Spring 1985, Volume 2

Mildred Miya
The Teaching of Ethnic Literature On The College Level

There is little doubt in the minds of today's informed educators that the ethnic revolution of the 60's, which forced the reappraisal of the inequities of the American dream, has also placed a great burden on the educational system to generate and implement ideas conducive to social change. It became obvious in the aftermath of the violent reaction to racial tension that the problems were deep rooted, arising from a general lack of communication and understanding between the races of our polyglot society. National and international attention on the deterioration of race relations resulted in an increased demand for all educational media to enlighten the general public on the nature of the multi-ethnic society in which we live.

Such a mandate, of course, led our universities to offer courses in American minority history, particularly Black studies, its lifestyle, its literature, its vernacular. Black English was given the respectability of a foreign language. Investigations into the social dimensions of language resulted in revealing studies on the correlation between racial stigma and language competence. Detailed studies of the language of the ghetto and the logic of its vernacular, as well as its utility, started a serious movement toward changing the prevailing public attitude which has for centuries been a barrier to social acceptance, isolating the Blacks in the social milieu. Such studies by Labov, Stewart, and Dillard, recognized authorities in sociolinguistics, gave to Black English a much needed respectability, not only for its particular patterns of speech, but also for its literary expression.

Other ethnic groups, as well, benefited from the Black protest of the 1960's, since public attitude became less parochial and more amenable to the diversity of cultures reflected in the variety of languages spoken in this country. Recognition of the Spanishspeaking and the Chinese population came from the federal government and the Bilingual Education Act. Spanish-speaking writers expressed their creative impulses and began to produce a combined Spanish-English literature. Interest in the perennially neglected native American Indian was generated chiefly by anthropological linguists' studies of various Indian languages, which captured the imagination of many to whom the vanishing Indian became a fascinating cultural repository.

Research into the literary contributions of various ethnic groups has also been the result of the growing acceptance of cultural pluralism. However, the quality of their contributions has been slower to gain acceptance in the academic world. The major reason which Gerald Haslam cites in his perceptive analysis of this literary "disenfranchisement" of minority writers is that:

In many ways literature offers the sharpest available view of a given culture's soul. Examining how literature is studied - which literature is studied [gives] subtle insights into cultural values. American literary scholarship has traditionally tended to reflect the social and racial prejudices of the nation's dominant white majority and, in so doing, has denied the efficacy of values reflected in the forgotten pages of our national literature.'

Moreover, Haslam continues, "The potential symbolic and intellectual flexibility inherent in a multi-cultural nation is unwittingly obscured in countless classrooms where a course in EuropeanAmerican literature is substituted for one reflecting more accurately the cultural amalgam that is the United States.' Thus, Haslam places the blame on the traditions established in our educational systems, particularly in the English departments, which have perpetuated the teaching of literature from European heritage. Traditional American literary studies have based their evaluation of prose style on Western European criteria, ignoring especially the literature written in Asian American, native Indian, and Black English.

Oral literature, particularly of the native Indians, has been ignored on the assumption that a culture without a written language had little to offer to the literate Anglo world. Attitudes remained unchanged until anthropologists theorized that the Indian languages (some 600 were discovered), particularly the Hopi, had special qualities, such as a vibrative, sustaining aspect, which enabled the Inthan to view the world with a greater perspective than he could in English. Yet ingrained opinion is difficult to change, and for minority writers, success depended on their ability to adapt to the dominant society's tastes and expections. With the success of Scott Momaday's eloquent representation of the plight of the American Indians in his House Made of Dawn, "Indianness" and the language that expresses it gained a wellearned recognition in the literary world.

Interest in literature written in other than European language, such as Japanese or Chinese, was a result of World War 11 and the military, expansionist policies that followed. The country's sudden entry into the international scene revealed not only the lack of our own knowledge, but also the depth and splendor of the Eastern world. Blinded by the prejudices against earlier Asian immigrants to the American West Coast, a prejudice, part of which grew out of the popular social myth of that day, the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, the American public for a hundred years ignored the untapped wealth of the East, its language, its ethics, its philosophy - the serenity and grandeur of which far outdated the Golden Age of Greece. Moreover, it was a civilization well represented in our own country in pockets of immigrant communities throughout the West Coast.

