributed to that process with this book.
More this weekend, a tribute post in honor of a very special occasion.