Cultural diversity has been a topic of increasing popularity in schools and politics. The idea of cultural diversity is to recognize the diverse cultures that make up America and create its uniqueness. Several significant changes have occurred in the past century as a result of this increase awareness: abolition of slavery, women’s rights, recognition of the need for rights for the disabled, and providing protection to various ethnic groups. America named itself the melting pot claiming that it was open to anyone seeking refuge, thus opening itself to the possibility (and reality) of various cultures embracing this idea. Because so many people took advantage of this invitation, America began as a mixture of cultures melting into one. When one studies these various cultures, more than one viewpoint pops up. The varying cultures were expected to blend into one harmonious group. Unfortunately this did not and does not always happen smoothly. Often stereotypes were formed and prejudices appeared causing more division than blending. By studying the smaller cultures that make up a larger culture, the reasons behind the actions of a group can be discovered explaining common misunderstandings. All of these ideas boil into one: forming an awareness of the various cultures that produce the American culture. Every culture is complex due to its many facets; by putting all these facets together, a big picture can be formed providing dimension and substance.
One reason to study America’s cultural diversity is that a rich and highly diverse culture exists in America. This can be credited to the country’s claim to be a melting pot and inviting all seeking refuge and new beginnings. This simple invitation created a complex country. Americans were English, rich, workers, women, Polish, Irish, poor, conservative, males, children, liberal, thinkers, German, modern, etc. No single group was solely the description of American culture; it was the combination of all sub-cultures that made America what it is today. By studying the many sub-cultures of America, acknowledgment and worth is given to the fact that America is formed by more than one culture. This recognition of variety in cultures enhances the widely known image of America often defined by its historical legacies such as Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The variety that is provided in a culturally diverse study of American history mirrors the representation that exists in reality.
Literature often provides the other side of the story and gives reasons for the actions of a group of people. The early American writer, John Crevecoeur, wrote in "What Is an American?", "He is an American, who leaving behind him his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced…” What he says is exactly what took place in America. Immigrants left their home countries along with their prejudices and manners only to create new ones in their new country. As cultural centers and living establishments sprang up, stereotypes were created and discrimination began. People of varying cultures were not accustomed to living with people who lived life differently. If more people would have reached out in order to learn about these strange styles of living, less conflict would have occurred. Reading literature of various lifestyles provides readers with the reasons why people act as they do helping to dispel stereotypes and stop discrimination.
Looking at the examples provided by the past readings, readers’ stereotypes are broken down while the characters’ are not because they refuse to credit both opinions. If Mrs. Hall would have spent time with Ruth laying aside her first judgments of Ruth, she would have seen that Ruth was a loving wife and mother. She would have observed Ruth’s actions which expressed her obedience and devotion to Harry. Mrs. Hall did visit the house to make sure that it was clean and kept in order, but her purpose was to discredit Ruth labeling her lazy. Ruth’s father also needed to look past his assumptions of Ruth in regard to her search for employment. He believed that she was lazy, worthless, and dependent upon his money. Without taking the initiative to walk with Ruth from business to business or sit at her table in the evening, he limited his view of Ruth’s willingness to support herself. Frederick Douglass shares with us the frustrations of slavery; he does not want to be rebellious or disobedient, but desires to be his own master. This was true for many slaves yet their masters kept a tight watch over them punishing their slaves harshly for the slightest misbehavior. Exposing readers to cultural diversity, provides answers to their questions of why certain people act one way while others actions are completely opposite.
Varying voices speak through the means of literature providing a more accurate description of America’s culture. These voices include men and women; the rich and the poor; the freeman and the slave. Each voice has its own viewpoint; often these views contest with one another. By experiencing both sides of the story, readers hear the opinions each side has against the other. Standing in as a third party, this experience allows the reader to become omniscient knowing the thoughts of both sides. At first glance, one might say that some of the early writers were cold, revolutionists, self-centered, and stuck in their beliefs. It also could be said that Ruth Hall acted inappropriately for a lady or that she was lazy in her attempts to support herself and that Frederick Douglass disobediently left the position Providence placed him in. When we assume the omniscient role of a third person by studying both sides, we find compassion for both as well as a better understanding of how this situation came about.
From culturally diverse literature, readers receive a more accurate perception of historical eras. During early American history, Crevecouer wrote that one of the joys of living in America is that "each person works for himself.” One the other hand, Frederick Douglass’ story emphasizes his desire to work for himself opposed to living under a master. The two lived in the same country yet were not entitled to the same luxury of being his own master. Crevecouer statement reflects his relief not to have to please the monarchy anymore and that all his earnings were for himself. This is a luxury that Douglass was denied. He suffered living life under a master who told him what to do, how to live, and demanded all his wages. When we look at both sides were realize that some Americans enjoyed complete freedom while others were under the bond of another man.
Another highly praised author is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson had strong sentiments against giving to the poor because each person should learn to become self-sufficient. Ruth Hall shares with us her struggle to overcome poverty. Emerson despises those who preach to him about his obligation to the poor. He asks, "Are they my poor?" This implies that he does not want the responsibility of caring for people who are unable to support themselves and have put themselves in this position of need. More than this he despises the dollar for its power and necessity in life. Ruth on the other hand is unable to pull her family out of their condition because she has a wealthy family name. This name prevents her from receiving employment because businessmen believe that her family’s wealth should be sufficient in aiding her though this is not the case. When she does find a promising career which family friends have the power to plead her case, she is overlooked because of their desire to follow the popular vote. Again Ruth is unable to find refuge from her poor conditions despite her efforts to be self-sufficient. Here we see a man who is tired of being used to aid people who did nothing to help themselves and a woman who is doomed to her position despite her efforts. Hearing both sides of the story helps to explain the writers and their point of view.
Frederick Douglass’ story expands readers knowledge of the conditions of slavery. He descriptively tells us about beatings, family separations, work and living conditions, and his thoughts and feelings. He enlightened Americans about the inhumane situations of slavery by providing an inside viewpoint. Upon his freedom, he continued to suffer because he was colored. He was always had fear that a traitor would sell his identity to a slave hunter or was discriminated in the workplace because white workers refused to work with colored. While reading Douglass’ story, one feels his pain and frustration as well as awakens to the true hardships of slavery. This revelation is the result of reading culturally diverse literature.
Writers such as Fanny Fern and Frederick Douglass add real life stories and a more complete perception of culture to the stories and writings of Franklin, Crevecouer, Irving, and Poe. While Emerson persuades his readers not to help the poor through hand-out charities, Ruth’s story is based on her need of assistance and a helping hand to aid her in supporting herself. Poe’s focus in writing was to explain why his characters acted as they did; this emphasizes the idea behind reading culturally diverse literature. His characters were fictional and sometimes extreme cases where as Fern and Douglass wrote about real life stories. Franklin rides the fence between the two sets of authors. His story was an autobiography filled with ups and downs from his life. Getting his life back together financially was also a struggle but easier than Ruth’s because he was a man. Comparing the two, readers see how social status was important and maintaining it was a challenge (more challenging for a woman than a man.) In order to obtain a realistic view of America, it is important for readers to read diverse materials. Reading culturally diverse material helps to acknowledge the sub-cultures of America, one learns reasons for a group’s behavior, and more viewpoints are experienced creating a more accurate portrayal of Americans.