Continually subjected to humiliating abuses and hampered by inadequate public education because of California's segregation laws, neither the Chinese nor the Japanese Americans had much opportunity for creative expression. Social and economic restrictions imposed on Asians subjected most of them to a life of constant repression. Ironically, it was not until these restrictions were given a legal sanctity, with its infamous resulting imprisonment of all Americans of Japanese descent during World War 11, that the direction of American public opinion toward Asians shifted. The public began to re-examine the tenets of democracy and expressed dismay at their own manipulation of constitutional freedoms. During these bleak times, for the First time, the Asians expressed in poetic terms the plight of their imprisonment, the uniqueness of the Asian heritage, the tragedy and the beauty of the human condition. These expressions of a "Quiet Minority have only recently been recognized as representing an American experience worthy of study and appreciation.

The Chinese Americans, also long suppressed, have, much more than the Japanese, retained the cultural legacy of their past. Recent American interest in the literary accomplishments of Chinese scholars and writers has been a natural result of the gradual opening of the vast Chinese world to the West. Today, because of the fluid exchange of ideas, as well as expansion in trade between the East and West, more Americans have become familiar with the language of Japan and China, the greatest barrier to cultural understanding. Thus, literature produced by Chinese Americans that strongly reflects the Eastern heritage has also been afforded a respectable place in literary scholarship.

The gradual, painful social awakening to the inadequacies of the melting pot theory has given impetus to the embracing of a new and more promising theory of pluralism - to appreciate each distinct group on its own cultural terms. One of the inevitable results of the desperate attempt to grasp a panacea for social ills, however, has been the elevation of all things minority - the sublime as well as the ridiculous. The contemporary rush in the literary field to compensate for years of neglect has resulted in a flood of supposedly representational works, most of which are notoriously overrated.

Particularly on the elementary and secondary levels of education do we find publishers governed by mandates to include a specific portion of such literature in textbooks, particularly in language arts. Publishers have gone to great lengths to locate anything "minority" whether or not they are truly representative of a culture. And this again is a reaction to enforced demands which cannot be attenuated by a scholarly evaluation of such material, since the demand has preceded the evaluation. Thus, at the present time there is a paucity of material of a critical or evaluative nature which might establish some quidelines for the selection and analysis of minority literature.

Notable exceptions, of course, are Gerald Haslam's Forgotten Pages of American Literature (1970) and Lillian Faderman and Barbara Bradshaw's Speaking for Ourselves (1969). Among the Blacks, who have a larger literary tradition than the other ethnic groups, there is much excellent critical material, notably Bone, Williams, Hughes, and Gross. However, the other groups suffer critical obscurity. The biggest disadvantage in this situation is that either the young student is left with a false notion of the relative value of minority expression, or his own stereotypic view of the minority groups is reaffirmed.

These problems peripheral to the issue of social reorientation which has been the responsibility of the school systems to undertake certainly are adequate rationale for establishing and maintaining a college-level course on ethnic literature. Too often, the teachers in the elementary and secondary levels today are poorly equipped to give an accurate account of the peculiar circumstances of the ethnic condition which gave rise to the literature they are required to teach. Moreover, they have no evaluative guides outside of the commonly taught Western European literary criteria, which restrict their judgment of a literature different from the norm. It would seem imperative that a teach teacher-education program include a course in the critical analysis of ethnic literature, the circumstances of its particular cultural heritage and the literary values inherent in it. This type of course should be recommended particularly for the English teaching major, as well as the English major, since any core of English classes which does not include the literary contribution of the various minority races is certainly not complete. Moreover, it denies the student an accurate reflection of the eclectic nature of American society.

Perhaps the most rewarding justification for a college-level course is the use of literature as an effective index to the complexity of America's racial dilemma. Just as history, anthropology, and sociology catalogue the intellectual and cultural development of a race, the creative expression of literature provides us an introspection into the essence of its aspiration, its ideals, its soul. In so doing, literature establishes its affinity to the universal human condition and affords these groups the respect and dignity of racial distinction which is inherent in the cultural ideal of unity in diversity.


'Forgotten Pages of American Literature (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1970),

2 Forgotten Page

p p. 1.