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ethnicity

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Uncle Tom's Cabin

american writing african community

The word ‘ethnic’ has a long history. In the Bible it is used of the ‘Gentiles’, that is, all those who are not Israelites. Later, it is used to define all those nations who are not Christians or Jews, who are therefore categorized as ‘heathens’ or ‘pagans’. In contemporary Western culture, the term is now used to describe a racial and cultural group, especially one that has migrated into a pre- existent other community, where the issue of integration between the two remains problematic. In this respect the old semantic association between ‘ethnic’ and ‘heathen’ or ‘pagan’ remains volatile, particularly where these terms are used as a vocabulary of discrimination from within the dominant community. Conversely, and especially in twentieth-century America, certain forms of ethnic expression celebrate the longevity of cultural roots in religions and myths held to be pre-Christian, as in the case of much contemporary Native American writing. The relationship between the ethnic and the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community in America is further complicated by the fact that the dominant community was itself originally an immigrant community; and the later history of European migration to America, of Dutch and German Protestants, Scottish Nonconformists, Irish and Italian Catholics, and East European Jews has made the ingredients of the dominant American culture of the twentieth century diverse and multi-faceted. None the less, from the perspective of other ethnic groups, the dominant white culture of America is seen as exclusionist, another form of the imposition of power over the ethnic citizenry. However, since the 1970s, there have been strenuous institutional efforts to erase the conflicts of otherness inherent in this situation, to enfold the plethora of ethnic experience within the consciousness of mainstream American cultural life. A good example of this is in the endeavour to place ‘slave narratives’, such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845, revised 1892), firmly within the canon of nineteenth-century American literature, to rescue them from the margin to which they have been consigned by a combination of political embarrassment and cultural indifference.

In contemporary America ‘ethnic literature’ commonly refers to the work produced by four large ethnic groups: African-Americans, Native Americans, Latino-Americans, and Asian-Americans. African-American writing is by and about the community descended from the enslaved black peoples, now an extensive literature with a high cultural profile, particularly since the 1960s. If the history of African-Americans is first inscribed in slave narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in abolitionist texts such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, a remarkable manifestation of the vigour of African-American writing in the twentieth century came in the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, with the work of Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and W. E. B. Dubois. This first great wave of African-American writing was followed by important work in all the literary genres in the 1940s and 1950s; many are now rightly regarded not only as addressing that ethnic audience, but as major cultural documents for the whole American community; for example, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). More recently, the work of African-American writers such as Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker, to name but a few, has achieved popular acclaim and recognition within the mainstream of contemporary American writing. African-American writing is now institutionalized as a subject for study in the universities, and there is a substantial community of scholars, both African-American and white, whose scholarly and critical commentaries on this ethnic writing are now published by the prestigious university presses.

This is also true for the other principal ethnic groups, even if their writing has a briefer historical reach than that of the African-Americans, and as yet a more regionalized presence as an institutionalized subject. The term ‘Native American’ displaces the white name ‘Indians’ for the indigenous peoples of North America (equal to the African-American displacement of the word ‘negro’). Native American writing became increasingly prominent from the late 1960s, along with the challenge of this ethnic community to the legal and bureaucratic authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and is evident in the Kiowan novelist N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968), the Cheyenne Heyemeyohsts Storm's Winter in the Blood (1974), and the Laguna Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977), the novels of Louise Erdrich, and the work of poets such as the Blackfoot James Welch. Anthologies of these and other Native Americans, and scholarly and critical commentary on them, forms an increasingly substantial feature of the contemporary cultural scene in America, a situation also reflected in the new visibility of Latino-American and Asian-American writing. Werner Soller's Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (1986) studies the whole corpus of issues raised by the concept of ethnicity, and the role of ethnic writing in the corporate culture of contemporary America. See also Asian-American Literature, Latino/Latina Literature In English, and Native American Literature.

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