Multiculturalism and Political Narratives
by Paul Lauter

The development of multiculturalism offers many significant parallels to the history of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's. Both had to do, at least initially, with exclusion. The essence of the Jim Crow system was to exclude black people--from the front of the bus, from the separate and superior whites-only waiting rooms, clubs, and hotels, from most of the amenities of southern life. In many states of the old South, Jim Crow practices excluded black children from schools which taught algebra or a foreign language or lab sciences, or which had new books or classrooms. Critically, segregation excluded African-Americans from the ballot box in counties with names like Amite or Lowndes. Then, such exclusion was enforced by tools like rope, faggot, and pogrom; today, the tools are often culturally defined: hate speech, campus minstrel shows, swastikas on synagogue walls, fraternity gang rapes. Or, more subtly, the parental gesture of contempt read by the child, the stereotypes reinforced by the evening news, the unseen fence banning "them" from "our" neighborhood, the soft resistance which would never oppose desegregating American society, only programs that might actually produce change.

Then, black life and black people were also excluded from culture--or at least what was called "culture" when I was in school prior to the Civil Rights movement. I studied literature at New York University, Indiana University, and Yale during the 1950's. In all my English courses, I read only three black writers--and I don't have to offer a prize to help readers guess who they were-and not very many more women, all white. I never read a work by an Asian-American (or an Asian for that matter), an Hispanic, an American Indian--or any woman of color. Indeed, the first black woman writer I ever read, Paule Marshall, was recommended to me by a fellow participant in the 1964 Mississippi Summer project. Similarly, as an undergraduate, I minored in music. I studied Gregorian chant as well as Schubert songs and Mahler lieder (which we also sang). But we never touched upon "spirituals," much less Bop, to which I listened under my bedcovers, lest my parents hear and disapprove. Needless to say, I never heard of corridos--indeed, my idea of Mexican culture was "In My Adobe Hacienda." As a matter of fact, Spanish was altogether a declassé language in the middle-class community where I grew up; proper kids studied French.

Just as, in the first instance, the Civil Rights movement was a movement for inclusion, so the multicultural movement has in its initial stages been one of inclusion. The Civil Rights movement said "we want access"--access to decent schools, to public accommodations, to the front of the bus, and especially to jobs and the vote. So the multicultural movement has called for access, access to the full range of the cultures of the United States, not just to pieces of our heritage. Like the Civil Rights movement, multiculturalism is not about separation and its consequence, exclusion. Rather, it is about inclusion and what can emerge from inclusion: a real unity. A delusory unity can, of course, be produced through exclusion, by disappearing the others, as was often the practice in our history. A true unity, by contrast, emerges not from rivalry and hatred, nor from the demand for assimilation on someone else's terms, but out of mutual respect which accounts difference as a source of power rather than disruption.

Still, is "inclusion" really enough? The American Federation of Teachers recently passed a resolution on multicultural education; in part, it reads as follows:

But without knowledge of the many streams that nourish the general society, the "mainstream" cannot be properly studied or understood. This is why our children need a multicultural curriculum, one in which the contributions and roles of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and other minorities are fairly and accurately depicted, and one in which the history of non-Western societies is part of the required curriculum. . . . [We] do not want a curriculum in which each culture is merely allocated its share of sidebars and fragments. We need a cohesive, inclusive curriculum in which the main story--how we built this nation and its pluralistic institutions--is understood to have been the work of many different people of diverse races, classes, and religions. . .

Now this is quite fine, especially if one adds gender to the last sentence, and it may seem ungrateful to quibble. Yet there is a certain problem in emphasizing understanding the "mainstream" as the goal and focusing only on "contributions and roles" of those presumably not from the "mainstream." For these emphases have generally led to an additive approach. And merely adding has produced precisely the "sidebars" the resolution deplores, a marginalization of the lives and cultures of "minorities." At best, this form of "inclusion" has left the fundamental structures of curricula and textbooks unchanged; at worst, it represents what in the Civil Rights movement was called tokenism. "Hire a real dark one, " as they said in some banks, "and seat him near the door."

