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Ethnic Literature: Overcoming "Otherness"

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As one of the most diverse countries in the world, America has a host of different ethnic groups living within her borders. While this diversity is one of our strengths, it can also be one of our weaknesses because these many groups often do not live peacefully together, which is manifested in fighting and bickering among the different ethnic groups and classes. The thing is, we all have a different perception of the world. For years, teachers have taught and read the same books that have been read in the classroom for generations.

While these books are valuable and should continue to be taught, most of the authors are white men. This is not a bad thing, but it gives us a very one-sided perspective of our world. Recently, there have been more ethnic, diverse authors writing about their experiences, and it is important that these different stories begin to be read and taught in the classroom. Reading diverse literature is crucial to the development of our students because we are a diverse people. It is only by becoming familiar with the literature of the “other” that we can connect with our identity and who we truly are as Americans. The earliest ethnic writers in America are African Americans and Native Americans such as Olaudah Equiano and Samson Occom. Their voices changed history, but we still have African American, Native American, and other ethnic writers who are shaping perspectives.

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Zora Neale Hurston is an African American author that wrote about African Americans as “the other,” just as she was, to further her philosophical belief that to truly be happy, one must order their own existence by chasing a true, unconditional love just as Janie does in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston builds authentic characters that readers can build connections with. As the first generation free of slavery, Hurston wrote as a civil rights activist. Because her parents were slaves, Hurston knew the horrors of slavery from her parents but also understood first-hand the discrimination felt by those freed of slavery but not of bigotry. Hurston creates a vivid picture of this struggle through Janie and her grandmother, Nanny. Nanny tells Janie that what she had been through for Janie wasn’t “too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed” (Hurston 16).

The problem is that Janie’s perspective on life was entirely different than her Nanny’s perspective because her Nanny had been a slave. Nanny states, “Ah was born back duh in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfil my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do..but nothing can’t stop you from wishin” (Hurston 16). Janie, however, wanted more than her grandmother wanted. Where her Nanny was content with the freedom of sitting on the front porth, Janie was not content until she had found true love and happiness. We all, just like Nanny and Janie, have different perspectives on life. Nanny’s perspective was limiting; Janie’s perspective was one of hope. Hongzhi Wu, a professor at Qingdao University in China, has a unique analysis of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and analyzes Hurston’s use of animals as imagery, specifically the mule, Nanny’s mule. He states that the mule “becomes a stereotype of the black women” (Wu 1053). Wu explores how Janie’s first two marriages make Janie like the mule in Eatonville that Joe purchased from Matt Banner. Like Janie, the mule was downtrodden. Like the mule, Janie is poked around until she is exhausted. Wu also explores the women in Hurston’s book. Nanny feels as if she is lucky; her only dream was to “have a safe and warm home of her own, enough food, and some leisure time out on the porch of her own house” (Hurston 23). The other women in Eatonville never lived the slave experience; however, Wu argues that “they are still slaves to the stereotype” and that “their dreams go no further than that of Nanny” (1054). Janie eventually does reach self-fulfillment by “rebelling against the stereotypes for black women” (Wu 1054). Hongzhi Wu’s article sheds light on one of the “others” in society, whether it is yesterday’s or today’s society.

The woman

Many women have felt like the “other,” and Wu points out how women can be the “other” in society in two different ways. In early society, and in many societies still, women typically answer to men and Wu points out that this is prevalent in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie was basically a slave to her first two husbands. Not only did black women have to contend with being whipped by a white slave owner, their husbands could whip them as well. He also points out that the woman has often been the pack horse of society.

The biggest point that Wu makes is that many freed slaves were content to be “free” and they had no dream beyond that. I agree with this analysis and argue that, like Janie, we are often so conditioned to a certain way of thinking that we do not have the vision to see what else we can be. This can be applied to our society: many times, the “other” in society is so downtrodden that they do not have the vision to look beyond where they are and society should be there to help lift the “other” up and help them create a vision for themselves. Partrick S. Bernard explores this vision with “the novel’s conception and representation of the self as a cognitive construct” (2). Bernard argues that throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie constructs her own perception of who she is in a society that regards women as mules for labor rather than thinking individuals. From the beginning of Their Eyes, Janie wants more for herself than society tells her she can have. Bernard points out that she compares herself to a pear tree in blossom and uses this analogy throughout his article. He further stresses that her first two marriages were to men that were oppressive: one who wanted to work her like a mule and one who viewed her as a trophy. Bernard further explores the comparison of the pear tree in bloom because Janie compared herself to the pear tree in association with her marriages. Logan “was desecrating the pear tree” (Hurston 21), Jody “did not represent sun-up and pollen and blossoming trees” (Hurston 29), and Tea Cake “could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in spring” (Hurston 103).

