We are pleased to welcome one of the finest writers of our time, African/American, Ishmael Reed, poet, fiction writer, essayist, novelist, editor and critic, to the pages of our first “Guest Spot.” This feature, will appear in ongoing issues of VIA, in a spirit of cross-cultural intercultural exchange. It will include writers of poetry and prose who, though part of the American mainstream, offer something special and original from their ethnic or racial roots. Ishmael Reed’s “America: The Multinational Society” is chosen as the perfect essay for launching our new multicultural guest spot, as it expresses the philosophy with which this feature has been instituted for the pleasure and edification of our readers. To our next issue we will welcome poetry contributed by Amiri Baraka, one of America’s most distinguished poet playwrights, along with Leo Connellan, accomplished American poet, an Irish New Englander of original voice and consummate endeavor. These writers have helped to forge a Renaissance of writing within their own sub-cultures even as they have contributed a pioneering originality to American letters. Ishmael Reed, born 1938, in Chattanooga Tennessee, is a founding board member of The Before Columbus Foundation which seeks to promote “ethnic” American literature and offers The American Book Awards for the advancement of multicultural literature. Mr. Reed has been a supportive pioneer of the current intercultural movement within American letters. His work has contributed greatly to establishing ethnic voices and names in the mainstream of our culture. A Fellow of Calhoun House, Yale University, 1983, he serves as an associate editor for The American Book Review. Reed is a recipient of an award from The National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1975; The National Endowment for the Arts, 1974; and a Guggenhiem Fellow, 1975. He has served as a chairman for the Berkeley Council on the Arts, and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. A major force in the advancement of African/ American literature, as well as other ethnic literatures, he has written many astute and controversial novels, collections of poetry, and essays, among them the highly recommended: Writin’ Is Fightin’ (© 1988 by Ishmael Reed, Atheneum Publishers, Macmillan, NY), from which America: The Multinational Society comes. It orginally appeared in San Francisco Focus and has appeared in Graywolf Annual #5 as well as On Prejudice: A Global Perspective (edited by Daniela Gioseffi, 1993, Anchor, Doubleday, NY). Among his other works are Mumbo Jumbo, 1972; The Flight to Canada, 1976; Terrible Twos, 1982; Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, 1986; Catechism of the Neo-American Hood Doo Church, 1970; Ishmael Reed: New and Collected Poems, 1989; and God Made Alaska for the Indians, 1981. He’s a senior lecturer at The University of California at Berkeley and a member of the language usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary. He is currently editing a collection of essays for a new book from Addison Wesley, titled We’re All In This Together? It deals with the continuing struggle to assert the multinational and inter-racial character of American culture even as the phrase “P.C.” or “politically correct,” has become a reactionary “put down,” and an accusatory pejorative used to stop the vital dialogue concerning issues of racism, sexism, ethnocentricism, and xenophobic monoculturalism.
At the annual Lower East Side Jewish Festival yesterday, a Chinese woman ate a pizza slice in front of Ty Thuan Duc’s Vietnamese grocery store. Beside her a Spanish-speaking family patronized a cart with two signs: “Italian Ices” and “Kosher by Rabbi Alper.” And after the pastrami ran out, everybody ate knishes.—New York Times 23 June 1983
On the day before Memorial Day, 1983, a poet called me to describe a city he had just visited. He said that one section included mosques, built by the Islamic people who dwelled there. Attending his reading, he said, were large numbers of Hispanic people, forty thousand of whom lived in the same city. He was not talking about a fabled city located in some mysterious region of the world. The city he’d visited was Detroit.
A few months before, I was leaving Houston, Texas, I heard it announced on the radio that Texas’s largest minority was Mexican-American, and though a foundation recently issued a report critical of bilingual education, the taped voice used to guide the passengers on the air trams connecting terminals in Dallas Airport is in both Spanish and English. If the trend continues, a day will come when it will be difficult to travel through some sections of the country without hearing commands in both English and Spanish; after all, for some western states, Spanish was the first written language and the Spanish style lives on in the western way of life.
Shortly after my Texas trip, I sat in an auditorium located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee as a Yale professor—whose original work on the influence of African cultures upon those of the Americas has led to his ostracism from some monocultural intellectual circles—walked up and down the aisle, like an old-time southern evangelist, dancing and drumming the top of the lectern, illustrating his points before some serious Afro-American intellectuals and artists who cheered and applauded his performance and his mastery of information. The professor was “white.” After his lecture, he joined a group of Milwaukeeans in a conversation. All of the participants spoke Yoruban, though only the professor had ever traveled to Africa.
One of the artists told me that his paintings, which included African and Afro-American mythological symbols and imagery, were hanging in the local McDonald’s restaurant. The next day I went to McDonald’s and snapped pictures of smiling youngsters eating hamburgers below paintings that could grace the walls of any of the country’s leading museums. The manager of the local McDonald’s said, “I don’t know what you boys are doing, but I like it,” as he commissioned the local painters to exhibit in his restaurant.