Simple inclusion is inadequate because the lives and cultures of those previously marginalized cannot be brought into an unchanged structure. You cannot simply "include" black people and leave the structures of apartheid in South Africa intact. No more could you "include" black Mississippians and maintain the structures of segregation. For structures are never neutral. They reflect, embody, and perpetuate differences in power. And that is as true of cultural structures as it is of economic and political structures. The political economy of Poland, as structured by the old Stalinist regimes, could not simply "include" Solidarity and what it represented. The structures themselves had to be fundamentally modified, indeed dismantled.

No more can the old structures of textbooks and curricula simply be stretched to "include" what the term multiculturalism represents. The structures, the textbooks, the curricula, the major requirements, the graduate school reading lists, the theoretical bases of cultural study must themselves change. Not to undertake such fundamental changes is equivalent to studying Arawak culture yet to continue talking about how Columbus "discovered" them, or to use "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (however charming it remains) as one's main model for a story. New wine cracks old bottles.

There is another problem associated with simply including the "contributions and roles" of various groups. Lurking in such terms is often an assumption about the absolute, inherent difference between the "mainstream," over here, and those groups, over there. Further, this paradigm sets the "others" altogether apart from one another, as if they were dertermined by some inborn essence. This line of thought leads to a simplistic form of identity cultural politics: "only my grandmother has the correct recipe for tsimis and kugle," "only mi abuela knows how to make the tortillas right."

The logic of this position makes teaching--and learning, too--impossible. For it argues that only if you are already X can you know what is inherently X's to know. There are, indeed, some who claim to advocate multiculturalism who take this or similar positions, though it strikes me that their goal is less multiculturalism than multiseparation. Opponents of multiculturalism often associate all of its advocates with such positions, and I want to be very clear that, on the contrary, most multiculturalists find such essentialism culturally naive and politically dangerous. Still, such views are rooted in a critically important observation: that most complex societies today, like that of the United States, are constituted by persons with very different "subject positions." It makes a significant difference where one is coming from, even if the differences are not absolute. What underlies these differences, however, is not essence but history, not genes but experience. These differences in historical experience have altogether been submerged in the critiques of what some opponents, like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., call "multiculturalism." Schlesinger argues in a recent little book (The Disuniting of America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.) for teaching not the multicultural curriculum proposed by a New York State Board of Regents committee, but rather a curriculum much more focused on what he asserts unifies American. In Schlesinger's rhetoric, all multiculturalism is assimilable to Afrocentrism, and all Afrocentrism to the strange notions of Professor Leonard Jeffries. On the other side of his bipolar work, Schlesinger charts the development of what he calls the "American Creed" through a kind of historical canon, a series of foreign commentators, beginning with J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, through Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, James Bryce's The American Commonwealth, to Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, with Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot thrown in, it may be, for immigrant color. He begins with Crevecoeur's famous comment that "The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men." And he emphasizes the function of that American Creed in "banishing old loyalties and forging a new national identity," e pluribus unum. This sense of national unity Schlesinger sees as threatened by the new, disuniting force of multiculturalism, especially in its Afrocentric manifestations, which in his words, "threatens to become a counter-revolution against the original theory of America as `one people,' a common culture, a single nation."

It is useful as an antidote to Schlesinger's overheated polemic to return to Crevecoeur's remark about "individuals of all nations" being "melted into a new race of men." Which nations, precisely? Crevecoeur has an answer, quoted but, interestingly, not commented upon by Schlesinger. The men, Crevecoeur says, are "a mixture of English, Scotch,Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes." "All nations?" Decidedly not, Crevecoeur makes clear, Africans, the natives of the Americas, or even the Catholic Spanish and Portugese. Nor, indeed, women of any stock, for Crevecoeur writes consciously of males here, not of people. To mark Crevecoeur's omissions--which are obviously products of his own time and culture--is immediately to note the sharp limitations of Schlesinger's narrative, which is an artifact of our own.

