High ideals of a free democratic society, which prevailed in the USA since the beginning of the last century, have given rise to social reforms reflected by a concept of the “melting pot.” The increase of the immigration level has resulted in prejudice and xenophobia against outsiders and foreigners. Native born whites considered foreign minorities incapable of assimilation, thus being a menace to American values and their way of life. That is why a model of ethnical development called “melting pot” became a dominant tendency and an object of propaganda in the USA and the majority of European countries. However, while the concept of the “melting pot” theoretically is meant to lead to equality and justice, in practice it resulted in the duality of the idea: while urging minorities to assimilation, the dominant culture at the same time leans toward standing apart and in a lot of ways strives for shutting off the minorities from itself.
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Discontent among minor ethnic groups and reluctance to put up with injustice and oppression finally resulted in opposition movements for the rights of minorities. These moods of cultural segregation also found their reflection in a number of literary works. In this essay two of such works will be discussed – James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Sherman Alexie's “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock.”
Baldwin’s story opens with an unnamed African-American narrator, a high-school teacher of Algebra, who finds out from the newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for possession and distribution of heroin. Unlike most of the black population of the Harlem neighborhood, the story teller has managed to assimilate into white society and, to some extent, fit himself into an image that was believed to be “good”. Though, it did not relieve him of the pain of racial limitations and cultural detachment. The news about the brother has made the narrator reflect on his own life and view the level of fear that accompanied him all along. From early childhood, fear has defined his entire life. And now he fears for his brother. Later, when teaching Algebra in the classroom, the narrator couldn’t help but compare his students to Sonny. He realizes that some day the kids might end up like his brother when facing the hardships and obstacles of Harlem. Harsh reality of unemployment and crime defines destiny of generations.
Unlike the story-teller, Sonny does not strive to assimilate and fit into mainstream culture. He leads a bohemian way of life and is very much into jazz music that he plays at a club. Later, when listening to his brother’s playing at the club, narrator once again discovers the blues, both emotion and music and realizes: this is “Sonny's world,” and in this place “it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.” Thus, it is through African-American music that Sonny finds his way out of pain and misery. And it is music that finally brings two brothers together. Once Sonny gets out of jail he moves in with the brother and his family. The story-teller finally realizes that it is suffering and pain that brings people together, makes them care for each other, leads to self-identification. And by denying the pain of his own culture, he deprived himself of a place among his own people. Developing the plot, Baldwin explores racial and class segregation in Western society, the detachment of minorities, harsh environment they are bound to live in and all kinds of limitations they encounter. The problem is that while being written more than half a century ago, today this story is almost as much relevant, reflecting the reality of life for minorities in the USA.
The story of Sherman Alexie, called “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock”, takes place in a Native American reservation and relates to hardships and miseries Indians are bound to face. The story is told from Victor’s point of view, who resides in reservation with his family. It is centered on Victor’s memories of his father, who attempts to escape hated reality with the help of alcohol and music, especially Jimi Hendrix, the tape of whom he constantly plays. Music plays an important role in his father’s life helping him to bear the weight of hostile reality. “Music turned my father into philosopher”, Victor recalls. It was the way of escaping pain. Nostalgia drags his father into the past, makes him fear the present and run from it. Finally, the relationship between Victor’s parents deteriorated and his father left the family. He could not cope with the present reality and strived for escaping it. The only messages Victor used to get from him were occasional postcards from multiple different locations in the West. In his story, Alexie vividly illustrates the nature of reservation life, and the problem of alcohol abuse by Native Americans. And, what is most important, it reflects the struggle for preservation of cultural values and for cultural and ethnic identity.
These two stories depict the hardships and oppression the minorities are forced to face, as well as slow and inevitable assimilation and subsequent loss of cultural identity. Ironically, blues music becomes a key point in both stories – somehow, it resembles the last bastion of inner freedom. The only kind of freedom is there. Consequently, it becomes clear that the concept of the “melting pot” creates intolerance towards cultural diversity and results in racial and class hatred, which brings instability to a society. Cultural diversity is valuable to a society because it represents the history of nation and should be preserved. Such tendencies lead to the world with no place for individuality, ethnical identity and originality of any sort. To a great extent, this model of society may be considered totalitarian – the very opposite of the Western aspirations to democratic values of freedom and liberty.
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