Student Perspectives Cross-Cultural
HUM 211 Course Pack - Fall 2004
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Short Cuts: Dawn Hendrix | Michelle Wallace
(Excerpt from) Exploring the Contact Zone: A Personal Journey Through
Multicultural Education - Student Web Site
Home Page: http://web.cocc.edu/hum299/hendrix/index.html
Patricia Bizzell,...in her ground breaking research project titled, "Contact Zones and English Studies,"....states, "I think we need an approach to the diverse world literatures written in English we are now studying that focuses not on their essential nature, whatever that may be, but rather how they might not 'fit' together exactly, but come into productive dialog with one another" (738).
Bizzell suggests that instructors address this problem by using Mary Louise Pratt's concept of the "Contact Zone." This term refers to the social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today" (qtd. in Bizzell 738). Bizzell goes on to say that the term is useful, "because it emphasizes the conditions of difficulty and struggle under which literatures from different cultures come together thus forestalling the disrespectful glossing over of differences. . . " (738).
Bizzel, Patricia. Contact Zones and English Studies." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory.
Urbana, Illinois NCTE, 1997. 735-742.
© 1998, Dawn Hendrix [Smith]
HUM 211, Fall 1998
A Journey Through My Glasses
As I have walked along this journey into African cultures, literature, their history, traditions, rituals, dance, orature and films, I have found many cross-cultural differences as well as universal elements we share. There have been many things I have learned in this class that have forced me to almost think like an African, read like an African, feel as an African; and yet I know that I am still seeing through filtered lenses of my own reality and perceptions. In the following pages, I will attempt to lead you through my eyes, still a student mind you, of what I have learned about the cultural traditions and literatures of Africa.
One of the first contrasts I noted from African culture and my own culture, was the importance of ancestry and heritage. In Keita: The Heritage Of The Griot, we saw a dramatization of the Sundjata history and within this story we were shown a griot, Djeliba Kouyate, who mysteriously shows up at a young boy's home, Mabo Keita, to tell him of his ancestor Sundjata Keita. Within this epic story we see Mabo becoming very interested in learning of his ancestry, while at the same time he becomes disinterested in his school and daily studies. Conflict arises and Djeliba is resigned to leave, but not before he has young Mabo enthralled in his story of where he came from. At one point, Djeliba asks Mabo's schoolteacher if he knew what his name meant. When Mr. Fofano replies, "No", Djeliba says, "Pity you don't know. What can you teach to children without knowing your own origin?" (Course Packet, pg. 75).
This reminds me of how different I have been taught in school and raised at home. I was adopted as a baby, therefore my genealogy is unknown, and in school we were taught through a curriculum that was somewhat disinterested in personal history, but rather more interested in American history as a whole. I ask myself why in my culture, which is truly my own, have I forgotten that there are many internal, as well as external forces, that shape me and are always constant. I suppose it is a disturbing as well as comforting thought to know this. To thoroughly examine this part of my existence, is impossible because of the fact that I don't have access to my ancestry. But I know there are ways to learn about the cultures and traditions that my ancestors might have been engaged in, and this is something that has always made me uncomfortable, until now. I give credit to Dani Kouyate, the director of Keita for painting, through his eyes, an important portrait of a young child's heritage while living and learning in a modern, westernized society.
I will be straight-forward enough to say that through my perceptions, Africans in their traditional beliefs and ethics, are very passionate about what I may consider, supernatural, or mystical powers. For instance, as I read about the Igbo traditions in Things Fall Apart, "Rivers, streams, lakes, and rain had life-sustaining qualities, and symbolized purity, cleanliness, coolness, freshness, fertility, and longevity....With water, the Igbo washed away evil and uncleanness" (xxxiv). This is interesting to me, since personally this is believable in a spiritual way, but I may not live my life by this. For example, in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo was punished by Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess for beating his wife during the Week of Peace. Chinua Achebe has written, "We live in peace with our fellows to honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow. You have committed a great evil" (Ch. 4, pg. 22). Now keep in mind that the society my culture is submersed in would not condone the beating of ones' wife at any rate, but not because it would affect the whole community and our economic standing, but because it is not acceptable morally.
Another example we are given of spiritual characters through Achebe's eyes, would be the obanje, which is depicted as "one of those wicked children who, when they died, entered their mother's wombs to be born again" (Ch. 9, pg. 55). The obanje was characterized through Ezinma, the child of Ekwefi, Okonwko's second wife. Enzinma was supposed to have been delivered from her evil ways reinforcing that she would not again die, because she had dug up her iyi-uwa, "a special stone that forms the link between an ogbanje and the spirit world. The child would eventually die if the iyi-uwa were not discovered and destroyed." (Glossary, liii).
This part of the story was very interesting for me to imagine being the mother of an ogbanje or even one myself, and how fun it almost would be to be submerged within a cultural society that believed in such forces of a spiritual world? I would even go so far to say that Igbo traditions that center around these superstitious, supernatural powers are enticing to me, since the reality I live in is constantly questioning its limitations and own powers. Already, I am one of those people who are very superstitious on a daily basis, such as not purposely killing a bug for fear of being visited by them after they are reincarnated as a virus that may attack my body. I know, this sounds far-fetched and crazy, yes, but not much different than that of an Igbo villager who is running around screaming in frantic frenzy, because some man dressed up in a scary mask is chasing them. Maybe that is not an equal comparison of superstitions among cultures, but they still remain. So as a whole, this passion for a supernatural power is universal in my personal culture as well as in an African culture. For some reason, the unknown is easier to believe and have faith in, than what is the obvious and known.
The last element of difference and comparative which was significant to me and that I would like to address, would be an Africans way of expressing themselves. Keep in mind that I am addressing "Africans", only by which the cultures I have studied so far, with the help of Achebe, Kouyate, and Grace Nichols. The most wonderful part of African culture that I have seen is their way of sharing stories through dance, drums, song, and poetry. In I Is a Long-Memoried Woman, I was enthralled with the way a story was being told through rhythm and dance, motion and poetry. It was beautiful to see, and moving to hear. Throughout this dramatization based upon Grace Nichols poetry, I was learning about the history, suffering, pride, tradition, pain, joy of being an African woman and her long journey from her true culture, to oppression, and later to what seemed empowerment. The story was subtly told through movement and some words, but mainly it was a visual quest that entertained my senses.
I must say that halfway within this journey through African cultures and literatures, I find myself liking the African culture more than my own. They have no fear of movement and song. It is integrated within their culture, through everyday rituals and tasks. "Sound is everywhere noticed, admired, shaped-e.g., postal workers in Ghana cancel stamps in deliberate rhythm." (Course Packet, pg. 62) Africans oral traditions are intriguing to me and I cant help but admire and envy their ability to free their souls through expression. I am caught within my society, to act in an orderly fashion, and unfortunately if I acted upon impulse to break out into a crazy rhythm of free-flowing dance, I would probably be given some strange looks, of course depending on where I was.
There have been many boundaries I have had to overcome while learning about the traditions, beliefs, heritage, and cultures of Africa. These cross-cultural challenges have helped instill in me my own belief in valuing what is important to other people, even if I could not quite imagine it myself. Most of all these challenges have helped give me a sense of universal identity. When I say this, I mean that through learning about Africa, even though there were many obvious differences that I noted, there were many universal elements as well, such as superstition and knowledge about heritage. My sojourn through this other fascinating culture has left me feeling a little closer to the unknown, and at times I was glad to take off the filtered glasses, even if for a little while.
© 1998, Michelle Wallace
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Contact Zone - Student
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