Jazz, rhythm-and-blues, gyrating dance steps, and fast-break basketball practically define American style in the eyes of the world - and all originated in African- American culture. So did several words in American English. This semester I assigned something new in the class I teach each fall in this field. Each student was responsible for a class presentation that traced a certain African or African-American style through American culture.
One student talked about how Muhammad Ali had changed boxing and the public style of athletes; he showed us a picture of himself as a baby on Ali's lap.
Another reported on white basketball great Pete Maravich and how his father, a basketball coach, taught him from an early age to copy the black athletes.
"They are the future of the game," Pres Maravich told his son, and the fancy ball-handling of Pistol Pete proved him right.
Other students reported on legislator Barbara Jordan, writers Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, cooking, New Age medicine, and military cadence calls, originally called "Duckworths" after Private Duckworth, an African American, who introduced them to the Army.
Midway through the term, a criminal justice major in his mid-30s stood up and stunned us by saying:
"I'm not going to report on something outside this class. I'm going to report on this class."
IT was not what I anticipated from this student, who had not said much so far, and whose attitude I had pegged somewhere between indifferent and hostile. His report told why he felt the course ought to be required of all university students and possibly all Americans.
"I figure if there was this much I didn't know about [my own] African American culture," he said, "I must be even more ignorant about other people. I'd like to take a course on Mexican American culture or Native American culture. The way I see it, they're part of what it means to be American, too."
In five minutes, this student resolved what historians and politicians on both sides of the political fence have been struggling with for the past 20 years. A course in African- American culture broadened his perspective, encouraged him to look at other Americans with greater curiosity and respect, and stimulated him to learn more about our complex and wonderfully varied cultural history.
About 35 percent of the students at my university are Mexican American and, historically in the community, relations between Mexican Americans and the much smaller minority of African Americans have not been cordial. Some Mexican Americans resent African Americans for dominating the national civil rights movement, and African Americans resent Mexican Americans for resenting them. Yet here was a black student saying he wished he knew more about Mexican Americans, and he might just take a course on the topic.
I offer his story as a response to those who believe multicultural or minority studies are splintering our national culture.
We live in a multicultural society, and our national heritage is Latino American, African American, Asian American, Jewish American, Euro-American. We are all, as writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray have told us for years, cultural mulattoes. Studying any one part of us does not divide us; it educates us. Occasionally, it inspires us.
*Gena Dagel Caponi is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio.