Multicultural mix

November 10, 1994|By H. H. Morris

THE SALESWOMAN arrived after I'd met several students in my office and had more waiting. She shook my hand and gave me her card.

"We have the most multicultural American literature textbook on the market, professor," she said.

"I haven't seen it," I said.

The last textbook I'd received from her publishers had arrived when Nixon was president. I assumed my failure to buy that version had cut me off their mailing list eternally. To be expunged from a promotional mailing list is the next best thing to winning the lottery and having His Royal Rubber Duckiness personally hand me my check.

"You'll want to see our text before you order," the saleswoman said.

"We've already ordered," I said.

"But it's by far the most multicultural on the market."

"You already said that. I had my good ear turned toward you."

She disappeared. Let's hope her company disappears for another 20 years. I don't need her brand of aggravation. It could make me believe in Rush Limbaugh. If I wanted to believe in fat guys, I'd bet on heavyweight boxing matches.

The saleswoman disappeared so fast I didn't have a chance to load a broadside, let alone fire it. Multicultural -- that brings up my years in two high schools in the hills of Missouri and Kansas. We studied black writers because they were American. We looked at immigrant traditions. We learned before we were old enough to vote that the glory of America was taking in the multitudes of oppressed and giving them a voice.

I've been teaching multicultural literature for nearly 30 years. I didn't realize it, of course. It was simply "Survey of American Literature, II." When the black awareness of the late 1960s hit campus, I pointed to writers I already taught, such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. When the women's storm blew strong, I pointed to Katherine Anne Porter, Willa Cather, Flannery O'Connor and Kate Chopin. Do you want Jewish Americans? Try Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Allen Ginsberg.

I don't want multicultural. I want American. I want to be free to teach students to appreciate the brilliant image Hughes gave us in 1951 -- a dream deferred withers, like a raisin in the sun. And I want that image to lead them to Lorraine Hansberry, not because she, too, had African ancestors, but because she wrote a scathingly brilliant play.

I prefer Flannery O'Connor as a writer, an ironist who saw reality in God-driven southern fundamentalists. I don't want O'Connor disadvantaged -- her fingers weren't on crutches, and her brain was fully alive -- and I don't want her tokenly female. Flannery O'Connor was an artist. I demand the freedom to say that with no adjectives.

Joe McCarthy didn't approve of that kind of academic freedom. His spirit is alive and well on too many college campuses today.

H. H. Morris teaches at Harford Community College. He writes from Aberdeen.

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