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Representing America

I'm tired of the cynical view that we can't make a difference, that we're all just hibernating in front of our 841 little golden lights onscreen.
Ron Alcalay

Issue #7, September 1993

I'm lucky if during the summer I remain with a single thought. Ideas tend to blend and disappear in a fog of letters, or else they evaporate on contact like droplets on a hot concrete mind. This summer I had an idea, and though it was Ralph Ellison's first, I remained with it for a couple of months, even as young Americans in my care farted on foreigners and I tried to balance the true obscenities of my country with the visible remains of ingenious myths that still inspire admiration at home and abroad. Ellison, an author who has written most probingly on questions of self-representation and national identity, got me going. In an essay called 'Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity' he wrote:

A people must define itself, and minorities have the responsibility of having their ideals and images recognized as part of the composite image which is that of the still forming American people.

Suddenly, I felt the responsibility for contributing to the grand image that is America; rather than waiting for America to recognize me, I would have to get out there and be heard and seen.

But the idea of representing my minority culture seemed even more complex than the task of representing myself. Even this lifelong endeavor comprised weird juxtapositions, odd combinations like an Otomi Indian sculpture I brought home from a trip to my mother's native Mexico standing next to a Soviet paratrooper watch I bought at the flea market in Dad's hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. How could a Mexican-Bulgarian-American-Jewish boy from L.A. represent his minority group? The products only suggest my cultures in the broadest geographical terms, and fail to indicate my relationship to subcultures within national boundaries. Ellison understood this complexity within American diversity. He warned us about 'being the victims of various inadequate conceptions of ourselves, both as individuals and as citizens of a nation of diverse peoples' ('On Initiation Rites and Power'). We will always face the challenge of bringing to consciousness our complex diversity; in a society that loves simple labels, our struggle for thorough self-representation is even greater. Yet if we are to include 'American' in the picture, the process of self-representation must also include a simultaneous exploration of how we relate to others in progressively distant and unfamiliar groups.

Whatever metaphor we are currently using to describe the ethnic or cultural composition of the United States, whether melting pot or gumbo, goulash or alphabet soup, I suspect that increasing numbers of people are experiencing difficulty identifying with a single people in the mix; and this difficulty is making the responsibility of representing our minority group — if indeed we want to assume this responsibility — an enterprise characterized by reducing ourselves to categories, boxes, common denominators. Perhaps we need to resurrect and enliven some myths about what it means to be an American in our most ideal vision of this identity, clarifying for ourselves not only the myriad cultures that brought us here and contribute to our individual histories, but the nature of a national culture which we hope to create anew. In this way we can connect the energies of multiculturalism and identity politics — which sometimes foster their own prejudices — to the project of forming a new national American identity capable of holding all this renewed diversity together.

Welcome to America, Get Lost

This summer, while leading nine teenagers on a camping safari in the Santa Cruz area, I was thrust into the role of cultural ambassador. Among the four American boys and four American girls, a single Hungarian boy stood, playing classical music on his recorder as his contemporaries played beetle baseball. Having been in his native Budapest earlier this summer, I wanted to return all the graciousness of my Hungarian hosts; beyond having a good time, I wanted Ambrose to like America, to admire my people — Blacks, Japanese, Catholics, Protestants and Sufi though we were. But as the week progressed, I noticed little of the American spirit of welcome that I believed characterized this country of immigrants. Instead of invitations, Ambrose got the grudging O.K. to tag along. Why had all that American diversity among my group of teens yielded to the distressing sameness in their attitude toward, and treatment of Ambrose the European? Maybe it was because of his faltering English, or maybe teens will be teens: peer-pressured, aching to be cool, willing to scapegoat another to achieve inclusion. Or was this some fault of our community spirit when Ambrose got lost at the Santa Cruz boardwalk at night, abandoned by his fun-loving American buddies?

Ambrose's Revenge

After eating at Manuel's in Aptos, the kids frolicked about the campsite, farting around, so to speak. Ambrose filled Big Basin with his own classical sounds, but when Sam farted on Bronwyn, the spirit of chivalry moved Ambrose to act. Grabbing Sam's middle, he smacked Sam's ass with his recorder as the rest of us watched, laughing nervously. Sam fought back ineffectually, yelling traditional obscenities. After the spanking, Sam turned mean, cursing Ambrose who smiled back, uncomprehending. A moment later Ambrose skipped over to his dictionary and finding his word, pronounced it perfectly: 'Polecat.' Not surprisingly, after the episode, everybody sided with Sam. Ambrose spent the last night roasting marshmallows alone (ok, I was with him). I probably should have broken up the spanking, but somehow I felt Sam deserved it; or maybe I was scapegoating Sam for the inhospitable (un-American? or too-typically American?) behavior of the group.

