There is neither Langston Hughes nor Zora Neale Hurston, but then again, there is no Harlem Renaissance.
There is neither Inuit nor Hopi, but then again, there is no tribe.
There is no Aretha Franklin, but then again, there is no gospel (music).
How can there be corruption, when there is no economic violence?
There is neither Betty Freidan nor Jane Fonda, but then again, there is neither misogyny nor gynecology.
There is neither Davis, Miles nor Billie Holiday, but then again, there is no cool (personality attribute).
There is neither James Baldwin nor Lorraine Hansberry (Raisin in the Sun), but then again there is no Afro-American.
There is no rap music, but then again, there is no boom box.
Is there a Krishna, if there is no Bhagavad Gita?
There is neither Nelson Mandela nor Desmond Tutu, neither Rosa Parks nor Medgar Evers, but then again, there is no White Supremacy.
There is no Marvin Gaye, but then again, there is no funk.
How are there neither internment camps nor Asian Exclusion Act?
There is no Margaret Mead, but then again, there are no pesticides.
There is no Bob Marley, but then again, there is no reggae.
There is no Joseph McCarthy, but then again, there is no Christian radicalism.
There is neither Toni Morrison nor Alice Walker, but then again, there is no Truth, Sojourner.
How can there be endangered species when there is no extinction?
There is neither Muddy Waters nor Wolf, Howlin’, but then again, there is no rhythm and blues (music).
There is neither aborigine nor migrant worker, but then again, there is no indigenous.
There is neither Kahlo, Frida nor Isamu Noguchi, but then again, there is neither Pablo Neruda nor Gabriel García Márquez.
How can there be a Rumi, if there is no Sufi?
There is no Charlie (Bird) Parker, but then again, there is no jam session.
There is neither soul music nor soul food, but then again, there are no Souls of Black Folk, The (Title).
How is there neither homophobia, nor racial slur?
In 1987, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a respected professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, publishes a book entitled Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Hirsch, a committed education reformer, decries that American children are lacking basic knowledge about matters of key cultural significance which would hinder their success as individuals, and our society collectively. Included in Cultural Literacy is a list of 5,000 things, names, proverbs, quotes, and concepts compiled by Hirsch and two of his colleagues, aptly entitled “What Literate Americans Know.” Hirsch’s book and list spark a key battle in the ensuing “culture war” over what qualifies as culturally significant and who gets to decide.
The following year, independent publisher Graywolf releases Multi-Cultural Literacy, an anthology in response to the culture war and the works which perpetuated it, in particular Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy. In their introduction, Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, the editors of Multi-Cultural Literacy, note that while they agree with Hirsch’s assertion that education needs to be a national priority, they are alarmed by his “overridingly static, and so shallow, definition of culture,” and conclude that it derives, in part, “from a particular white, male, academic, eastern U.S., Eurocentric bias.”
Multi-Cultural Literacy is filled with writings on culture from across the decades, with a diversity of writers including James Baldwin, Wendell Berry, Michelle Cliff, Carlos Fuentes, and David Mura, and is dedicated to James Baldwin and Joseph Campbell, two writers who unflinchingly held a mirror up to American society. Simonson and Walker concur that “culture is largely contained and carried in the word,” and given the inherent problems with Hirsch’s list, they create their own supplementary list of close to six hundred words “not included in the Hirsch book, the sorts of things too commonly excluded from U.S. educational texts, political thinking, or social planning.”
When I review Simonson and Walker’s list of exclusions, I am struck by the vast and varied cultural creations and creators not included in Hirsh’s own. I form Section 1 by selecting and pairing excluded cultural concepts or creations with their proponents or creators, of particular significance to me. I can’t imagine my life untouched or my perspective unenriched by them. Yet it lays bare for me the nebulous mechanisms of erasure, which work gradually on an everyday basis as memories fade and work goes unheralded and undocumented, but also in one fell swoop, through lists of significance, like the one compiled by Hirsch and his colleagues, of “what every American should know.” Ultimately, why would the creator be acknowledged as culturally significant when their creation is not?
In truth, although the mechanisms of erasure might be nebulous, they are not foreign to me. For the past four years, I’ve been working on a biography of Lakshmi Shankar, a Grammy-nominated Indian American singer who helped to bring Indian music to the West in the late 1960s, yet whose story is all but unknown by the broader public. So as I uncover the contours of her remarkable yet unknown story, I’ve often pondered the reasons it requires uncovering, and the forces that have kept it unknown.
In 2014, a year after I began working on this biography, I attend the American Cool exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., exploring the quintessentially American concept of “cool,”—a concept created by Black American jazz artists of the 1940s, but espoused and embodied by so many American iconic figures over the past seventy-five years of American cultural history. According to the exhibit notes, “Cool is an earned form of individuality. Each generation has certain individuals who bring innovation and style to a field of endeavor while projecting a certain charismatic self-possession. They are the figures selected for this exhibition: the successful rebels of American culture.”
Although Black American artists coined the term “cool” in part as a transgressive response to the racism they faced, they only account for thirty of the one hundred figures whose portraits and bios make up the American Cool exhibit. And of the remaining seventy, sixty-five are white, while only three are Hispanic, and just two are Asian American. I walk through the exhibit three times in disbelief to come up with these rough tallies. As an Asian American, I’m in search of those from recent decades who inspire me as much with their accomplishments as with their personas—from master musician Ravi Shankar (Lakshmi Shankar’s brother-in-law and frequent collaborator), actor George Takei of Star Trek fame, and civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, to comedian Margaret Cho, jazz musician Vijay Iyer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri. Yet they are missing from the walls. Worse yet, when I come to the end of the exhibit, there is a note about how these one hundred figures were chosen after much discussion and debate and since not everyone could be included, they created a “runner-up” list of another one hundred—and this list includes no Asian Americans at all.
