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A Cultural Crossroads

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In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he shows the prevalent ideas and norms of his generation through his struggle of fitting into a “hip” and more modern society, to the race shocks he encounters in Boston, to trying to gain respectability in a sphere where who you know and how you act can determine your place. To find acceptance in a changing and race contaminated world, African Americans have had to conform to a foreign culture. The crossings of culture at such a paramount time in history for race presents either a possibility to lessen racism or catalyze it. Through the crossing of cultures during this time period, Malcolm X writes of how different races were able to explore and incorporate each other’s attributes into their own cultures, such as music and dance, catalyzing racial understanding and tolerance.

Through the rise and fall of societal norms, trends dictate your status and reputation. In a world where fashion favored the traits of white people, such as straight hair, assimilating became necessary. “I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior”- and white people “superior”- that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.” (Malcolm X 54). African Americans who moved north as part of the Great Migration had to grow accustomed to the cultural shock of mixing the “white” music and fashion, with the strong pre-existing culture of African Americans. However, through this process of acclimating to a foreign racial climate, the African Americans infused their own culture together with the existing white culture. Brian Larkin writes “how African societies incorporate the imaginative worlds offered by foreign media into their own cultural practices, often taking from one medium and transposing it into another” (563). Take the Lindy Hop, for example. This dance craze was catered towards the white population, by only allowing white bands to play in whites-only dance clubs. However, through time and assimilation, the African American population took it into their own hands to cross this culture into their own, adapting it to fit their pre-existing style. They introduced their own musical strengths, such as jazz, and soon it became the African American community’s pass into the white community by African American bands being hired to play the newest trend in music. By introducing jazz to the world, they turned the Roseland Ballroom (X 40) from a whites-only ballroom to a melting pot of merging cultures, catapulting race into a new phase of understanding.

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Malcolm X is an iconic supporter of African American rights and notoriously would do whatever necessary to achieve it. This brings up the question if alienating the two races brought peace, or rather the assimilation of them led to a higher tolerance. He writes that “under the pitiful misapprehension that it would make them ‘better’, these Hill Negroes were breaking their backs trying to imitate white people” (40). Malcolm disapproves of the self-inflicted assimilation he experienced during this peak of changing demographics and trends. He himself was a “victim” of enculturation, of trying to incorporate his identity with those around him. However, the enculturation that was happening at this time allowed for a higher racial awareness, which opened up a dialogue and brought forth more recognition and opportunity to discuss racial issues. “Racial identity involves a certain level of individual conscious awareness of one’s race. Enculturation is typically conceptualized at the level of the group and involves both conscious and unconscious awareness of cultural learning” (Cockley and Helm 142-153). While on the journey of trying to explore a different culture, you end up learning more about your own by comparing the similarities and differences. You gain a tighter grasp of your identity, and only expand it by learning and blending the elements you like of that culture into your own.

The Great Migration that occurred after the Great Depression brought confusion to many African Americans who thought that the way of life of the rural communities that they grew up in was the way of life everywhere. They often have to adjust to the new and modernized racial constructs of the northern cities. Malcolm writes that “it was shocking to me that in town, especially after dark, you’d occasionally see a white girl and a negro man strolling arm and arm along the sidewalk, and mixed couples drinking in the neon-lighted bars- not slipping off to some dark corner, as in Lansing” (43). While racism was still raging in the legally segregated communities, the more exposure to different races brought forward-thinking developments. In the south, where race is as black and white as it could get and little to no immersion between the two occurred, it is easy to see why no change developed. Nazgol Ghandoosh writes of how “others argue that racialized understandings can also reflect and reinforce racial tolerance in social and political contexts….. has linked whites’ willingness to share tastes with blacks to racially tolerant views endorsing greater contact with blacks” (1580-1599). Through more interaction with one another, the ideology that the two races were too different to bridge societal issues diminished. The more they collaborated and merged, the more they saw that they both harbour the same love of music, dancing, and countless other examples. They saw each other less as a mere color, and as a human being with desires and motivations.

The cultural crossroads of the North as an effect of the Great Migration brought together a melting pot of different identities and cultures. Through the exploration of themselves and the culture around them, the African American community experienced a higher tolerance than the one that met them in the southern rural communities. The higher rate of interaction between the two races led to a merge of the two cultures and allowed them to see past the political and social norms, which allowed for higher tolerance and understanding. Although some might see the enculturation of the African American style to have “white” hair, the African American culture also brought forward great additions to the white culture, such as jazz. The more you understand a human and see them for who they truly are instead of a mere color, the more progress can ensue and less racism can rule a mindset and community.

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