In 2002, an all-white ad hoc committee of bookstore owners, libraries, publishers groups, and other groups such as the New York Women’s Agenda decided that New York should emulate Chicago’s successful “One Book, One City” program, which urged Chicago’s residents to read and discuss Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
The New York committee chose four finalists: Chang-rae Lee’s debut novel, Native Speaker (1995); James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996), Dennis Smith’s 1972 memoir Report From Engine Co. 82, and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Committee members then voted by e-mail, and Native Speaker edged out The Color of Water.
Controversy immediately ensued.
The contours of the controversy highlight some of the problems with the ways in which late twentieth-century institutional multiculturalism has encouraged us to read literary texts, particularly ethnic literary texts. One problem that became evident from committee members subsequent comments was the fact that many of them hadn’t bothered to read the books carefully or even to finish them before voting. According to the New York Times, “John C. Liu, the first Asian-American councilman, said he had not finished [Native Speaker] but relished the idea of a book about an Asian-American councilman.” In contrast, Barbara Gerard, a representative of the Women’s Agenda on the selection committee and a consultant to the Board of Education, also admitted not finishing the book and wanted to reserve judgment until she had seen “if there is anything derogatory toward Korean-Americans or Asians at this point.”
Gerard, like some other members of the committee, seemed to have a programmatic idea of multicultural reading, assuming that multicultural texts should be celebrations of particular ethnic identities.
Members of the committee who had dismissed Doctorow’s Ragtime as insufficiently multicultural had either not read up to the novel’s final pages, in which the rags-to-riches Jewish studio magnate imagines a film featuring “a bunch of children who were pals, white black, fat thin rich poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures in their own neighborhood, a society of ragamuffins, like all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again,” or simply dismissed the novel because it didn’t include Asians or Latinos and spent a lot of time describing the lives of white people.
Ultimately, the New York Women’s Agenda decided to withdraw from the program and promote the reading of The Color of Water, the biracial McBride’s paean to his white mother, in part because of its greater attention to issues of gender and because, according to the Times, “Members of the group were concerned that Native Speaker was not engaging enough for high school students and might offend some Asian-Americans,” presumably because two of its central characters are Asian and turn out to be flawed human beings. The controversy over Native Speaker suggests that the pursuit of multiculturalism often leads to an essentialism in which the depiction of particular minority characters is assumed to reflect on the character of the minority as a whole.
We’ve thought in the past about including Native Speaker on our Writing New York syllabus, in part because it draws inspiration from Whitman’s view of New York’s immigrants as the future of American democracy. Doctorow’s Ragtime ends with a racially diverse, reconstituted nuclear family that strikes me as an emblem of hope for a cosmopolitan future. Native Speaker, too, dramatizes the necessity of pursuing cosmopolitanism, even as it dramatizes the failure of one man’s cosmopolitan dream. It would indeed be a good fit for our syllabus. Which leads to the inevitable question: what should we drop in order to put it in?