Such blurring of cultural styles occurs in everyday life in the United States to a greater extent than anyone can imagine and is probably more prevalent than the sensational conflict between people of different backgrounds that is played up and often encouraged by the media. The result is what the Yale professor, Robert Thompson, referred to as a cultural bouillabaisse, yet members of the nation’s present educational and cultural Elect still cling to the notion that the United States belongs to some vaguely defined entity they refer to as “Western civilization,” by which they mean, presumably, a civilization created by the people of Europe, as if Europe can be viewed in monolithic terms. Is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which includes Turkish marches, a part of Western civilization, or the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century French paintings, whose creators were influenced by Japanese art? And what of the cubists, through whom the influence of African art changed modern painting, or the surrealists, who were so impressed with the art of the Pacific Northwest Indians that, in their map of North America, Alaska dwarfs the lower forty-eight in size?
Are the Russians, who are often criticized for their adoption of “Western” ways by Tsarist dissidents in exile, members of Western civilization? And what of the millions of Europeans who have black African and Asian ancestry, black Africans having occupied several countries for hundreds of years? Are these “Europeans” members of Western civilization, or the Hungarians, who originated across the Urals in a place called Greater Hungary, or the Irish, who came from the Iberian Peninsula?
Even the notion that North America is part of Western civilization because our “system of government” is derived from Europe is being challenged by native American historians who say that the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin especially, were actually influenced by the system of government that had been adopted by the Iro-quois hundreds of years prior to the arrival of large numbers of Euro-peans.
Western civilization, then, becomes another confusing category like Third World, or Judeo-Christian culture, as man attempts to impose his small-screen view of political and cultural reality upon a complex world. Our most publicized novelist recently said that Western civilization was the greatest achievement of mankind, an attitude that flourishes on the street level as scribbles in public restrooms: “White Power,” “Niggers and Spics Suck,” or “Hitler was a prophet,” the later being the most telling, for wasn’t’ Adolph Hitler the archetypal monoculturalist who, in his pigheaded arrogance, believed that one way and one blood was so pure that it had to be protected from alien strains at all costs? Where did such an attitude, which has caused so much misery and depression in our national life, which has tainted even our noblest achievements, begin? An attitude that caused the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the persecution of Chicanos and Chinese-Americans, the near-extermination of the Indians, and the murder and lynchings of thousands of Afro-Americans.
Virtuous, hardworking, pious, even though they occasionally would wander off after some fancy clothes, or rendezvous in the woods with the town prostitute, the Puritans are idealized in our schoolbooks as “a hardy band” of no-nonsense patriarchs whose discipline razed the forest and brought order to the New World (a term that annoys Native American historians). Industrious, responsible, it was their “Yankee ingenuity” and practicality that created the work ethic. They were simple folk who produced a number of good poets, and they set the tone for the American writing style, of lean and spare lines, long before Hemingway. They worshipped in churches whose colors blended in with the New England snow, churches with simple structures and ornate lecterns.
The Puritans were a daring lot, but they had a mean streak. They hated the theater and banned Christmas. They punished people in a cruel and inhuman manner. They killed children who disobeyed their parents. When they came in contact with those whom they considered heathens or aliens, they behaved in such a bizarre and irrational manner that this chapter in the American history comes down to us as a late-movie horror film. They exterminated the Indians, who taught them how to survive in a world unknown to them, and their encounter with the calypso culture of Barbados resulted in what the tourist guide in Salem’s Witches’ house refers to as the Witch-craft Hysteria.
The Puritan legacy of hard work and meticulous accounting led to the establishment of a great industrial society; it is no wonder that the American industrial revolution began in Lowell, Massachusetts, but there was the other side, the strange and paranoid attitudes toward those different from the Elect.
The cultural attitudes of that early Elect continue to be voiced in everyday life in the United States: the president of a distinguished university, writing a letter to the Times, belittling the study of African civilizations; the television network that promoted its show on the Vatican art with the boast that this art represent “the finest achievements of the human spirit.” A modern up-tempo state of complex rhythms that depends upon contacts with an international community can no longer behave as if it dwelled in a “Zion Wilderness” surrounded by beasts and pagans.
When I heard a schoolteacher warn the other night about the invasion of the American educational system by foreign curriculums, I wanted to yell at the television set, “Lady, they’re already here.” It has already begun because the world is here. The world has been arriving at these shores for at least ten thousand years from Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large numbers of Europeans arrived, adding their cultures to those of the European, African, and Asian settlers who were already here, and recently millions have been entering the country from South America and the Caribbean, making Yale Professor Bob Thompson’s bouillabaisse richer and thicker.
One of our most visionary politicians said that he envisioned a time when the United States could become the brain of the world, by which he meant the repository of all of the latest advanced information systems. I thought of that remark when an enterprising poet friend of mine called to say that he had just sold a poem to a computer magazine and that the editors were delighted to get it because they didn’t carry fiction or poetry. Is that the kind of world we desire? A humdrum homogeneous world of all brains and no heart, no fiction, no poetry; a world of robots with human attendants bereft of imagination, of culture? Or does North America deserve a more exciting destiny? To become a place where the cultures of the world crisscross. This is possible because the United States is unique in the world: The world is here.