Folio Weekly, Jacksonville, FL, March 12, 1996:
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Travis Charbeneau 3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221 firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 804 358 0417 www.travischarbeneau.com
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 future. 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 Russians. 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 "American-American?" 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."