Bernard illustrates throughout how Janie uses her own mind to construct her “self” and creates a reality other women cannot even think of. Throughout this article, Bernard argues that Janie had to understand where her place was in society for her to construct her own self. I agree that Janie had to understand her place in society, and that it was difficult for her because she was an “other” not only in race but in gender. However, I argue that even though she had to understand where her place was, she also had to develop her own voice which was constantly being stifled by her first two husbands. It was not until a man came along and listened to her and encouraged her that she was able to develop her own voice. I argue that this is important for readers to grasp because it isn’t until we listen to the “other” in our society and encourage or help in ways we can that the divisions within our own society can be overcame. The different lives that Nanny and Janie lived caused a difference in perspectives, and, as a result, Janie struggled to overcome the ideas her grandma had for her life resulting in two failed marriages before Janie found happiness with Tea Cake. He makes Janie feel valuable for who she is. After all the years of Joe criticizing her and putting her down, “she found herself glowing inside” (Hurston 96). It is important that people develop the ability to look at situations through different lenses. Janie’s story shows us how the woman had been one of the “others” in society. The more perspectives we understand, the more we understand humanity and can build a world that treats all people as equals.

Perhaps the earliest ethnic group in America were the Native Americans. When we take a look back in history to the way Native Americans were treated, we see that they were not treated as equals, and they still are not treated equally. Louise Erdrich, an author with Native American ancestry, uses her literature to explore issues that still currently face Native Americans today. Tracks explores a way in which Native Americans slowly began to lose their ancestors’ land, which led to the slow death of their cultural homeland as they mad tracks towards becoming one of the “others” in America. It is through one of the primary narrators, Nanapush, that this journey to “otherness” is delineated. Nanapush clarifies that “other” in Tracks are those that want to cling to the old ways, to their ancestry and heritage or become lost when they do try to make a leap into a different social order. Nanapush, in his story to Lulu, warns her before she takes that final step away from her ancestry, which is important to Nanapush because “it was through Fleur Pillager that the name Nanapush was carried on” because Nanapush gave Lulu her name after birth (Erdrich 34). It was not a name he chose randomly. He named her Lulu to redeem his own daughter, a daughter that had died. In this way, his forgotten daughter, one of the “others,” is no longer forgotten. We also see the bitterness Lulu feels towards being abandoned by her mom, and, in part, by her Indian ancestors. Her ancestors, the government, and the church are all a part of pushing Lulu towards leaving her heritage behind, and Nanapush does not want his people to lose who they are. Of course, we know that they did lose. They lost much of their heritage and many of their children; some were lost to the reservations and others to a new modern civilization becoming the “other” in society. Maria DePriest gives us a depiction of what we see today when we look at a map of reservations. She states that on maps, reservations appear completely blank, serving “merely as a placeholder, a blank, an empty open space” (DePriest 249).

Although most people are aware that white settlers pushed the Native Americans off their land, I don’t think that most people understand exactly why that is such a big deal. Many feel that the Natives were compensated for the loss of their land; however, DePriest illustrates exactly how Erdrich conveys the importance of that land to the Native Americans. Even though the government felt they were justified in their actions, this narrative story illustrates why stripping the land from Native Americans stole their identity and made them one of society’s “others.” DePriest argues that “Tracks dramatizes the struggle over homelands” between the Native Americans and the white government that is still being fought today. In Tracks, Fleur loses that battle for her land and becomes homeless (DePriest 251) and because of this loss she loses her identity because “Fleur’s identity is rooted in her land” (DePriest 253). DePriest claims that “animal tracks and ink tracks co-mingle” (254) and that Nanapush “persistently negotiates for life” (255). He saves Fleur from dying after her whole family had died and now is trying to save Fleur’s life as he tries to give her a sense of belonging within the tribe (DePriest 256). DePriest argues that the tracks that are made are to connect Fleur’s “daughter to mover and therefore to culture, if only in understanding” (256). DePriest also states that the American Indians “are the land” (263). Without their land, they cease to be a people; therefore, if Fleur does not have her land, how can she be a mother?

The reason Fleur fought so hard to retain her land was so that she could keep her family close. I argue that this is why it is important for society to understand how the “others’” identity was taken away from them so that we can take steps to preserve our heritage and history. Shelley Reid also feels modern Native American literature is important to preserving American history and explores Louise Erdrich’s narratives and why they are important to her audience today. She states that “for minority Americans, writing their life stories has from the start produced both acceptance by the reading public and a chance to claim and (re)tell their own stories” (66). She goes on to argue that because Disney and the Coopers have hijacked the true stories of the Native Americans, it is important that we find a way to help Native Americans reclaim their identity (67). I completely agree that Disney and others in the entertainment industry have misrepresented history and twisted it in such a way that most children do not know the actual history of the Native Americans. Reid states that it is important to represent our true history in a way that represents Native Americans faithfully and “strikes non-Native readers as convincing” (67). She argues that Erdrich has found that middle ground and uses the tradition of oral performances with two storytellers, Pauline and Nanapush, to tell the story of the Matchimanit community in such a way that even readers unfamiliar with Native American culture can understand and appreciate the history of Native American culture” (84). I agree that this is very important because, unfortunately, when society does not know its own history, the “other” in society will be overlooked, ignored, and treated as unimportant.

