The Paradox of American Culture

During our discussion in class on Friday the 30th, I was struck by Matt’s remark about the significance of Louisiana’s largest prison, Angola, having a common nickname that is taken from the slave plantation that formerly existed upon the current grounds of the prison. As Matt pointed out, the naming of the prison after a plantation already speaks to a connection with the institution of slavery in pre-Civil War America and the horrors that were committed in the practice of it, but, in addition to that, the name also calls back to the African nation of Angola, the homeland of many slaves and their ancestors. A commonality that I find exists between these two connections is an apparent lack of awareness of or apathy towards what the origins of that nickname mean for the use of it in the cultural dialogue, and in this sense is the  waste of the cultural and historical context of those names.

Later in our excerpt from his scholarly work, Roach examines this concept of cultural waste with respect to the slave music that was played in Congo Square that began during the French ownership of New Orleans. Roach first addresses this idea of waste when he speaks of the spectacle that was offered by the slave performances that occurred in Congo Square: “The African rhythms and dances were obviously not to everyone’s taste, and some of the Americans in the crowd must have looked on the scene as a display of savagery that no one but a black or a Creole could savor or condone” (65). In this instance, relayed by Liliane Crete’s description of the gatherings, the essence of cultural waste, of the loss of significance through the transferal across cultural boundaries, can easily be observed, as the whites are alienated by the foreign music and dance that they observe.

This sense of alienation is later mirrored and complicated by the account Roach shares of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who observes the performance of nineteenth-century New Orleans slaves in Congo Square. Latrobe recalls when he heard “a most extraordinary noise” (66), and upon investigation he found a a crowd of several hundred slaves divided up into smaller groups to engage in dance and musical performance (66); he noticed that the men were singing in “same African language, for it was not French” (66), and he found himself unable to find a comparison to reference from earlier in his life. Upon finding himself unable to compare this performance with anything that existed, to his knowledge, within Western culture, Latrobe makes an appropriately colonialist dismissal of the music: “I have never seen anything more brutally savage” (66). Just as the crowds of whites before him have, Latrobe dismisses the validity of the cultural expression of the slaves, but, ironically, he still acknowledges the beauty of the music by itself, as he praises it upon first exposure.

It is within this dichotomy of interpretation that I find what Roach calls, the “extraordinary piece of Americana” (66) that lies within Latrobe’s valuation of the music. Roach contends that the musical performances were “living proofs of [African culture’s] impermanence and unforgettability” (66) and that these performances provide a means for the enslaved people to maintain the meanings that they assign to their lives and communities. However, in order for these people to assimilate into American culture, they must shed these assignments, allowing for the freedom of movement across these cultural boundaries. Roach quotes Mikhail Bakhtin regarding this topic: “The most intense and productive life of culture […] takes place on the boundaries” (63), and it is from this final piece that the puzzle of the paradoxical American waste of cultural and historical context can be discerned.

America is a melting pot, and in that pot it is the cultures that melt. People from all over the globe bring their culture and experience in search of a better life, and they leave an impact of that culture on this nation as they do; yet, in order to leave that mark, in order to find that better life, one way or another, they must shed their cultural identity. In response to this, the American culture welcomes the immigrant and what they have to offer, assimilating them into the pot and growing more complex because of it, but at the cost of the sanctity of that original culture. The contributions of the immigrant are lost among those of all the other that came before them, and the original meaning of them are blurred or outright erased, and this is evident throughout American society.

We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a day of drunken debauchery, but pay little heed to the cultural significance of the day to the people of Ireland and the celebration of independence that it represents or our historical barbarisms towards the Irish. We take the music of slaves and formulate it into jazz, forgetting just how the musical conventions came to our shores. We name a slave plantation after the country that our slaves come from, and we then name a prison after that plantation, oblivious to the connotations that come with the name “Angola.”

I recall a line from one of my favorite films, Pulp Fiction. In the scene, Bruce Willis’ character, Butch, is having a conversation with a taxis driver, Esmeralda Villa Lobos, about the meaning of names, and she tells him her name means “Esmeralda of the Wolves.” She then asks Butch what his name mean, to which he replies with distinct candor, “I’m American honey, our names don’t mean shit.” Therein lies the paradox of the American melting pot: we take in all cultures, all allochthonous pieces of other cultural meanings, and produce an authochthonous culture which is itself meaningless.

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