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African Americans: Between The Cultural Heritage And American Assimilation

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In the twentieth century, the United States of America has transitioned into a more diverse nation. Immigrants arriving from around the globe combined with African Americans to challenge the American identity. As a result, prominent figures including Theodore Roosevelt believed every American should indeed be Americanized. Throughout the twentieth century, Americanization, which means to sacrifice an old culture in favor of American culture, remains an issue amongst authors in particular. Authors in the twentieth century expressed their stance on the battle between cultural heritage and American assimilation. Some authors such as Langston Hughes supported diversity and pride in their culture. On the other end of the spectrum, others like Booker Taliaferro Washington advocated for assimilation into American society. However, Paul Laurence Dunbar represented neutrality by advocating points from both ends. More contemporary diverse American writers including Amy Tan had their stance on the debate by advocating for neutrality. As a major aspect of American literature, various diverse writers in the twentieth century celebrate cultural identity while others advocate assimilation.

Hughes expresses his desire to celebrate cultural identity through his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. In this poem, Hughes acknowledges the hardships of his race’s past. In the line, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins” (Hughes, Langston 2009), Hughes analogizes rivers to ancestry. The African rivers mentioned such as the Congo and the Nile are historically significant to human civilization in the continent. Another historic aspect mentioned in Hughes’ poem is Abraham Lincoln. The “muddy bosom turned all golden in the sunset” alludes to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (8). Although it did not free many slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation became an important step towards black freedom. The connections to Lincoln and the rivers show historical significance, which is something African Americans have themselves and should embrace. Hughes also shows cultural identity in the final line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (3). The deep rivers where his soul had gone deep signify the long inhumane history of the treatment that African Americans had received. All in all, Hughes advocates for cultural heritage in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.

Hughes also advocates cultural identity in “Visitors to the Black Belt”. The poem describes the feeling of oppression that southern African Americans had suffered from. Hughes starts off the poem with:

You can talk about

Across the railroad tracks-

To me, it’s here

On this side of the tracks. (1-4).

Hughes shows the strong barrier between blacks and whites based on the Harlem Renaissance based on emphasizing “across” and “here”. The Renaissance took place in the North rather in the South. To its counterparts in the tortuous South, the northern African Americans can associate themselves with the more positive Harlem. Since Harlem is in the North, it is somewhat Americanized. White culture has an influence on the Harlem Renaissance. Therefore, whites who assume Harlem represents the African American culture does not understand the true values of African American culture. As a result, the southern misery is not taken into account. The lines, “You can say / Jazz in the South Side- / To me it’s hell” indicate the outsiders’ blindness and how Hughes still acknowledges the South (9-11). This acknowledgement expresses the resilient blacks still have a presence in the South. While negatively interpreted, the poem raises awareness of cultural identity.

Other authors such as Dunbar remain neutral on the debate between cultural identity and assimilation. He expressed the mosaic ideology in “Sympathy”, which involves a caged bird representing cultural heritage longing to escape being imprisoned in his cage. The bird acknowledges its rough past when it sings and “beats his wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars” where “a pain still throbs in the old, old scars” (8-9, 12). The caged bird represents the African American slaves, which just like the caged birds, went through pain and scars to get their freedom. Remembering the past exemplifies cultural heritage. According to the line, “When he beats his bars and he would be free; / It is not a carol of joy or glee”, the bird longed to escape into the outside world (17-18). The desire to be part of the outside world would mean interacting with white people. This interaction would lead to integrating the black lifestyle to the white lifestyle. As a result, this poem also shows support for assimilation. “Sympathy” symbolizes the struggle of African Americans and their quest for freedom by both expressing the melting pot and mosaic ideas.

Dunbar also went for assimilation in “We Wear the Mask”. The title itself directs readers towards a sense of assimilation by wearing a mask. Wearing a mask indicates hiding an original identity in order to please the mainstream one. This is exactly the case in “We Wear the Mask”. In this case, blacks had to hide their humiliation and suffering from their white counterparts by wearing a mask that lies. When Dunbar wrote, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile” (646), it is evident that African Americans were forced to hide their pain by showing a fake smile. They suffered emotionally on the inside but could not express it. In addition to showing a fake smile, African Americans did not care about their heritage. The third stanza reads, “But let the world dream otherwise, / We wear the mask!” (14-15). The lines do not celebrate cultural heritage because the slaves had to show pleasure while they are being tortured. Letting the world dream otherwise shows the slaves’ carelessness when it comes to expressing their identity.They are concealing their true self by hiding their pain. Hiding their pain also means hiding their cultural identity.

Meanwhile, authors such as Washington encourages assimilation according to his Up from Slavery. As a member of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington along with other African Americans agreed to a deal with other white southerners in 1895 called the Atlanta Compromise. The agreement advocated assimilation since both parties allowed the black race to submit to white supremacy in exchange for basic education to get into a trade job, which does not permit blacks to progress in society. Whites could still control them politically, mentally, and physically since blacks were still oppressed from rights such as suffrage and equality. Conceding to the white race signifies assimilation because Washington did not advocate for his race to stand up against the white race, as seen when he says:

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In order to be successful in any undertaking, I think the main thing is for one to grow to the point where he completely forgets himself; that is, to lose himself in a great cause. In proportion as one loses himself in this way, in the same degree does he get the highest happiness out of his work. (181)

In this quote, Washington clearly shows his willingness to compromise with whites while his race completely forgets their identity in the process. This forgetfulness leads to eventual assimilation. Washington also states, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing” (223). Again, Washington implies that even the “wisest among my race” believes that African Americans should not rise up to the whites. If blacks could not reach their full potential, then cultural heritage could not be celebrated. Washington’s concession to the white race is evident in his book.

