My classmate, Rome, offers some of the most thought-provoking commentary in my African American drama class. By the way she asked the question, I knew this next theory would leave our heads spinning.
we all nodded our heads in agreement.
“Do you even know what that means?”
Rome goes on to explain, rather than having separate entities together in one giant pot, a melting pot mixes metals together to make something new.
“Oh.” I gasped.
It all made sense now. Something that was touted as part of our American identity very much is, but not in the way most Americans understand it. The myth of the melting pot is this: Americans think we have so much diversity and we’re just one great happy mix of cultures, but in reality, we’re a bunch of cultures aspiring for cultural homogeneity to fit in.
This is a major theme in August Wilson’s works “The Piano Lesson”, “Two Trains Running” and “King Hedley II.” Certain themes thread through these works chronicling the African American experience in the twentieth century, one of them being the fallacy of the “American Dream.” Paradoxically, in order to achieve the American Dream to validate our identities, we must sacrifice who we are and where we come from.
In chasing the dollar, these Pittsburgh communities are weakened. We see a deterioration of families, mistreatment of women, and emasculation of men as society continually disallows opportunities at an honest living. By King Hedley II, which takes place in 1985, Reaganomics and years of impoverished life leave African Americans in cultural desolation and disparity. Aunt Esther dies, a testament to African American history and values. When she dies, the sort of familial strength we see in The Piano Lesson goes with her. In these plays, African Americans continue to chase wealth at the expense and cost of their history.
This explains the conundrum I experienced when traveling Europe this summer. A sunny day in Biarritz was shattered with the news of the George Zimmerman verdict. I vented to my friend Lulu about American racism, something my other European friends and even I didn’t fully understand. Having lived in America and being a Fin of Chinese origin, Lulu engaged in long talks about racial identity and assimilation. When she told me she used to go to Bible camps with her friends without really knowing why, I understood. Having gone to bible camps myself, I was no stranger in wanting to shed the feeling of being one. Our conversations prompted the question that in such a melting pot, why was there still racism and a lack of understanding for other cultures? We both remarked on how one would not reasonably expect this in America. Are we truly as tolerant as we claim to be, or do we continue to understand other cultures on our own terms?
This isn’t to say that the cultural mix is completely flawed—I don’t believe my parents would have come together in any country but here. There is a great deal of cultural interaction, and we have the opportunity to learn from our peers. Besides, hybrid metals are usually stronger—are Americans stronger for their mixed identities?
I think they can be. But we cannot allow some metals to overpower others. In America, we must remember that being American is going further than simply hosting foreign peoples in our nation—it’s trying to understand them. Every day, I am reminded of how little Americans know about foreign cultures as well as their own.
I once asked my mom about whether she was upset about losing her Irish heritage. “You know, you’ve lost your native tongue and everything. You don’t know much about Ireland. You’re removed from your culture. Does that bother you?” I asked.
“No, it doesn’t. I identify as an American.”
That’s the thing—how often do we identify white people by their respective ethnicities? Perhaps it’d be too long to say, “She’s Swedish/German/Scotch-Irish.” Perhaps because many of these people are unsure of their own heritage. For minorities, we are constantly reminded of our roots because they prove a barrier in integrating with mainstream white society.
I could never simply identify as an American—after quizzical glances, I feel forced to awkwardly mention I’m Indian and Irish heritage. People’s faces usually wash over with relief, no longer uncomfortable with my racial ambiguity. I feel saddest for those who simply identify as American. Their roots to a homeland have withered into a blankness.
Even when I go overseas, people stare at me when I say I’m American, waiting for an elaboration. No one allows me to be simply American: I’m always reminded of my ethnicity. The sad thing is that I look more Indian than I feel. My past successful efforts to culturally assimilate make me more American than those who question me.
It’s not that there’s something wrong with being American: there is certainly an American culture, and that shared culture helps us to understand one another.
The important thing is not to forget where we’ve come from. Where you stand today is because your ancestors lived and died to be sure you did.
Being “American” is standing on your own two feet, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, and all the nonsensical clichés about socioeconomic rise through hard work. America ought not to work that way, and neither should people. People need community, connections and history. This gives us an identity; a place in the world. When we are comfortable in that, we can continue to explore the world and learn from it.
But that’s not the way to get to the top. We are encouraged to forget our past, our race, our class: there are no hindrances in pursuing the American Dream. But when we do this, we are in danger of losing ourselves. Look at those on Wall Street and tell me they feel culturally empathetic towards the Americans they disservice.
Achieving economic success under the tenets of the “American Dream” comes at a high price, one that has been paid for many of us already. Ancestry.com and genetic tests can help us find out what we’re made of, but they cannot give us our cultures back. I don’t speak Bhojpuri, and I speak more French than my Cajun friends. One generation is enough to defeat our linguistic ties, and once this is gone, the cultural assimilation follows in an attempt to fit in.
However, I am still more in touch with my culture than many Americans, yet it is not by choice. A recent interviewee remarked on how intriguing it was that I was Indian. “Yeah, but I feel so far from my culture,” I sighed.
“At least you have one. I’m black. I don’t know where my ancestors came from besides Africa. I wish I had a culture to celebrate,” she said wistfully.
Sadly, after generations of slavery and continued deferral of the “American Dream,” many African Americans have lost ties to their African culture. For so long, African Americans were taught that there was something wrong with being African, and they tried to move on from it. Wilson shows us the dangers of this, but how many of us are listening to his story?
Nearly every immigrant has suffered this form of assimilation in America. It’s only that some of us are still living out this struggle and its repercussions to this day.