Articles and Papers


Back to Home


Articles and Papers

Useful Websites

About Lydia



Alan Jabbour

Ethnicity and Identity in America

Folklife Center News
American Folklife Center
The Library of Congress
Spring 1993
Volume XV, Number 2
ISSN 0149-6840 Catalog Card No. 77-649628


The American Folklife Center was created in 1976 by the U.S.Congress to "preserve and present American folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, publication, and training. The Center incorporates the Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in the Music Division of the Library of Congress in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world.

Alan Jabbour prepared the following remarks for a conference on ethnicity and folklore, held in Hungary in 1981. They were printed in Folklife Center News, July 1981 and October 1981, as a two-part essay for the "Director's Column," and are offered again here as a timely commentary on cultural diversity, a subject currently of great national interest.

American civilization has for centuries intrigued and baffled its observers. Both American and foreign commentators have long been fascinated by the complex process through which a politically and culturally coherent civilization has welded itself together out of so many disparate human elements. It is a phenomenon that finds expression in the widely quoted American motto e pluribus unum.

More recently, discussions of the subject have revolved around the word pluralism, used both as a descriptive term referring to the coexistence of many cultural traditions and as a prescriptive term to exhort Americans to support policies that would further the goal of a plural society.

Many observers, at home and abroad, tend to gloss e pluribus unum by citing one of two simple theories. The first is that "many become one" by elimination of cultural variety. The "melting-pot theory" of American culture assumes that becoming American requires sloughing off one's homeland and values. Old World languages, customs, and symbolic forms, however quaint and attractive, must, by this theory, fall away in the face of "the American way of life." The second theory opposes the first. According to advocates of "pluralism," America is made up of many ethnic traditions, from those of the indigenous Native Americans to those of the most recent immigrant group to land on our shores. E pluribus unum means, not that the many shed their manyness to become the same culturally, but that the many ethnic groups combine as groups to constitute the larger society. Just as the geo-political units called states combine to create the federation of "United States," so the cultural units of ethnic groups coexist and cooperate in the workings of the larger society. Individuals are necessarily "ethnic," but that ethnicity is an asset and does not prohibit or inhibit their participation in the larger society. Both these theories have the virtue of simplicity, and have been widely employed. But neither, to my mind, adequately accounts for the complexity of American civilization. One must account for the American Indian powwow honoring World War II veterans; the Louisiana Cajun with an Irish surname singing a blues song in French; the Washington, D.C., Jewish family adopting current Israeli pronunciation for Hebrew words instead of their parents' Ashkenazi pronunciations; the Afro-American blues singer from Virginia who incorporates songs of the white country singer Jimmie Rodgers in his repertory; and the second-generation Hungarian steelworker who prefers the company of Irish and Slovak fellow workers to that of post-1956 Hungarian immigrants. What is needed, then, is a more elaborate and supple model for ethnicity in the United States. I shall not be so rash as to proclaim that this essay will set forth a model, but let me dwell a little upon some of its salient features. The first feature is selectivity. Not only folklorists but many other thoughtful observers have noticed that immigrants to the United States maintain some customs and expressive forms, and quickly abandon others. Presumably some kinds of folklore and folklife undergo uprooting and transoceanic migration with ease, while others cannot be transplanted. One group may maintain its aboriginal language and verbal traditions, its music, and its foodways, while dropping calendrical customs tied to life on the land in the country of origin. Another group will abandon language but maintain ancient customs relating to farming. Further, it has often been observed that, though particular folkloric traditions are maintained in America, the integrated world view and way of life into which these traditions fit in the land of origin are lost here, making the particular traditions serve more specialized and culturally fragmented purposes. A second feature, functioning in tandem with selectivity, is tenacity. Americans partake amply in the custom of bewailing the loss of customs. The fact is that, within the parameters of selectivity, ethnic traditions maintain themselves very well and for long periods in the United States. Once selected for maintenance, traditions are clung to with surprising vigor, belying the predictions of those who assume they will vanish in a generation. Rural-based traditions seem especially tenacious. Although there seems to be more historical flux in urban-based traditions, even there we find that selective tenacity is a factor to be reckoned with. A third characteristic is the recombinant development of symbolic forms (to borrow a term from genetic theory). The selective tenacity, one might say, functions not by clinging to expressive forms frozen in time as a memory of some past cultural life, but rather by maintaining a vigorous creative continuity which encompasses new ideas, new elements, and new genres. Foodways are freely and creatively adapted, not only to accommodate available foodstuffs, but to integrate old and new customs and patterns of eating. Musical forms and genres, which tend to fare quite well in the mill of "selective tenacity," exhibit continuing creative recombination. Recombinant development--that is to say, creativity--must be regarded as fundamental to the concept of tradition everywhere; but on the American scene, with its extraordinary flux and interaction, recombinant development is so conspicuous and continuous that it must be regarded as a special hallmark. The fourth feature of ethnicity in America is individual versatility. Scholars whose concern for