A Discussion on American Cultural Values

Categories: Cultural Identity

America is not just a country; it is a concept, an ideal. It embodies the Enlightenment ideal of freedom, the golden arms of liberty welcoming the huddled masses yearning to be free. “Give me your tired, your poor”, as goes the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, is an enticing idea for the huddled masses of the world seeking a better place to live and thrive. So the masses came, chasing this dream, perhaps not fully realizing how this jump into the fray would affect their lives and the lives of their children.

An immigrant faces many challenges and hurdles to their success in America. There are so many disparate pressures and influences working on the soul of an immigrant; the pressure to assimilate and succeed versus the desire to preserve one’s cultural identity and distinctiveness from being washed away in a sea of homogeneity. These very same pressures to assimilate and adapt were being applied not just to immigrants from a far away land, but to groups who have lived in America for centuries.

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Yes, African-Americans who have deeper roots in America than many modern day whites in America (many of whom are descended from recent immigrants themselves), still face similar pressures to assimilate and adapt to “mainstream American” culture in order to succeed. Two characters that demonstrate the unique pressures and dilemmas faced by both groups are Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of Jewish immigrants and main character of the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, and Clare Kendry, a black woman who has learned to “pass” as a white woman to better her status, from the book “Passing” by Nella Larsen.

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These two characters have in some way broken with their original culture on their own volition, for very different reasons. Essentially, the experiences of both of these characters show the internal dilemma of modernity versus tradition and the conflicting identity of their culture of origin versus their individual aspirations, for people of domestic origin and of foreign origin.

The concept of being torn between two identities is one that is very well established in literature; Mark Twain experimented with it in The Prince and the Pauper, for example. The idea of “two-ness” as it applies to minorities in America, however, was proposed by W.E.B. Dubois in his essay “Souls of Black Folk”, written in 1903. In it, he describes the two-ness of African Americans’ souls, the simultaneous existence as a Negro and as an American (Dubois). This concept is applied specifically to African-Americans, but it can be broadened to include all minorities and immigrant groups as well. It all stems from the dissonance of the values sown and nourished by one’s native culture against the new-found, very different values that we are exposed to on a daily basis in America and that we seek to conform to. Dubois wrote this at a time when both blacks (and the recent influx of immigrants) were seeking to gain a foothold in American society without “having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly” upon them; to harmonize the Negro man and the American man into one soul, with each perspective informing the other (Dubois).

The same applies to the immigrant, who seeks to find the balance between the old ways and the new, between tradition and modernity. To examine how this applies to immigrants, we will take a look at the experiences of Jakie Rabinowitz in The Jazz Singer. Jakie Rabinowitz is the son of Jewish immigrants in New York, growing up in the close knit community near the synagogue. For all of Jakie’s life, he has been groomed to be his father’s successor as the cantor for their congregation. Jakie comes from a long tradition of cantors, the position being passed down his father’s lineage for generations. Early on in his life, however, Jakie takes his God-given talent for singing and applies it to his new-found love of ragtime and jazz music. This unholy use of Jakie’s God-given talents flies in the face of Cantor Rabinowitz’s expectations of his son.

When Jakie informs his father that he doesn’t want to be a cantor and wants to sing in a theater, his father is shocked and disappointed. He exclaims, “For five generations there has been a Rabinowitz as cantor”, further establishing the pressure that Jakie has to live up to (Crosland). Jakie’s mother, Sarah, defends him by saying that perhaps he should follow his passion and eke out his own existence. After all, Jakies is “of America”, as his mother claims (Crosland). Soon, Jakie is disowned by his father, and runs away from home to pursue his dream of being a star performer. Jakie changes his name from Rabinowitz to Jack Robin, further severing ties to his past and his culture. As he is about to make his big break, he suddenly feels a longing for his people, for the familiarity of his parents’ home, and so returns. When he returns, his mother welcomes him with open arms, as a prodigal son, but his father is less forgiving. The climax of the story occurs when it turns out that his father is very ill, and his synagogue needs Jack to sing as the cantor for the Yom Kippur service.

The main twist is that Jack also has a show he is starring in that very night that he absolutely has to go to in order to have any future as a performer. He finds himself at an impasse, caught between two dreams: His dream to win his father’s love back by fulfilling his traditional inherited duty of his ancestors, or his dream to follow his passion for jazz singing and to become famous. Either way he goes, something will be sacrificed. He must make this critical choice for himself. The alternating pulls from both sides of Jack’s being, the Jewish side and the performer side, take a toll on his psyche. He greatly longs for his people, for they are his true identity. This is shown symbolically through the famous mirror shot, in which Jack stares into a mirror with his blackface on, and instead of seeing his reflection, he sees himself as a cantor at the Yom Kippur service.

Towards the end of the film, Jack accepts his identity and fulfills his upbringing by singing at the Yom Kippur service in his father’s stead, at great risk of losing his entire career that he had built for himself. He uses his God-given talent that he uses for jazz singing and performing to sing at the service, essentially combining his two identities. His friend comments on this, saying, “A jazz singer, singing to his God”, showing the synthesis of his two identities into one soul (Crosland). In the end, Jack succeeds in fulfilling his destiny as both a jazz singer and a cantor, and his father dies in peace and love. The tacked on happy ending seems disingenuous, but it gives the sense that Jakie conquered his struggles and achieved self actualization; becoming who he is as a human being. Another character from our literature that exemplifies the idea of being caught between two worlds or exhibiting “two-ness” is Clare Kendry, from Nella Larsen’s “Passing”.

Clare is the foil to Irene Redford, the main character of the story, and who is living a double life. Her false life, she lives passing as a white woman, married to a white husband. Clare feels that she needs to pass as a white woman to better herself in society, as she has light skin and she sees the opportunity to do so. She has been successfully doing so for years, even marrying a white husband and attending white restaurants and nightclubs. The conflict comes when she comes into contact with her old black friends, Irene and Gertrude. They have the potential of outing her, and she desperately wants to keep the facade she has built around her. It is made clear that Irene believes that Clare “cared nothing for the race, she only belonged to it” which would seem likely since her husband, John Ballew, happens to be a despicable racist (Larsen, 52). It is incredible that she could live in a house where her husband greets her with phrases such as “Hello, nig”, and not feel any offense or remorse (Larsen, 38).

However, later we find that Clare does feel guilt and has endured much psychological trauma and damage from passing. She indicates that she at times “feels like a deserter” of her own race and feels melancholy and separateness from her people (Larsen, 153). Clare is never able to reconcile with her own psyche the fact that she was basically selling her soul and abandoning her friends and principles for a chance a privilege. This would lead to her tragic death as a result of this psychological damage. In this way, Clare’s fate drastically contrasts with the fate of Jakie, who had a more uplifting ending to his story. In a sense, the end of “Passing” more effectively teaches a moral lesson of the consequences of sacrificing ones identity to fit in to the dominant culture. When one throws every value and shred of dignity that one as brought up with away, it leaves a person feeling empty and faceless. One could describe American cultural values as the sun’s rays to a flower; the rays of the sun help a flower to grow, but too much sun can just as easily wither a flower and dry out the fertile soil.

There must be a balance to this dissonance; no, not just a balance: a synthesis. By contrasting Jakie and Clare’s individual experiences in their respective stories, we can see both a success story and a tragic failure to cope with the pressures of American culture. Jakie succeeds to synthesize his identity with his individualism and new-found Americanized way of life, while Clare is totally enveloped by her false identity which leads to her destruction. She fails to incorporate her experience as a minority into her life, only embracing the American side of her African/American duality. Synthesizing the identities and values one grew up with and the values of the context of the world into which we strive forth is an essential component to the self actualization of minorities across the Earth. It is the difference between living an empty life filled with strife, and a fulfilling life filled with success and happiness.

Works Cited

  1. The Jazz Singer. Dir. Alan Crosland. Perf. Al Jolson, et al. Warner Brothers, 1927. Film.
  2. Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
  3. DuBois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.; [Cambridge]: University Press John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A., 1903.

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A Discussion on American Cultural Values. (2021, Sep 29). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-american-cultural-values-essay

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