Friday officially marks the beginning of February, which means America is about to get its annual replay of black history.
Over the course of the next month, millions of Americans will catch snippets of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech just before turning the radio dial or briefly consider reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X before tuning in to an episode of The Bachelor. With February delivering the hard-and-fast version of black history, it’s easy to believe that years of experience have provided you with all of the information you’ve ever needed to know. Generic ideas of the “value of diversity” or the “importance of equality” can easily force Americans to fall into the dull pattern of skimming the surface of the civil rights movement or checking out the latest in “black entertainment” — at any rate, ticket sales for Django Unchained should soar.
But it’s not that February lacks sufficient subject matter. Cramming black history into the short span of 28 days is almost equivalent to trying to learn the history of the entire world over the course of one semester (think about how nearly impossible it was to master A.P. World before the May exam). Labeling one period of the year “Black History Month” simply doesn’t allow for valuable recognition of African-American achievements — especially when it comes to literature.
Though some titles, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, have managed to land a spot on the standard American high school reading list, they’ve rarely managed to escape their rigid identity of “African-American literature.” When thinking of American literature, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner are usually the first names to come to mind. These talented authors, however, get the free pass of writing without the need for a hyphen: You wouldn’t classify The Great Gatsby, for example, as “White-American literature.”
But somehow there’s a different mindset when it comes to works by minority writers. Though the term “African-American literature” is intended to reference the ethnic background of the author or even to describe a so-called “black experience,” it often suggests that such works are intended only for African-American readers, which is hardly the case.
In fact, black writers might choose to tackle concepts of slavery, segregation and even just life within dominant European American culture, but these remain irremovable aspects of American history, ones that remain culturally relevant for all Americans regardless of their ethnic background.
Early slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave or Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, created a brand new American literary genre. As they revealed the horrors of slavery and disputed claims that African-Americans were naturally inferior, 19th-century black authors employed innovative rhetorical strategies that supplemented burgeoning truth-telling and autobiographical methods of writing that stretched beyond ethnic boundaries.
Still, even without direct references to historical events, minority writers handle topics such as falling in love, the ambiguity of death and even what it means to be human — all of which remain relevant to any ethnic group.
Toni Morrison’s Jazz, for example, does explore the impact of slavery on contemporary blacksbut also the multifaceted nature of love.
“Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you,” says Joe, the novel’s middle-aged protagonist who murders his teenage lover, Dorcas. “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”
As the unlikely pair tries to find consolation in the others existence, Morrison chronicles the complexities of human emotion, cementing her own take on the love story into 20th-century American literature.
But black writers are hardly the only ones to re-shape the American literary canon. Other minority writers continue to release works that add other dimensions to American experiences, ultimately creating a more accurate depiction of life in the United States.
Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, which was released last September, follows the romantic escapades of Junior, a Dominican immigrant reflecting on his attitudes toward women through adolescence and adulthood. Throughout the novel, Díaz’s character remains in a sort of liminal state. Not only does he fluctuate between finding love and blowing relationships with his continual infidelity, he also travels back and forth between the United States and the Domincan Republic, highlighting the dualistic nature of Latino culture in America.
Likewise, Jhumpa Lahiri, whose second novel, The Lowland, is set for release this September, seamlessly intertwines Indian and American culture. With her short story collections Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri creates characters who struggle with European definitions of “sexy,” cook traditional lamb dishes in their Boston homes and fall in love with their ethnically different husbands and raise interracial children. And considering the works of other authors such as Chinese-American author Amy Tan or Native American writer Sherman Alexie, it’s indisputable that American literature is multifaceted.
Yes, it’s true that some of these authors might make references to the particularities of minority life, but these shouldn’t be viewed as distancing or exclusive. Instead, they should be considered universal explorations of humanity and, ultimately, celebrations of what it means to be American. Hyphen excluded.
Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.