The list of What Literate Americans Know contained in Cultural Literacy was created thirty years ago by three individuals. Meanwhile, American Cool, a national exhibit by the Smithsonian, was conceptualized and shaped just three years ago by many individuals through, as noted, discussion and debate. So what do you do when your opponent in a resurgent battle of the culture war is the museum of national record, whose bare walls serve as a stark reminder of your erasure not just from cultural history but present-day culture? You wield your only weapon, the almighty pen, to bear witness to this latest instance of selective perception of disinformation, which too are terms excluded from Hirsch’s list of cultural literacy.
In What Every American Should Know, a July 3, 2015 article in The Atlantic, Eric Liu revisits Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, and its purpose and pitfalls, through the lens of our “increasingly diverse nation,” one that has had our first Black president. Liu, executive director of the Aspen Institute Program on Citizenship and American Identity who served as a speechwriter and deputy domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton, begins by asking the question, “Is the culture war over?” He answers his own question by pointing to the racial and cultural turmoil we’ve been experiencing which he attributes to the increasing “delinking” of Americanness and whiteness, and then proceeds to pose and answer his next question: “What is the story of ‘us’ when ‘us’ is no longer by default ‘white’? The answer, of course, will depend on how aware Americans are of what they are, of what their culture already (and always) has been. And that awareness demands a new kind of mirror.”
In fact, Liu is not overly critical of either Hirsch’s definition of cultural literacy or the intent behind his list, asserting, “Literacy in the culture confers power, or at least access to power. Illiteracy, whether willful or unwitting, creates isolation from power.” So he views Hirsch’s effort, while inherently flawed, as “progressive,” for its attempt to “close the opportunity gap,” and points out that Hirsch, whose work on cultural literacy was often heralded by conservatives and lambasted by liberals, was a Democrat and considered himself progressive. Instead he takes greater issue with the insular and static method in which Hirsch and colleagues compiled their list, totally unsuited for our increasingly diverse nation and rapidly shifting times. He intones, “Americans need a list made new with new blood. Americans are such a list,” a reflection of every American’s “right to be recognized. The right to be counted. The right to make the means of recognition and accounting.”
On November 8, 2016, nearly thirty years after the publication of Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and twenty-nine years following that of Graywolf’s Multi-Cultural Literacy, America elects Donald Trump, a morally bankrupt but cash-flush businessman with no government experience, who ran a campaign rife with hate speech, playing into the fears and hopes of white nationalists and disaffected white Americans alike. With his trademark red baseball cap bearing his slogan “Make America Great Again,” Trump, on the campaign trail, reignites the culture war, making clear through his vow to build a wall along the U.S. southern border and his calls to keep Syrian refugees out, his view on who and what makes America great. Unlike Hirsch’s inadvertent erasure from his list of the contributions made by marginalized people to American culture, President Trump, with the support of social conservatives, is working concertedly to erase the very lives and rights of vulnerable populations. And he has proposed his own lists—a weekly list of the crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, the list of seven countries he sought to ban travel from through his Executive Order, among the first he signed in office, the list of health service organizations providing abortion who will no longer be eligible for federal funding, and finally, his list of agencies whose budgets he proposes drastically cutting or eliminating, which includes the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a crucial lifeline for writers and artists.
More recently, Trump announced a proposed overhaul to immigration policy favoring highly skilled workers and those who speak English, a sinister echo of the xenophobic “English only” language debates of previous years that raged in certain cities and towns in reaction to demographic shifts caused by immigration. And despite a considerable spike in hate crimes against marginalized populations which accompanied Trump’s election, the Department of Justice chose to direct its resources to investigate and sue universities whose affirmative action policies are deemed to discriminate against white applicants.
But even as these latest battles rage on, spawning an amorphous resistance movement, what is the broader culture war? Was it sparked thirty years ago in the halls of the ivory towers of academia, or did it start with the founding of this country? Or does it pre-date even that? Calling it a war when most of the cultural power and weaponry has been historically held by one side is akin to Trump flagrantly assigning “blame on both sides” for deadly violence perpetrated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis against counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Perhaps it is more accurately an enduring and insidious tradition of cultural domination through cultural erasure, replacement, and appropriation. Ironically, it was the potential removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee—mischaracterized as cultural erasure by those who have grown so used to being culturally dominant—that transformed Charlottesville into a literal and figurative battleground in the culture war.
Whatever the framing or nomenclature, there is no doubt this country is embroiled in an imperative and visceral moral struggle for the very human rights its founding documents hold “unalienable.” Given this real struggle, can we justify our continued engagement in an ideological culture war? Yes, because the culture war and its resulting battles being waged involve and impact those most imperiled by autocratic policies, who not coincidentally are also those most marginalized in American culture. It might seem futile, perhaps even indulgent, to hold space, to hold a candle up to our threads in the mottled fabric of American cultural history, while just as importantly, continuing to create new threads of culture through our work as writers. However, fighting the culture war, or alternately, resisting cultural oppression, in the present may be our only chance at securing our legacy, a future where we might seamlessly be seen, heard, and understood as part of “what every American should know.”
New York City. March, May, and August 2017