Folio Weekly, Jacksonville, FL, March 12, 1996:

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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
      Phone: 804 358 0417

                          Ethnic Pretenders
                          Travis Charbeneau
                               slug "X"
                              1250 words
     PULL QUOTE: "My family is about as French as the Queen of
England's bottom. But, like many of us, I can afford the luxury of
ethnic pretense because I have at least some access to my past."
     American values and culture are dominating the planet. Where
allied American military might does not impose an overt "Pax
Americana," American "cultural imperialism" insidiously undermines any
and all opposition, and to far deeper and long-lasting effects --
perhaps felt most keenly by Americans themselves.
     Even where we are officially despised, say in Iran or North
Korea, the people lust in their hearts for that "American Dream";
American values and culture typically incarnated in blue jeans, rock
and roll, an ostentatious automobile, and "freedom," whatever that
might mean.  An awesome deluge of propaganda floods across borders,
guaranteed to "modernize" even the most obstinate xenophobe and
nourishing the near-global alacrity to adapt to the Made-in-America
hurly-burly of Post-Industrialism. We generate a tsunami of broadcast,
audio and video cassettes, books, posters, fax, baseball caps,
T-shirts -- and the boldly-monikered "World Wide Web," obviously woven
deep within the lair of the Yankee Spiderman. It's all just too
groovy, and too useful, to resist.
     Ironically, back in the States, we indulge an inverse frenzy of
hyphenated Americanisms, "diversity" and "multiculturalism."
Who has more experience with the terrible rootlessness, upset and
volatility of Post-Industrial civilization than the guys who invented
it?  Americans seem to feel more threatened by American values and
culture than anyone. The ceaseless prattle about "traditional
values," little more than gilded nostalgia for the '50s, is only
one symptom. Another is our often ferocious quest for peculiar
cultural roots.
     Now these may be impossible to trace after two or three
generations here, but this doesn't slow the genealogical boom,
now aided by various societies, commercial services and software, and,
of course, the Internet. We are not deterred from proudly proving
that we are in fact Italian-Americans, Korean-Americans,
Mexican-Americans. Further, if history is read correctly, our genetic
precursors discovered this hemisphere _and_ invented the microwave
oven before any of "the others." From such tortured stuff we seek the
comfort of belonging to an exclusive and distinguished clan, a more
solid sense of self-identity, and a few moments respite from the rude
assaults of future shock.
     I'm Frog-American. My last name gains me instant admittance to
the comfy, musty old attic of French heritage. I can rummage through
a well-documented values/culture stockpile going back to 390 BCE when
the Gauls sacked Rome and proceeding right through Charlemagne,
Napoleon and Marshal Petain. When in doubt about wine, I have
Bordeaux. When in doubt about film, I have Jerry Lewis. No problem,
monsieur. Of course, having been in North America since 1659, my
family is about as French as the Queen of England's bottom. But, like
many of us, I can afford the luxury of ethnic pretense because I have
at least some direct access to my past, beginning with the slightly
mangled European surname.
     Even oppressed Native-Americans can look to recorded Mohawk or
Shoshone traditions when the foundations of modern life shift beneath
their feet. In fact, the only group excluded from this
backward-looking quest for identity is the one among whom the whole
"roots" thing can fairly be said to have started back in the '70s.
     African-Americans are in the worst fix of all because they and
they alone are the only _real_ Americans. They have no escape hatch,
however phony, to an ethnocentric past. The late Alex Haley's
"Roots" was a nice attempt to claim some motherland with a values and
culture all its own just like the other ethnic groups. It also
symbolized its own futility. Mr. Haley did or did not trace his
ancestry back to a certain place and people in West Africa. For the
vast majority of African-Americans, however, hyphenating the name of
an enormous continent far more value-diverse and
culturally-differentiated than Europe hasn't been much help, not even
in selecting the staples of cultural bag and baggage:
     African-Americans might opt for Islam, but could as authentically
be descendants of animists or Christians. They might select West
Africa, but antecedents could as well have been kidnapped far inland.
They might promote strongly Negroid standards of physical beauty, but
centuries of interracial intercourse have hopelessly compromised
"racial purity," to say little of the aquiline features of Ethiopians,
Somalis and other North-East Africans. There's nothing for it. 
Malcolm X had it right. "X" marks "the unknown," and in that mystery
lies power. "X" once marked this entire hemisphere. "X" marks the
     Stripped of their parochial values and culture when they were
first enslaved centuries ago, overlaid with the plantation system's
Anglo-Americanism, and then tapped as "underclass" ever since,
African-Americans have been forced, daily, and under the worst
possible circumstances, to invent themselves. Which is, of course,
what American values and culture are really about.
     Consider "the American Dream" as given above, "incarnated in blue
jeans, rock and roll, an ostentatious automobile and 'freedom,'
whatever that might mean." What group is most closely associated with
these now globally-potent totems?  The field hand's overalls mutated
into blue jeans. African rhythmic traditions mutated into rock and
roll. Thanks to relentless poverty and subsequent sublimated
consumption, black people have for years pursued ostentatious cars,
until recently the Cadillac, with a fervor surpassed today only by the
     And "'freedom,' whatever that might mean'?" Only a slave can
truly know what freedom means. "Taxation without representation," the
noisiest grievance of the Framers, is an utterly frivolous affliction
to liberty compared with slavery.
     Much of the vitality and appeal of American values and culture
now riding roughshod over the globe derives from an African-America
which was forced to invent its key components. The fact that many are
symbolic in no way diminishes their authority. The typical
slave-holder could reach for his favorite Dead White European Male and
get his values/culture fix in a neat, socially-approved package. The
slaves had to create theirs from scratch. Yet what the slave made has
endured uniquely, shaking not only the world, but, with supreme irony,
the slave-holder, too. I doubt that Mr. Clinton's people owned many
slaves, but the sight of the President of the United States wearing
shades and blowing rhythm and blues -- on a saxophone, yet -- is
considerable proof that the slave has, in this respect at least,
enjoyed the last lick.
     I'm all for "diversity" and "multiculturalism" and "roots." If
one can appreciate these things without degenerating into
outright falsehoods and tribal chauvinism, great. But the capacity to
reinvent oneself unshackled from the past and in the midst of turmoil
-- this is the talent most sorely needed now, both abroad and at home. 
Who among us has proven most adept at this fearsome task if not the
     The United States, rather like its language, continues happily
soaking up elements of various cultures like a planetary sponge. We
are essentially creating a "World Culture" everyone can use away from
home, even as they hopefully preserve and nurture native and local
specialties. Again, who in this awesome process deserves more credit
than the creative, resilient and unbounded American-American?
Ironically, each of those adjectives ring with freedom.
     Getting free from the underclass may prove as difficult, if not
more difficult, than getting free from slavery. But during the
struggle, let African-Americans survey the planet, including Africa _
and_ America, and note their indelible effect. Let all of us note how
the art of self-invention lying at the heart of American values and
culture is the very axis of a desirable future. For those of us
running around trying to figure out (or pretend)who we "really" are,
forget it. No matter how we spell it, our last name, too, is "X."