In short, America

'Tell me about America,' Eundeok asked me during our second hour together. As her English language tutor, she probably thought I could summarize my country relatively well. Surprisingly, after the five minute lecture about how the U.S. is comprised of many different peoples, and landscapes, and customs, I still felt inclined to provide some cohesive analysis of our national character. For this awesome task I described the promise of, and frustration with the American dream of self-made success. Eundeok listened attentively, understanding my slow pronouncements about the fundamental contradictions in our society. Then, as I related the phenomenon of star-worship, I began to wonder, 'Is this good that I am representing such a bleak image of my nation? What are the consequences of such a negative representation? For Eundeok? For myself? And (if I am a microcosm), for this country?'

Immediately I changed my tune; I found something good to say about America. Now I admired the spirit of ingenuity — tinkering, a great new vocabulary word. I made reference to many mythic tinkerers: Ben Franklin, the Wright Brothers, and in my mind I thought of our neighbor Ron Hoard, with the lathe and the Studebaker in his garage — a boogie-woogie-tinkerer extraordinaire. Suddenly, I felt proud to be a part of that legacy, proud of a country that prized invention and rewarded ingenuity. Eundeok seemed happier too. Perhaps the positive spin was the tact to take. Still, I had my doubts. I study the 1950s — those 'happy days' — and I'm dubious about denial.

Tinkering into the Future

Our current problems — hunger, homelessness, poor education to name a few — won't go away by invoking the great American spirit of invention. Ben Franklin might appear on the hundred, but that's a bill most of us never see. We ought to look at the Bill of Rights more often, often enough to know when it's working or when we need to tinker. In tinkering, we inhabit and reaffirm a practical aspect of our national identity, a spirit adaptive to the exigencies of our age; we enliven a national myth that binds us — together, and to democracy. We need to experiment with the American political system, reconsidering some 'sacred cows' that threaten to gore us (not as in Albert). Amendment II, for example, the Right to Bear Arms, seems a little outdated. I can't see our overthrowing the government and its armies by force (an initial reason for the 'right'), but I do see lots of bloody stories about senseless murders. Let's tinker with the gun-control laws, keeping in mind the needs of our larger American community. We may not represent every hunter, or gatherer of guns, but we will probably find ourselves increasingly proud of the more peaceful image and example we present to our recorder-playing or language-learning admirers from abroad.

Will tinkering work to bring us together as a community rather than driving us apart, or causing scapegoating? I imagine so. The process can be democratic if we get involved. Would tinkering have helped Ambrose (the Hungarian)? I think so, by involving myself. Rather than standing back and watching the spectacle, I could have stopped it with a few words. Sam (the farter) might have thanked me (but manners weren't his strength). Ambrose would have understood. He had chosen a violent response to a communal problem, using a 'real' weapon rather than a voice he had not yet developed. But I might have spoken for him; we might have gathered earlier to discuss how to include him in our games. During the eruption, we all watched.

In Praise of Paper Pistols

As a summer ambassador for the U.S., I'm passably proud of my country, and I appreciate the diversity that enriches us as a nation. Still, I hope we continue, as Ellison writes in 'The Little Man at Chehaw Station,' 'affirming our ideals even as we do them violence.' Somehow in this essay I've moved from self-representation to gun-control, and I realize that both issues are more complex than the stances I've taken here. Though I might wish to limit the sale of guns, I stand behind Bad Subjects' original slogan: 'weapons for consciousness' (and even our little emblems). Perhaps self-representation is our way of arming ourselves, and the publication a kind of paper gun. Then again, why do I have to resort to metaphors for violence to indicate a desire for change? I'm tired of the cynical view that we can't make a difference, that we're all just hibernating in front of our 841 little golden lights onscreen, sucking power off the great Universal Corp. From pens and computers, and especially from the minds of articulate thinkers, we may find ideas that help us understand ourselves and our roles in communities — ideas that lend us the courage to tinker.

Ron Alcalay is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, writing his dissertation on American culture in the 1950s. He is also a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address:

Copyright © Ron Alcalay. All rights reserved.