Reid understands that today’s readers need to be presented with literature that will connect with everybody in society so that readers uninformed about history and the “others” in society will themselves come to understand the importance of the “other” and takes steps to protect and restore the “other” to their rightful place in society. One of the “others” in society that is just recently being represented in American literature is the Hispanic culture. One Hispanic author that has an important viewpoint about the American melting pot is Richard Rodriguez. One of his books, Brown: The Last Discovery of America gives his perspective about growing up as a minority in America creating a meditative commentary about the state of being “brown.” To him “brown” is the color of one’s soul rather than a skin color.

One of the most remarkable things Rodriguez comments on is that “brown” and not the red, white, and blue of the “Stars and Stripes” is the quintessential American color because America is made up of imperfect people (Rodriguez xiii). I do agree with this; however, that is also what the Stars and Stripes represent: an imperfect people, fighting for freedom, pulling together as one, so that every person, although “brown,” can respect and treat with decency those around them resulting in no minority but a people pulled together as one. Rodriguez’s writing is somewhat difficult to read at first, so his main point is difficult to figure out. Swati Rana addresses the confusion that Rodriguez creates with Brown stating that it “is often understood as a defunct example of the millennial discourse of race” (285). Rana argues that Brown “illuminates rather than obfuscates our understanding of race at the present conjuncture” (285).

Rana’s belief that Rodriguez has rejected his own “racial identity” and “undermine[s] the very concept of race,” is a belief I don’t agree with. I argue that Rodriguez, rather than rejecting his “racial identity,” wants to be fully assimilated into society because he is fully a part of American society. I do agree with Swati when he states that Rodriguez makes the perfect “spokesperson for racial futures” (286) and hopes that by Rodriguez opening the discourse of race, it will help us grapple with the issues of race ourselves. He does admit that “brownness” as Rodriguez discusses means more than the color of our skin; rather, he reduces the meaning to “race as form” (290), which means that all ethnicities, minorities, etc., can experience freedom of movement within society with reconciliation among all people groups, which is at it should be Every person should have freedom of movement within society, but I further argue that we must understand what it means to be “brown” ourselves and what “brownness” means to society in order for the American dream to be realized. This is something that Rodriguez also hopes for. Although he is seen by some “as a false prophet for minority hopes and futures,” Rodriguez hopes to one day “undermin[e] the notion of race in America” (288), which is exactly what should happen. The “other” in society should not be seen. Rather, we should see everyone in society as equally important to what America is. An interview with Rodriguez conducted by Hector Torres, a publisher with the University of New Mexico Press, gives us insight about what instigated his journey to becoming an author later in life: in his thirties. Rodriguez gives details about his childhood and college career and cited his anger toward a university “who had misstated so profoundly who it was that they had created” (Torres & Rodriguez 178).

Having grown up as a minority, Rodriguez had studied at university and no longer felt uneducated; however, he felt that his teachers and the university felt that he was “in fact still a minority, still in fact disadvantaged, when in fact [he] felt [him]self at that point without disadvantage precisely because of them” (Torres & Rodriguez 178). I particularly appreciated this interview because Rodriguez points out a truth that I think most of society is blind to. He, after growing up as an “other” came to a point in his life where he had taken control and no longer felt disadvantaged; he felt assimilated into society. However, others in society still treated him as disadvantaged. Rodriguez does not view brown as just a color but as an impurity or a mixing of beliefs, ideas, language, etc. He understands that it is not a person’s color that makes one disadvantaged; rather, some of it is a state of mind, and people can overcome obstacles in their lives just as he did. This point is emphasized when he details his childhood, growing up learning English from an Irish nun, struggling to fit in at school to assimilating and going to university. The bitterness he felt from being treated as a minority when he felt anything but only dissipated once he started writing about his experiences and about society becoming “brown” as people in society become intertwined so much that you cannot tell one from another.

Many times we will slap a label on a person or a group of people, and rather than getting to know them, we place them in a box and tell them where they belong. Society in general is good at labeling people. Rodriguez understands that there should be no “other” in society and illustrates this when he explains the “browning” of society. Unfortunately, we see in our society that most people do not know and do not care about the history of America. It is becoming familiar with our true history as a nation that we can start to appreciate the “other” in society and start moving toward “brownness” and realizing everybody is equally valuable and important to the success of America. We are a diverse people in need of a deeper understanding of all those who create this diversity. By teaching ethnic literature in the classroom, we can help students develop empathy towards the “other” in society and help students develop and understand multiple perspectives about the world we live in.

Grade set by Eduzaurus experts:
Focus/Thesis and Introduction 3 | 4
Organization 4 | 4
Voice/Word Choice 3 | 4
Sentence Structure/Grammar 3 | 4
Evidence and Details 4 | 4
Total Essay Score: 17 | 20
75
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