tradition inclines them to deal with society in group terms need to remind themselves that individuals are not always wed eternally to the ethnic group into which they were born. Particularly in the United States, the symbolic forms associated with ethnicity are available to many as a matter of choice. Interethnic marriage is absolutely commonplace on the American scene, and historical evidence suggests that this has always been the case. It is a common American experience for a child to grow up within a family where the father is from one ethnic tradition and the mother from another. Just as frequently, further ethnic traditions are immediately available to the child within his community or neighborhood. They may in some cases present stark "either/or" choices, but more typically afford the possibility of "picking and choosing. " When we speak of an ethnic group in the American context, we are talking about a somewhat amorphous abstraction comprising a cluster of cultural options available to individuals in intimate contact with the "group." One may consider oneself a member of a group in certain ways and contexts, but a member of other groups in other contexts. Beyond ethnic grouping, there are other means of grouping: geographical (neighborhood, community, town, state, region), occupational (including not only occupations for earning a living but important recreational occupations or hobbies), and religious. Thus, an individual may choose his ways of expressing himself culturally from more than one ethnic option, as well as from a variety of nonethnic options. No account of ethnicity in America that ignores individual versatility can present a realistic picture of the relationship of ethnicity to human identity in the American context. If these four elements--selectivity, tenacity, recombinant development, and individual versatility--are indeed crucial to the profile of ethnicity in America, then ethnicity is clearly not the fundamental organizing principle in the building of identity in the United States. Instead, it functions along with other cultural organizing principles--region, occupation, religion--in providing optional social networks, cultural traditions, and symbolic expressive forms from which an American may choose. Is ethnicity therefore diminished? Is it reduced from a fundamental birthright to a cultural bauble? Are the folkloric forms identified as "ethnic" trivialized in their symbolic meaning and in the cultural freight they carry? Many people believe that the answer to these questions is an unequivocal yes. My own answer is, perhaps, but only sometimes. Detached from a unifying world view and way of life, certain folkloric expressions are doubtless maintained in the United States for more specialized, and one could even say trivialized, reasons--particularly as mementos of the Old World and old ways of life. But these types of folklore tend not to be maintained very long; a generation or two may be their maximum life expectancy. Other kinds of folkloric expression both endure and prosper creatively on the American scene; but what endures must have enduring relevance. The American cultural process generates a multitude of interlocking, overlapping, and constantly changing categories of human organization. A fact of American life is that everyone born in America is a citizen. Another fact of life is that few ethnic groups permanently control and exclusively identify with a particular segment of the land, though many develop attachments to areas shared with other ethnic groups. A further fact is that American political boundaries crosscut ethnic geography, from the state level down to the local towns and communities. Once ethnicity is severed from the identification with turf--particular segments of land, rural or urban--then it must compete with crosscutting groupings such as region, religion, or occupation in the cultural marketplace where Americans select the elements of their interlocking identity. To understand the special creative functions of ethnicity in America, then, we must search more closely into the relationship of ethnicity to the land and to the larger civilization's cultural patterns and rhythms. As illustrations of the American cultural process, let us look at a single moment in American cultural history, using music as our focal art. The time is a brief span of years after World War II, perhaps 1947 to 1955. Many cosmopolitan Americans regard it as an era when "nothing was going on," a sort of dead period culturally speaking. From a national vantage point that may have been the case, but it does not follow that nothing was going on at all. On the contrary, the post-World War II period was a time of intense fermentation at the grassroots level of culture, if the evidence of folk music is to be believed. In the Upper South and in urban areas to which Appalachian migrants moved, a new British-American style called bluegrass suddenly took shape just after World War II. It is characterized by singing in the classic British-American style and use of acoustic stringed instruments--in conscious opposition to the more broadly popular singing style and electrified instruments already becoming standard in country music at the time. Instruments typically include fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, and double bass. Thus bluegrass taps the most conservative stylistic preferences of British-American folk music. At the same time, it borrows repertory and stylistic elements from African-American music. And from jazz and popular music it borrows such devices as "breaks" featuring different instruments in turn--devices unknown in earlier hillbilly string bands. In short, bluegrass is a striking new synthesis for British-American culture in the Upper South, expressing both longstanding values and the new experiences of the post-World War II world in Appalachia and in cities like Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Detroit, where Appalachians migrated. During the same period, but quite independently, the contemporary African-American style known as rhythm and blues was quickly taking shape in the Deep South and in urban centers where large numbers of blacks had migrated--particularly Chicago. The chief characteristic of the new style was that it was plugged in. Amplified guitars and other stringed instruments symbolized the new urban experience of Deep South blacks. At the same time, amplification permitted creative extension of the traditional slide-guitar