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How Do We Americans Work Out Our American Identity? (Review)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 25, 2011: My favorite author is the scholar Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), the only Catholic priest ever elected to this day to serve as president of the Modern Language Association (1978). I want to reflect on something he wrote as a way to lead into discussing Keith D. Miller's new book MARTIN LUTHER KING'S BIBLICAL EPIC: HIS FINAL GREAT SPEECH (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

In his new book Miller includes the complete text of King's last speech known as "I've Been to the Mountaintop" in Appendix A (pages 175-182). In his earlier book VOICE OF DELIVERANCE: THE LANGUAGE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., AND ITS SOURCES (Free Press/Macmillan, 1992), Miller calls attention to King's composing practices, as he does once again in his new book.

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Now, Ong wrote the introduction to a book published by MLA in 1982: THREE AMERICAN LITERATURES: ESSAYS IN CHICANO, NATIVE AMERICAN, AND ASIAN-AMERICAN LITERATURE FOR TEACHERS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE (pages 3-7). As the subtitle indicates, the aim of the essays is to assist teachers of American literature in making courses in American literature more inclusive.

In connection with the aim of the essays in the collection, I want to speak of prestige. In this context, teachers of American literature are the gatekeepers of prestige. Now, if you want to object to prestige, you could say that prestige is elitist in spirit. There is an understandable point to this line of objection. However, if you want to object to prestige, then how far are you going to carry this line of objection? After all, this line of objection could be carried to the point of endorsing a know-nothing stance in life. But let's move on.

The title of Ong's introduction to the collection of essays aimed at teachers of American literature is worth noting: "Introduction: On Saying We and Us to Literature."

First, we might ask this question: "OK, who's supposed to be saying "we' and "us' to literature?" Because the topic of the essays in the collection is American literature, Americans are presumably the ultimate people who are supposed to be saying "we" and "us" to works of American literature. But the works of American literature discussed in the collection of essays are works that have not previously be included in courses in American literature, the gatekeeper courses of prestige.

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Naturally there are other sources of prestige in American culture, other than courses in American literature. But MLA is a professional organization set up to advance the study and teaching of literature. It is not set up to be some kind of comprehensive or sole arbiter of prestige in American culture. As a matter of fact, MLA and literature teachers in general are not the sole arbiters of legitimation and prestige in American culture.

Whatever other sources of legitimation and prestige there may be in American culture, I like Ong's idea of saying "we" and "us." Put differently, how inclusive is my personal identity as an American? Am I as one American able to say "we Americans" and "us Americans" to the American experience of other Americans, including other Americans whose personal cultural background may be decidedly different from my personal cultural background?

At the present time, we Americans have elected the first African American to serve as president of the United States? Because of our tragic American heritage of slavery and white supremacy, President Barack Obama serves as a symbol to remind us Americans of our tragic heritage of slavery and white supremacy, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the real advances we have made in American cultural to overcome the tragic American heritage of slavery and white supremacy.

We white Americans may still be adjusting and adapting our personal self-concepts as Americans (i.e., our personal identity as Americans) to saying "we Americans" and "us Americans" in an inclusive way that includes African Americans such as President Obama, just as we white Americans may still be adjusting our own personal sense of our American identity to include Chicano/Chicana, Native American, and Asian-American literature.

Next, I want to turn Ong's way of speaking around. Let me first raise the general questions: Do American citizens who come from a group of American citizens who in one way or another have not been included in the prestige culture in American culture also have to say "we" and "us" to the prestige culture, or at least to significant parts of the prestige culture? In theory, you could be a know-nothing American and go to your grave having been a know-nothing American. However, American education has been set up to minimize the possibility of your doing this. In short, American education is a form of acculturation to help us become acculturated Americans (i.e., Americans who share in the prestige culture).

In any event, in his final speech on April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., uses imaginary time-travel to survey highlights of Western cultural history and then conclude with a moving affirmation of his own time in American cultural history and his own lifework in combating white supremacy in American culture in his day. But then he was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968.

But here are my questions: Don't all American adults need to "own" as we say our own time and our own place as Americans in American cultural history, even when we recognize flaws in American cultural history and current American practices? In other words, don't all of us Americans need to follow King's example in his final speech and work out our own ways to "own" our own times and our own American struggles?

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Because Barack Obama was elected to the United States Senate from Illinois, he likes to refer to President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was from Illinois, but he was a Republican, whereas Obama is a Democrat. In his recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, about economics, President Obama referred to President Theodore Roosevelt's earlier speech in Osawatomie about economics, even though Roosevelt was a Republican. However, in these and other ways, Obama repeatedly aims to show that he is acculturated in American culture and history and values.

Now, King's final speech in Memphis, Tennessee, on the evening of April 3, 1968, was a deeply moving experience for him. By the end of the speech, tears were rolling down his face. Toward the end of the speech, King affirmed his commitment as an ordained Protestant minister and faithful Christian to do the will of God. He said that God had allowed him to see the promised land. Then he said, "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land" (quoted from page 182). In this way, he seemed to have predicted his own death, because he was assassinated the next day in Memphis.

It is not at all hard to figure out why Miller refers to King's last speech as a biblical epic. On the contrary, it is hard not to notice that King is constructing his own biblical epic out of the biblical epic of Moses and the promised land. But Miller does not want to leave us with any doubt about this. So he painstakingly details all the sources of King's thought that he can locate not just in the Hebrew Bible and the canonical Christian Bible, but also in the liberal American Protestant tradition of preaching. Incidentally, Miller's father was a white liberal Protestant minister, so our author grew up kind of immersed in liberal Protestant preaching.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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