Culture and Ethnicity - The African-American Romance Novel

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Culture and Ethnicity - The African-American Romance Novel
by Gwynne Forster

Reviewers have occasionally criticized African-American romance novel as lacking in ethnicity (as defined, presumably, by TV evening news casts and TV situation comedies). On the other hand, the works of some mainstream African-American writers that cater to popular prejudices about African-Americans and are hailed as outstanding literary feats are often so replete with stereotypes as to be caricatures of Black America today.

Ethnicity identifies races or large groups of people who have in common nationality, traits and customs or, who share a cultural tradition. Sociologists tell us that a people's culture is the whole of the learned behavior that guides their social life, including language, religion, traditions, morals, art, institutions, industry and their man-made material environment. Accepted ways of responding to individuals and circumstances; of celebrating births, deaths and marriages; ways and habits of eating, dressing, learning, talking, and of mating and living arrangements are prescribed by the culture. It is culture that determines relationships between age groups, the sexes, race and status groups; and it is through culture that individuals develop tastes and preferences as to beauty in physique, skin and eye color, shape and size of nose and mouth, length, color and texture of hair and so on. Human beings are creatures of culture, and no individual is free of its influence.

African-Americans do not live in a black vacuum but within the larger American society, consuming, absorbing and contributing to this wider culture. African-Americans attend the same schools as do other American groups, subscribe to the same ethics, worship the same God, salute the same flag, occupy most of the same jobs, drive the same cars, read the same newspapers and magazines, have the same sports heroes, watch the same television programs and pay taxes at the same rate. Why then should romance, or any other facet of life, among African-Americans differ from that in other groups? And does it?

These questions beg for a more thorough treatment than is possible here. However, it is essential to recognize that African-Americans have a distinctly different cultural heritage from other American groups, the most profound elements of which derive from slavery and its devastating effects upon family life, the segregation that followed emancipation, and the racist terror in which black Americans. particularly males, lived from Reconstruction period until the nineteen sixties. Where these conditions were most extreme, African-Americans existed in almost total cultural isolation. This separation from mainstream America was not complete because, "The Talented Tenth," as W. E. B. DuBois named them, escaped the most rigid aspects of the color barrier, acquired an education and taught others. And they spawned an upper class that exists today. However, most African-Americans suffered this cultural isolation and, in spite of legislature, socio-economic advances and modern communication, many of their descendants remain segregated and on the fringe of society so that their habits, traits and a variety of folkways that are not elements of the wider (white) culture persist today in cultural pockets within a majority of African-American communities.

With this perspective, it is clear that there have developed among African-Americans distinct and often rigid social classes. Mobility between these classes is uncommon. Therefore, it cannot be said that a single, separate African-American culture exists, or that a single ethnicity identifies all African-Americans. Nor can it be contested that there exists subcultures that are maintained by those African Americans who are most segregated residentially, economically or otherwise from the middle and upper middle class black and white Americans, and by those who deliberately chose not minimize their participation in the wider American society and its culture. Anyone who believes that a single behavior and lifestyle prevails among African-Americans should read and compare he autobiographies of Malcolm X and Colin Powell and the biographies of Thurgood Marshall and Billy Holiday.

However, in addition to stratification by class, many African-Americans are products of overseas cultures--countries of the West Indies and Central America, Africa, South America and from the Bahamas and Great Britain--and possess different languages, cultural and ethnics. Among African-Americans, as in other ethnic groups, education is a principal component of social class. It mediates the influence of the social environment and subculture and modifies the individual's cultural frame of reference. I want to clarify here that "black English" is the creation of the American media, and that educated African-Americans use proper English. However, the uneducated should not be misconstrued as undignified; nor should there be attributed to them a lack of nobleness of spirit. Wealth, too, is a great divider, for it enables attendance at superior universities, provides the means for beneficial world travel and allows the enjoyment of a home life away from the stresses, habits, vicissitudes and inequities--indeed, by the way of inner-city life.

A first question for the writer of the African American diaspora, then, is to which social class or classes the different characters will belong and the ethnic trappings, if any that may be attached to them. Except for physical attributes, most upper-middle class and many middle class African-American characters will differ little, if at all, from people of these classes in any other romance novel. However, if the character lives in the inner city or on the fringe of society, many questions should be addressed: Does he live in a ghetto? What is his education? Does he sell African artifacts on a street corner, play a guitar and sing for change? Does he occupy a nine-to-five job and, if so, what is it? Does he vote in local and national elections? Attend church regularly? Engage in constructive volunteer activities? Use ghetto language? What is his education, relationship with family, with women? Work habits? What is his home life? How does he spend his leisure time? Has been incarcerated? Is he law abiding? Abusive? Kind? Sober? Is he a disaffected individual? Answers to these and other important questions will identify a character as to social class. Such identity is crucial because it is so frequently confused with racial identity.

Low class, anti-social behavior does not make a character black It makes an African-American a lower class person.

What makes characters uniquely African American is their perspective of the world around them; their optimism, and tenacious pursuit of dreams and goals in the presence of towering social impediments; and the ability to laugh at awesome obstacles, or to ignore them and, often, climb over them. There is room here for the corporate giant, the univerity professor and the judge, the devoutly religious; the cook or maid who is working to support a family; the illiterate or poorly educated man or woman who sacrificed all for the well being of his or her younger siblings; the poor but proud and noble parents, and other supportive types commonly found in the lives of black leaders; the street urchin who drags himself out of the gutter, and so on.

These characters may be offset by a social misfit or an anti-social individual who haunts the fringes of society. But the life and times of the less fortunate are not preferred as themes for the African-American romance novel. People read romances for relaxation, to enjoy stories that are constructive and lift the spirit, not to grapple with the vicissitudes of someone else's life.

Generally speaking, romances are about middle and upper-middle class individuals. Hence, the African-American hero and heroine do not differ in character from their counterparts in other romances. They speak proper English, possess good moral values and are unlikely to exhibit stereotypical behavior. And they are achievers. However, there have been handed down through generations of forbearers' habits, traits and folkways that are not common to other groups. Frequent use of the word. Lord; such expression as "I declare," "do tell;" "touched in the head," "don't get your dander up;" rolling the eyes or looking skyward to show disbelief, disgust, disapproval; and pulling air between the teeth as an exclamation of disgust fall in this category. However, in homes where education is extolled, and proper manners and behavior are de rigueur, such traits are frowned upon, and rarely, if ever, exhibited. But as they add ethnic flavor to the story. They make excellent, distinguishing "tags" for certain secondary characters.

Indeed, if an ethnic flavor is wanted in a romance, it is more aptly invested in secondary characters, for examples, the down trodden, older people, servants or individuals who occupy jobs that do not require an extensive education, and so on. Food habits and preferences often represented as being African-American are, in fact, southern and class related and, while some African-Americans who have a southern background may prepare collard greens and green beans with ham hocks or fatback, so will then white counterparts.

The further outside mainstream society a character is in his or her daily interactions, i.e., the more culturally isolated, the more likely she or he is to exhibit socially deviant behavior, including the use of poor English grammar, profane and vulgar language; have criminal tendencies; display racial intolerance, and so on. These traits indicate lower class status, not race or ethnicity, although they may be couched in ethnic or in ghetto expressions and mannerisms.

It would appear, therefore, that, if apt distinctions are made between class and ethnicity, due cognizance is taken of the differences among African-Americans, and efforts are made to mine this richly textured and diverse People for memorable characters, writers of African-American romances will confront an embarrassment of riches. The novels may include many types of characters, none of need be stereotypical, and each character can represent some strata of American-American life. The African-American novel will be richer and more faithful to existing conditions.