technique that had already become a hallmark of the older country blues style. Plugging in thus proved to be a deeply traditional innovation, simultaneously embracing new cultural experiences and asserting deeply held older values. One might surmise from the parallels between bluegrass and rhythm and blues that both reflected a larger cultural fermentation in the South, which is the cultural home region for both. The American South comprises a vast and complex region, peopled by a variety of regional and ethnic groups, which, for over a century, has consistently engendered new musical styles at the grassroots level and exported them into the stream of popular music at the national level. This long-standing pattern of cultural flow might account for bluegrass and rhythm and blues in the period after World War II. But there are further parallels beyond the South. The period following World War II also saw the development of the contemporary American Indian powwow in Oklahoma and throughout the American Plains. The musical style is pan-tribal, in contrast with the separate tribal repertories and stylistic preferences that preceded it. It probably evolved first in Oklahoma, whence it spread quickly through the entire Plains region, and it continues to spread into other tribal gatherings further west and east. An alternative singing style soon developed in the Northern Plains, but it too is pan-tribal and functions in the contemporary powwow ceremonial context. Tribal traditionalists fret about the intrusion of the powwow style into older traditional ceremonies, but it clearly represents a new pan-Indian experience and world view, and it clearly has strengthened Native American identity throughout a vast swath of America. Why did three contemporary traditional styles--bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and the Plains powwow--evolve suddenly and simultaneously in the decade following the conclusions of World War II? And what is the significance of their development? First, all three newly evolved styles evince, in the elements synthesized into the styles, a reaching out by an ethnic tradition to embrace neighboring traditions, as well as elements of the general American experience. Yet they simultaneously re-emphasize certain fundamental stylistic elements of the group's traditional art. Second, they suggest by their simultaneity that such creative evolution of traditional symbolic forms does not occur wholly within an ethnic or regional group's internal cultural chemistry but is catalyzed by forces and rhythms in the larger civilization. It may require the group's inner chemistry, but that chemistry alone does not suffice to explain the phenomenon. Third, there is an interesting relationship between recombinant development at the group cultural level and individual versatility at the personal level. An energetic symbolic form like bluegrass or rhythm and blues tends to be both culturally aggrandizing in embracing elements from other cultural traditions, and personally aggrandizing in that it attracts new adherents beyond the source group as narrowly defined. It is a process that, in a real sense, redefines a group and its boundaries. One might assert that the fluidity of cultural process exemplified by bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and the powwow style is in fact characteristic of all cultures around the world, and is thus not an American phenomenon in an distinctive sense. When one contemplates culture as a human phenomenon, it is doubtless true that cultures change, and that a chief cause of change is contact with other cultures. Yet I believe there are differences in the cultural development of ethnicity American-style, and that the differences might be not only of degree (a faster rate of change, for example) but of kind. In Europe, ethnicity is often regarded as more fundamental than cultural attributes associated with, say, region, religion, or occupation. One studies a given ethnic group, and as sub-categories one studies that group in a particular region, or in particular occupations, or in religious practices. Similarly, in general social discourse, ethnicity and nationality seem to be conflated in a way sometimes perplexing to an American. Can a Gypsy in Hungary be both Gypsy in ethnicity and Hungarian in nationality? Or does the term "minority" imply a kind of categorization that excludes ethnic minorities from national life in a way fundamentally different from the American experience? The key difference in the way ethnicity is regarded in Europe and in this country, I am coming to believe, lies in the neutrality of the land itself--or rather, in the neutrality of Americans' perception of their relationship to the land. Our nation is very large and encompassing, and there is still plenty of space for people by almost any comparative standard. Within those spacious bounds the population moves and shifts with an ease and an alacrity unparalleled in recent European history. With the exception of some of the Southwest and West and a few scattered pockets elsewhere, land in America does not seem so permanently tied to the sole ownership of single ethnic groups. Nor do ethnic neighborhoods in urban areas prove permanent in their composition, despite both anxiety about ghettos and short-term pride in the positive aspects of ethnic neighborhoods. The long-term pattern seems to favor fluidity over community stability, individual choice over permanent domain. Some will find this invigorating; others will see it as culturally dangerous. But, whatever its virtues or defects, the pattern of life on the American land certainly tends to define ethnicity not as the fundamental cultural organizing principle but as one cultural dimension among many. It parallels or competes with family, geographical community, region, occupational networks, and religious affiliations in a complex of options available to every American.

Yet the phenomena of bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and the modern powwow style should remind us that ethnicity thus defined is not therefore doomed to extinction. Rather, it remains a potent creative factor in American culture, but a factor which seems to be most creative when it combines selectivity, tenacity, recombinant development, and individual versatility in a fluid synthesis of the old and the new in the arts and lives of Americans.



Subscribe to Buffalo Report, Buffalo's best alternative paper

Click for Buffalo, New York Forecast