Washington expressed further support in assimilation through his Up from Slavery. This autobiography chronicles Washington’s ascendance from slave to businessman. In order to rise up from slavery and improve the Tuskegee Institute, he believed he had to suck up to the race that has tortured his own for centuries. Washington believed the best way for a black man to reach the path of success is by becoming the grateful black man in history. He fulfilled that role when he believed by “notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did”, suggests that blacks benefited from slavery (17). According to the history of slavery, blacks were bitter victims of the white race. Washington only went this far so he could gain success, which is what he wanted. He also believed it was okay for whites to treat blacks unequally even though they technically earned their rights through the Reconstruction Era. To concede and allow mistreatment indicates a lack of pride. Washington additionally writes:

I have been made to feel sad for such persons because I am conscious of the fact that mere connection with what is known as a race will not permanently carry an individual forward unless he has individual worth, and mere connection with what is regarded as an inferior race will not finally hold an individual back if he possesses intrinsic, individual merit. (40)

Here, Washington solidified his belief that white Americans were superior to African Americans. To become conscious of this fact that blacks need to have worth in order to have a mere connection with whites shows how Washington does not want his race to become successful like whites. This supports his belief that blacks should only go as far as working in trade jobs, which is very similar to slavery. Yet Washington is successful himself. Based on his quotes, Up from Slavery reveals that Washington offers no regard for black heritage as he goes from rags to riches in his conquest for success.

In contemporary writing, Tan advocates for diversity in her essay, Mother Tongue. Tan becomes more conscious of her language use in this essay. At work, she uses sophisticated English. At home, she speaks choppy English, so her mother, who has broken English, can understand her. Even though Tan possesses an extensive English vocabulary, she acknowledges her mother’s English skills. She shows this by telling her mother, “not waste money that way” when shopping for furniture. Tan is conscious of not only her own English skills, but also her mother’s English skills. This broken English shows that she acknowledges cultural diversity since she is also raising awareness that most immigrants struggle with knowing decent English in the process. According to Tan, language “suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother” (Tan, “Mother Tongue”). This English is the only English where she can successfully communicate with her mother. She could not speak this type of English with her husband or colleagues. As seen with Tan’s mother, is okay to live in the United States without extensive English knowledge. Tan did not force her mother to match her own English. Rather than doing so, Tan was willing to communicate with her mother by speaking in choppy English. Tan concludes that language is a tool that changes depending on who people talk with. Tan also wrote the pro-assimilationist The Joy Luck Club, which reconciles two cultures. In this novel, the themes of cultural displacement and mother-to-daughter relationships shape up the idea for immigrants to assimilate into American culture.

They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds ‘joy luck’ is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation. (40-41)

This quote shows the conflict between an assimilated daughter and a Chinese cultured mother. The mothers want their daughters to prosper in the United States. However, the mothers want to have a connection with their daughters. This would turn out to become difficult since their daughters’ daughters would become assimilated. They would turn accustomed into speaking perfect English rather than broken English. This separation from cultural ties between generations indicates assimilation. In addition, Tan’s novel advocates assimilation based on Waverly Jong’s life. While thinking about her daughter, Lindo Jong expresses:

I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character… I taught her how American circumstances work… You do not have to sit like a Buddha under a tree letting pigeons drop their dirty business on your head. You can buy an umbrella. Or go inside a Catholic church. In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody gives you. She learned these things, but I couldn’t teach her about Chinese characters. (254)

Jong desire for her mother to assimilate into “American circumstances” while keeping her Chinese heritage. Lindo allows Waverly to become white washed so Waverly could strive for the “American Dream”. She is doing so by means of assimilation. For instance, she would marry a white man named Rich Shields. Additionally, she discredits her mom in front of her white acquaintances. Interracial relationships as well as becoming acclimated support the melting pot idea. In these relationships, two cultures clash, making it difficult to pass down culture through generations. This difficulty makes celebrating cultural heritage difficult.

All in all, advocates for both assimilation and heritage shared different opinions on cultural identity in the twentieth century. While some expressed support for the mosaic idea, others advocated for assimilation. First, Hughes expressed his desire for cultural celebration in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Visitors to the Black Belt”. Additionally, Dunbar supported Hughes’ stance in his “Sympathy”. However his neutrality showed when he went against the mosaic idea in “We Wear the Mask”. Washington sided with “We Wear the Mask” in his Atlanta Exposition Address. This is still an issue as can be seen in Tan’s “Mother Tongue” and The Joy Luck Club. She supports cultural heritage in “Mother Tongue”. She leans towards


  1. Langston Hughes, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 2002 by Langston Hughes. Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates, Inc.

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African Americans: Between The Cultural Heritage And American Assimilation. (2021, September 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from
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