Entering Multiculturalism

By Bryan J. Wolf

Over the past decade, I have led a variety of seminars for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute that have focused on issues of race and ethnicity. I did so in part because the New Haven school system, like its counterparts across the nation, has been reluctant to develop a curriculum that reflects the needs and histories of the urban populations it serves. And I did so for the most selfish of reasons, for my own sake, so that I could have a truer, wider vision of my world.

It was not always so. The first seminar I taught for the Teachers Institute in 1989 mirrored the teaching I had been doing at the time with my English and American Studies students at Yale. We examined painters and writers from colonial times through the twentieth century. The curriculum units produced by the seminar participants reflected the materials of the class: everyday life in revolutionary era America, the art of the Hudson River School, modernist architecture.

Something was missing. That first seminar addressed an array of "canonical" writers and artists without also addressing the nitty-gritty teaching needs of New Haven public school teachers. Their working (and often non-working) hours were filled with questions for which Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jackson Pollock were not the answers.

In retrospect, I suspect the seminar lacked what you might call "soul." It had spirit and energy in abundance. But that is not the same as "soul," a term that I use here to suggest the richness of racial and ethnic cultural traditions in the United States. To teach a class with soul is to tap into the diversity of everyday American expressive life, catching that life as it is transformed into art.

In succeeding years, I began moving away from canonical texts and images into what were, for me, relatively unexplored terrains. And my vehicle for this voyage into the unknown was the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. I found that each successive seminar that I led for the Institute carried me that much further into what we might term "alternative cultural geographies." By this I mean new realms of learning, non-traditional canons, that had been labeled "terra incognita" by those who once mapped thecontours of American literature.

I wanted a new map. The old maps, the ones I had been using, resembled those centuries-old vellum artifacts that show the known world, the "New World," as the Atlantic seaboard, while filling the interior with wild beasts and imagined lands. I needed something a little more up-to-date.

As all teachers know, one learns by teaching. To be successful in the classroom, you must receive as much from your students as you give. The Teachers Institute became for me the place par excellence where such exchange occurred. I found a freedom there to rethink not only what I had been teaching, but why I had been teaching it.

The seminar participants, in turn, were hungry for new materials. They were happy to explore mainstream, "canonical" texts, but their hunger turned into more than hunger­it became a passion, a Rabelaisian appetite­when we started reading novels by "ethnic" writers and viewing art devoted to issues of racial identity.

What happened, in effect, is that the New Haven Teachers Institute provided me with a space, a forum, for my own version of an experimental classroom. The seminar participants and I converted our weekly meetings into occasions for unlocking closed doors. We opened up new texts, raised the windows onto previously uninvestigated vistas, and generally converted the classroom from a repository of received traditions, a museum with blackboards, to a way-station en route to new cultural experiences.

This means that we ate mangoes in class (part of a curriculum unit on culture and food) and then read When I Was Puerto Rican, a lush account of Esmeralda Santiago's experiences growing up in the Caribbean, where mangoes are as abundant as sunny days. We viewed one participant_s private collection of African textiles (from her Peace Corps days) and then studied African influences on Caribbean and North American crafts traditions. We followed Jacob Lawrence's epic Migration Series, sixty painted panels that narrate the movement of southern Blacks to northern cities in the years following World War I, and then read Toni Morrison's Beloved, a gothic account of the risks that attend all efforts at cultural recovery.

Eventually this new knowledge made its way into my Yale teaching. I created an undergraduate seminar on the topic of "Ethnicity and Dissent" in American art and literature, and then converted the seminar into a lecture course that I will teach for the first time in the spring of 1997. My research interests similarly shifted, and I now devote increasing amounts of my time to writing about multiculturalism in contemporary literature and art.
Why did this exploratory teaching and learning occur in the Teachers Institute before it happened in my regular instruction with Yale undergraduate and graduate students? I have been pondering this question for a while now, and I think I know the answer. But to understand that answer, we need to detour for a moment to an arresting sculpture by Martin Puryear, an African-American artist who works with marvelously crafted, often bio-morphic forms, constructed in wood and metal. To understand the relation of the Teachers Institute to the year-round curriculum at Yale, we need to consider first Puryear's To Transcend.

Puryear's sculpture looks a bit like an ungainly elephant's trunk reaching up the wall. It consists of two blocks of wood united by a lean wooden tether. The tether emerges from a kidney-shaped block evocative of the body and the organic world. It (the tether) arcs gently upward before arriving at a disk that both mirrors the wooden base and converts it into an abstracted and precise geometric object.

To Transcend is defined by the contrast between the disk at the top and the base at the bottom. The disk is more delicate, more refined, more cerebral, than the kidney form that launches it. It functions both as a pointer to realms beyond its grasp­an image of transcendence­and as a cap, an acknowledgment of the limits that attend all terrestrial questing.

To Transcend reminds us that true transcendence never fully leaves the ground. What we see when we look up is not air and light, but a round wooden disk, an idealized version, a utopian reworking, of our own squat and kidney-shaped lives. Those lives are lived, like that earth-hugging block of wood, at ground level. They remain incomplete until we learn to cast a glance upwards, beyond ourselves. For then and only then do we learn to measure who we are by what we might become.

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute is one place for measuring what we might become. It resembles that disk crowning Puryear_s lean arc of wood. It echoes the world around it at the same time as it attempts to alter, rethink, that world. Like Puryear's rounded disk, the Teachers Institute provides a space where everyday life may be reimagined, where the curriculum may be rethought and reformed. It is a place at once tethered to the realities of urban America and yet capable of rising above them.

And that, I believe, is why I entered multiculturalism through the doors of the Teachers Institute. The world of urban America issues into the classroom at the Teachers Insitute with an insistence, an unrelenting pressure, that otherwise tends to be muted at a privileged institution like Yale. Once in the door, those pressures change not only what we teach but how we think about teaching itself.

What I discovered through my seminars with the Teachers Institute is that multicultural teaching begins with one premise: that no single group on any side of the color line can tell its story without reference to the peoples and traditions on the other side. My story is not complete without yours. That is the great and dirty secret of American history. It is also our saving truth. W.E.B. Dubois was right: race is the central issue of the twentieth century. And all of us are part of that saga.

To say this is to stop defending the arts as repositories of universal truth. That leaves them like Dickens' Marley: dead as a doornail. Instead we need to see the arts as actors, fighters, in a contest over cultural values, a struggle to legitimate particular social visions. I no longer measure a work of art by its "beauty." That term‹and the values that go with it­tends to set art apart from the world, to enshrine it, "museum-ify" it, rather than return it to its historical roots so that it might continue to live and breathe.

I feel more comfortable with a less "aesthetic" vocabulary. That art is best which most powerfully addresses its own social, cultural or historical situation. I believe that art is not about culture but the politics of culture. It is a form of power: not the power of guns or dollars, but the ability to think critically. Art provides us with one of the few spaces we have in our society for self reflection: critical examination of one's life, one's community, one's identity. The classroom, potentially, is another such space. Good teaching, in this way, resembles strong art. Such art shows us how we are enmeshed in history and how to think critically about that history. It opens our eyes.

The Teachers Institute has been for me an eye-opening place. It allows its participants to relax just enough from their daily chores to catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of the larger picture. Or­to mix metaphors in mid-stream­we might say that the Teachers Institute provides its participants, both Yale professors and New Haven public school teachers, with a small taste of utopia, where knowledge, like mangoes, ripens in the heat of a new day.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

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