Was Walt Whitman Wrong? (Do We Not Contain Multitudes?)

An American Puzzle by Lloyd Schermer, from the Smithsonian American Museum

A couple of interesting moments in a postcolonial theory seminar, along with an indignant comment made by a six year-old of my acquaintance, have been making me think about the question of ethnicity, specifically in regard to how we identify ourselves.

First the seminar stories: in a discussion about gender and power, a woman in the class referenced the wealth and cultural influence of Jennifer Lopez and identified the performer as Puerto Rican. Another woman challenged that statement, asking “But where is she from? Is she from Puerto Rico? Where is her passport from? Does she even speak Spanish? She’s not Puerto Rican–she’s American.”

Of course, several folks in the class reminded the second woman that all Puerto Ricans are Americans and travel on American passports, but I understood the point she was trying to make. She had made a similar comment in a previous class, saying that she thought it was absurd that many Americans describe themselves as half-this and a-quarter-that. “They’re not Irish or French,” she insisted. “They’re American.

Well, yes, they’re certainly that. But are they really no longer Irish or French (or Kenyan or Vietnamese or Brazilian or…)? Does being American mean that if your family is not 100% Native American you forfeit any claim to the nationality or cultures of your ancestors?

Her contentions brought to mind Kwame Anthony Appiah who, in his book Cosmopolitanism, asks us to consider the following:

In an increasingly globalized world, where cultures mix and interact much more easily than in the past and where, as a result, people hail from increasingly hybrid backgrounds, with which “tribes” can, should, and do we identify?

Appiah himself is a cultural and racial hybrid. He was born and raised mainly in Ghana to a Ghanaian father and an English mother who, though she loved Ghana and still lives there, is also deeply connected to her family in England. Appiah says that his mixed ethnicity meant that he “always had a sense of family and tribe that was multiple and overlapping: nothing could have seemed more commonplace.” He identifies as Ghanaian and English–the very “half-this and half-that” that our irritated grad student dismissed.

And his father provides a good example of the perspective that the grad student who was championing J Lo held when she identified the singer as Puerto Rican: Appiah notes that his father “never saw a conflict between local partialities and a universal morality–between being part of the place you were and a part of a broader human community.”

There is no need, Appiah counsels, for us Americans who hail from multiple backgrounds to turn our backs on the countries and cultures of our families and identify as only American.

I myself was raised in a family of immigrants; my mother was from French Canada and my father’s father, who lived with us, was from Italy. We spoke French with the cousins in Quebec every summer–and in a memory that makes me smile, my mother always used French to quietly, but very firmly, reprimand us in front of other (English-speaking) people. On the other hand, the adults spoke Italian in the house when they didn’t want the children to know what they were saying. (Of course, after a certain age, we began to understand them, so they had to resort to whispering.) Because of this upbringing, I feel strong connections to both Italy and French Canada. Thus, I’m very American–born and raised and still living here–but I am also French Canadian, and I am also Italian. This is how I identify.

No one in my family, or in my very Italian neighborhood on the south shore of Long Island, ever saw a problem with this sort of multiple identity. I remember once in Spain telling a story to a Spaniard about “a Sicilian from Brooklyn,” and she laughed out loud. “Only an American would say that,” she chuckled. Being from New York, with its wide diversity of immigrants, and taking for granted my own hybridity, I didn’t see anything the least bit odd about the reference.

But don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that every American must think of themselves as distinct hybrids. I have friends whose families have been in this country for hundreds of years, and though they’re vaguely aware that their names are Scotch-Irish or the like, they feel American to the core. All their family memories take place in the US. Their names are easy for most Americans to pronounce. They have no real connection to The Old Country that their ancestors left so long ago. And that’s fine. That’s sort of my point. We should be able to identify in the way that suits us and our situation best. For these friends, American is the only answer they give to the “What are you?” question. For me, my Italian and French-Canadian connections are close in time and are very dear to me; to disconnect myself from them would be to change fundamentally who I am.

Just yesterday I read an article in NatGeo Educator about Jenn Gilgan, a National Geographic Educator of the Week, who has her students explore the world by learning about the countries from which their families hail. They do some genealogical research and then they report on ecological and humanitarian issues affecting their ancestral nations today. This lesson emphasizes the connections that many of us have to other countries around the world–connections that make those places more real, especially for young people who may be quite unaware of the world outside US borders. I love this idea. It is a great example of making global education relevant to students who have little real experience interacting with other nationalities and cultures. It’s also a way of celebrating the diversity and hybridity that defines so many of us, whether our families arrived on these shores two weeks or two centuries ago.

So finally, the promised story about the bright little six year-old: A couple of months ago, I tried to explain what amounted to the gist of this essay to an indignant child at a family party who, though his mother was born in the Dominican Republic and his father is of Dominican descent, insisted to an older relative in a loud voice that he is NOT Dominican! He is American! I told him that we’re ALL American–but that I’m also Italian and French Canadian. Someone else in the room was American and Lithuanian. Another American and English. “Lots of us are American and something else–you are, too,” I said. He narrowed his eyes and considered this. Then he nodded and ran off to play, content now to identify with multiple tribes, to be a hybrid. To contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman wrote.

And though the irate grad student might have rolled her eyes at me, Kwame Appiah, I believe, would have approved.


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