Saturday, July 2, 2011

July 2-4, 2011: The Fourth Dimension

The main problem with the traditional (or Puritan, or Christian) narrative of American history and identity is not that it’s entirely inaccurate—the English settlers, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, were indeed hugely significant early arrivals to the Americas, and their experiences and ideas certainly helped shape our national identity as it developed over the next couple of centuries—but that it is extremely one-dimensional. Once we define America as beginning with this particular community, every other national attribute cannot help but follow from that starting point: English as our sole national language; Christianity as our national (perhaps not official, but certainly shared) religion; and so on. This is an idea of America that contains neither a broad awareness of the many communities that have constituted the nation nor a deep engagement with the complex national identity to which they have contributed.
The main problem with the multicultural narrative of American history and identity is not that it’s at all inaccurate—there have been indeed been a number of distinct cultural communities present in America since its origin, and each such culture represents a unique heritage (with its own languages, customs, beliefs, practices, and so on) that it behooves us to understand and celebrate—but that it is ultimately two-dimensional. Defining America as beginning with this wide range of communal presences engages well with the breadth of what we have been and continue to be, but far too often it entails seeing them as separate, as a number of distinct points that are not necessarily connected to one another in any meaningful ways—a problem that has been exacerbated by a tendency for this narrative to position the subjects of the traditional narrative in opposition to more multicultural communities and experiences. This idea of America thus still lacks sufficient depth, still does not work to engage with the possible, and vital, connections beneath its more broadly inclusive national surface.
The cross-cultural narrative of American history and identity on which my second book focuses is very much intended as a response to, and ideally a bridge between and thus path beyond, these two distinct but ultimately both limiting narratives. Identifying a shared and core set of experiences across America’s many cultures and communities, and moreover a set that focuses precisely on how those communities have encountered and interacted with and influence and ultimately defined each other and our collective whole, can, I hope, provide a third dimension, one that acknowledges the breadth of individual, distinct cultures but engages with the deep, defining links between them. But while I don’t believe there’s a main problem with this narrative per se—if I did, I hope I would have held off on publishing it until I had an answer!—it will be pretty useless if it can’t or doesn’t speak to Americans, and hear back from them.
So in honor of this first AmericanStudier 4th of July, I very sincerely ask for your help with that fourth dimension—for you to pass along this idea (whether in the form of this post or the info about my book, in the link below) somehow (whether to someone who might be interested, or by mentioning it on another website or online conversation). As always, I’d also love to hear your own voice and responses here (or by email,, if you’d rather do it that way); but I’d be just as grateful if you can help connect this idea outward into our national conversations in any way. Consider it an AmericanStudier birthday present! Thanks very much in advance, and more next week,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The Palgrave Macmillan page for my book:
2)      My favorite 4th of July oration, Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”:
3)      OPEN: You know what to do!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ben, I loved today's post. I've often heard people from other country's comment on how similar Black and Whites American observation we seem unable or unwilling to see from within. I'm sure similar observations could be made about other sub-groups. Anyway, sounds like the book is going to be great.