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We, the People

By , Liberal Arts student
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The different cultural aspects of the “People” of America are a fascinating treasure trove of enigmas and disclosures. As a product of the dominant American culture, I found “Understanding Race” (1), a video on the various ethnic minorities that now reside in the United States, extremely informative, yet as I watched the different cultural groups, I was conscious of my own culturally conditioned reactions to various aspects of the presentation. While watching this video, I kept asking myself: Who, exactly, make up “We, the People”?

“We, the People…” the bold strokes of black on the ancient, yellowing parchment declare. In 1788, when the United States Constitution was first drafted – a document designed to protect the rights of the citizens of America and to prevent their freedom from ever being curtailed by any branch of the government assuming near-dictatorial powers – “the People” were a vastly different cultural mosaic. Stoic Puritans, gentle Quakers, staunch Protestants – these were the dominant culture of the youthful nation. A large percentage of Black slaves resided mainly in the South, but as of yet were not counted as “People”; nor were the native sons that had originally inhabited the virgin soil of the New World long before the first Pilgrim had claimed it as his own.

One wonders what the Founding Fathers would say if those venerable gentlemen could observe the streets of America today and scrutinize the teeming masses that now make up “We, the People.” White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American – all nationalities mingle and merge under the broad appellation of “American” – yet though each group joins the “American Melting Pot,” each possesses its own unique culture and customs that set it apart from the others.

The first “People” introduced in “Understanding Race” is the Asian-Americans, more specifically the Japanese. We learn that perhaps the most fundamental difference between Japanese and American culture is the respective place awarded to the individual person within the larger sphere of the group, community, and nation. While America, founded upon the individual rights of each person to live, worship and pursue happiness as he or she sees best, the Japanese militaristic society, founded upon the rigid codes of loyalty and honor (think Samurai and Shogun), awards place to the individual as part of a cohesive group. To be successful, a military society requires authority and a strict code of obedience, something that is most emphatically absent in America, which grants its citizens the right to “free speech”, even if it means harsh criticism of the ruling body.

Even more interesting is the Japanese inner focus on correcting the negative as a way to spur them on to greater heights, something as alien to American culture as Shintoism. Most Americans, by contrast, place so much value upon the self and the individual that it is mostly the positive aspects of our selves that are focused on. Yet, despite these fundamental differences, despite the persistent Western mental picture of the Japanese being the painted white face of the geisha, smiling graciously above a lovely silk kimono tied with an obi, graceful fingers curled around a steaming teapot, the Japanese work ethic and emphasis on respect are not ideas foreign to even the most American among us.

The next “People” explored in “Understanding Race” are the African-Americans, descendants of the millions of African slaves cruelly transplanted to the New World. Torn away from all he understood and loved, surrounded by a strange culture and language so unlike his own, the African developed his own version of the white man's culture and religion. Deeply spiritual, the African expressed his spirituality through rhythmic songs called “gospel music.” His life was, and still is, regulated by music and song, unlike that of the more prosaic American. Jazz, bebop, scatting, the 'blues', rap, soul, reggae, hip-hop – all originate to a great extent from the minds and hearts of the African. Part of his pulse, his life-blood – the tribal rhythms and songs that are so central to the life of all the diverse tribes of Africa – lives on in the African-American of today.

Yet perhaps the greatest cultural difference between the African and the American is their respective views of the role “Time” plays. The American is a slave to time, obedient to the hours and minutes speedily ticking by, always hurrying, rushing, speeding – trying desperately to keep up with the swift pace of Life. The African, by contrast, is the master of Time, living in the joy and sadness of the immediate present – for yesterday is forgotten and tomorrow but a dream, lost in the compelling reality of today. For him, Time is only now, and this view of the world gives him the patient strength and endurance to overcome the adversity he faces in an unequal world – and do it with joy.

The original “People” of North America are the third group portrayed in “Understanding Race”. The first white Europeans to set foot upon American soil mistakenly believed they were encountering inhabitants of the West Indies, and called the First Nations people “Indians”. The misnomer survived, a visible sign of a deeper underlying problem: the white man could not understand the culture of the “Indian”. He saw the “Indians” as savages, living primitive, brutal lives. He saw their religion as pagan, and their laws as non-existent.

White Europeans were also ignorant about the rich complexity of tribal life, governed by a strict series of taboos and rules. They were blind to the beauty the “Indians” saw in the land they believed the “Great Spirit” had given them. The white man wanted gold and furs. He wanted to tame the “Indians”, and Christianize them and exploit their homeland for his own selfish desires. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” said the early American pioneers, and this mentality has been passed down to their descendants.

First Nations also have a deep-rooted tradition of
sharing and community

First Nations have always had a deep respect for the environment, for every living and non-living thing, because everything has a spirit. This world, they believe, is a gift meant to be cherished, something that other Americans – who build cities and worlds of steel and stone to protect us from the natural world – have a hard time accepting. First Nations adapted harmoniously to their environment, while other Americans shaped, and still shape, the environment to suit them – regardless of the harm they may cause.

First Nations also have a deep-rooted tradition of sharing and community. Everything is everyone's, and stealing is a completely foreign concept. The tribe takes care of all its members, and each member contributes to the general well-being of the community. The American, stressing the individual, jealously guards his rights, privileges, and property. It was such culture clash that led to horrible events such as the cruel massacre at Wounded Knee and the never-forgotten “Trail of Tears.”

The fourth and final “People” shown in “Understanding Race” are the Hispanics, the huge influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from the poor countries of South America. In the video, researchers explained that depression rates among Hispanics rise dramatically the longer they live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” This is largely because the Hispanics, a very family-oriented people, suffer tremendously without the emotional support of a large extended clan. To them, family is sacred. Family is everything. It is the family that assures cultural continuity, promotes emotional security and engenders a deep sense of belonging. Without this sense of belonging, younger Hispanics are cut off from the cultural life that sustained their parents. They become frustrated and angry by the differences they feel come between them and other Americans. This, in turn, causes them to drift farther from their rich cultural heritage, and promotes feelings of despair at their lack of roots to hold onto. Unlike other Americans who, though they certainly view family as important, do not attach the same importance to large, extended family connections, Hispanics crave the emotional security of an extended, warm, loving family unit.

So who – after all – are “We, the People”? We are white, Asian, Native American, African-America and Spanish-American. We practise as many different religions as there are stars on the flag, come from as many different walks of life as there are stripes, and have more colors than can be counted. But, despite our deep, sometimes divisive, differences, we are all “People”. The constitution of the United States says “People” – not nationality, race, creed or gender. We are all just “People”, with the same love of life, the same deep joys and grief, the same basic physical and emotional needs, the same desire for love and companionship, the same need to seek ourselves and the meaning of life.

“Understanding Race” highlights some dramatic differences between the various groups that combine to make up America. But it is these very differences that make America so beautiful. Let us hope that one day we truly will be one “People”, one nation indivisible under God, with Life and Liberty for all.

1. “Understanding Race,” videorecording produced and directed by Lynn Dougherty. Narrated by Peter Coyote. (Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1999).

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