One might, in fact, construct an oppositional narrative beginning with what this Crevecoeur passage omits, including his description a couple of chapters later of a slave in a cage being pecked to death as a punishment, including also the Constitution's provisions regarding slavery, Jefferson's comments on black people in his Notes on the State of Virginia and Phillis Wheatley's poem "To the University, in Cambridge," perhaps David Walker's Appeal and Frederick Douglass' speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," Frances Harper's "Aunt Chloe's Politics," Charles Chesnutt's "The Passing of Grandison," and approaching our 20th-century world by way of Langston Hughes' "I, too, America" and two speeches, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" and Malcolm X's "Ballot or Bullet." Such a narrative--shall we call it "Afrocentric"?--tells a very different but equally American story from the one Schlesinger constructs out of his exemplary texts. To be sure, this narrative would be incomplete and flawed if it did not account for the sustained power of Schlesinger's version of American history, but it has its own integrity.

From the perspective of this oppositional narrative, Schlesinger's celebration of unum above all may be seen as simplistic, if not kind of dishonest. But that's too negative. I would rather say that in this new, multicultural light, Schlesinger's account will be seen as only one narrative. It is a powerful narrative, to be sure, one with a long and honorable historiographic pedigree. Yet and still, it is a partial, incomplete and flawed narrative--a piece of "mainstream" ideology. Furthermore, it's boring. What it omits in all its high dudgeon is the joy of America's great experiment in continuing to balance unum and pluribus, in sustaining the values of difference even while creating and recreating new forms of union. It misses the spirit--and, I think, the wisdom--with which Walt Whitman proclaimed:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear. . . .

Each singing what belongs to him or to her and to none else. . . .

Whitman's choral image, his perception that each voice, each group, brings what is uniquely its own and equally necessary to the chorus which is America seems to me a more accurate and useful way of thinking about our society than Schlesinger's bifurcation of unum and pluribus or the "mainstream"/branch metaphor that has haunted our cultural criticism.

It is not, I need to emphasize, that the texts Schlesinger mentions are racially insensitive; quite the contrary. But he uses them to construct a particular story about America, the melting-pot narrative, which marginalizes the authority of other, more conflicted, or even differently harmonized, stories one might wish to teach or to learn about.

To examine a significant example of conflicted narratives which have been reduced to false unity, one might consult Cary Nelson's important book Repression and Recovery (Wisconsin, 1990). I want to offer a brief related example here. Our general understanding of modernist literature is that it is, and should be, difficult. That difficulty, we learned, necessarily inhered in its form, its language. The classic statement of this view is contained in T. S. Eliot's essay "The Metaphysical Poets":

. . . it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

Eliot goes on to provide a historical root for his theory in the practice of the "metaphysical poets," then rather out of fashion. This conception of poetic value, as well as the historical narrative that links it to British and French predecessors, emerged from the twenties as the dominant idea of what modern literature should be. Modernism, thus construed, developed enormous cachet throughout the western literary world, and particularly in the academy, where its systems of allusion, indirection, and dislocation gave value, or at least a rationale, to our work as literary historians and critics.

But if one accepts this conception of modernism, what can one make of a poem like Countee Cullen's "Incident"?:


Once riding in old Baltimore,

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked out

His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December;

Of all the things that happened there

That's all that I remember.

The poem's "difficulty" has little to do with language, allusion, or indirection. To be sure, it brilliantly utilizes the form of a nursery rhyme to set up the intrusive power of the word "Nigger" into the child's world. Its "difficulty," however, has to do with how it introduces social reality, and therefore discord, into reading. It seems to me that Eliot's conception of modernism necessarily marginalizes Cullen's poem; or, contrariwise, if one uses the term "modernist" to describe "Incident," Eliot's theory must begin to crumble.

In fact, as one reexamines what was being written during the period in which Eliot, Pound, and their associates established a certain hegemony over critical discourse, one discovers not only very distinct forms of poetic practice, but diverse theories and historical narratives as well. My favorite examples are provided by two poems. The first is Amy Lowell's "The Sisters" (1925)--which I certainly wish to include in the next edition of the Heath Anthology. In this poem, one of whose first lines is "we're a queer lot/ We women who write poetry," Lowell constructs her own literary family tree. These forebears--Sappho, Mrs., Browning, and Emily ("Miss") Dickinson--provide her with a pedigree, with support, with voices to imitate and also to respond to, members of "one family" but each unique and each with an "answer" different from Lowell's own. The other poem is Sterling Brown's "Strong Men":

Strong Men

The young men keep coming on.

The strong men keep coming on.


They dragged you from homeland,

They chained you in coffles,

They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,

They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

They broke you in like oxen,

They scourged you,

They branded you,

They made your women breeders,

They swelled your numbers with bastards. . . .

They taught you the religion they disgraced.

You sang:

Keep a-inchin' along

Lak a po' inch worm. . . .

You sang:

Bye and bye

I'm gonna lay down dis heaby

load. . . .

You sang:

Walk togedder, chillen,

Dontcha git weary. . . .

The strong men keep a-comin' on

The strong men git stronger.

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said--Drive so much before sundown.

You sang:

Ain't no hammah

In dis lan'

Strikes lak mine, bebby,

Strikes lak mine.

They cooped you in their kitchens,

They penned you in their factories,

They gave you the jobs that they were too good for,

They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves
By shunting dirt and misery to you.

You sang:

Me an' muh baby gonna shine

Me an' muh baby gonna shine.

The strong men keep a-comin' on

The strong men git strong. . . .

They bought off some of your leaders

You stumbled, as blind men will. . . .

They coaxed you, unwontedly soft- voiced. . . .

You followed a way.

Then laughed as usual.

They heard the laugh and wondered;


Unadmitting a deeper terror. . . .

The strong men keep a-comin' on

Gittin' stronger. . . .

What, from the slums

Where they have hemmed you,

What, from the tiny huts

They could not keep from you--

What reaches them

Making them ill at ease, fearful?

Today they shout prohibition at you

"Thou shalt not this"

"Thou shalt not that"

"Reserved for whites only"

One thing they cannot prohibit--

The strong men. . . coming on

The strong men gittin' stronger.

Strong men. . . .

Stronger. . .

Both of these poems express conceptions of poetry as well as historical points of reference radically different from Eliot's as well as from each other. In the classroom these differences make the poems excellent material for comparative teaching. In particular, the three works taken together enable students to ask whether the speakers are speaking to them or to some other assumed reader, how such a reader is constructed, toward what ends, and how such varied poetic practice derives from and informs varied theoretical positions.

Moreover--and this returns me to the central point of this essay--a cultural narrative is embedded in each of these poems. Lowell traces her roots, if not exactly her poetic practice, to Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson, hardly players in Eliot's metaphysical history. Brown implicitly links his verse to the spirituals, work-song, and blues of African-American social history. That history, moreover, informs the specific allusions of his poems. These differences in historical narrative, translated into curricular terms, argue that what one has to know to read Eliot richly is significantly different from what one needs to know to read Lowell, and that in turn is different from what one needs to know to read Brown.

This perception, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the multiculturalist argument. It does not deny the value--though it may question the values--of Eliot's work, nor of the cultural history which informs that work. But it also asserts that the narrative Eliot constructs is but one among the competing literary narratives of the modernist period. And that it would be educationally irresponsible to leave our students less capable of reading Sterling Brown and Countee Cullen, as well as Amy Lowell, than of reading Eliot or Pound.

To be sure, there are those who will argue that it is, indeed, more worthwhile for students to know Eliot and Pound well, than Brown, Cullen, and Lowell. "Aren't they greater poets?" Frankly, I'm not sure of the answer to that question--even if I were clear about what one might mean by "greater," or for whom, when, and for what. The problem is that our training as English teachers has so accustomed us to assume the literary values expressed by high modernism that we can hardly see, much less weigh, alternatives. The virtue to me of posing alternative cultural narratives is that the process forces us to reconsider such assumptions in the fresh light brought by our students' and our own new responses. Perhaps at the end of this process we will better be able to reassess the value claims posed by an essay like "The Metaphysical Poets" and deeply embedded in much of our literary training. In the meantime, however, it seems to me both honest and invigorating to bring back into our classrooms the contests among cultural narratives that seem, like the contests among political narratives, increasingly unsettled.

Contents, No. VII