Culture

By: Mackenzie Kiely, Zach Dillion, and Daniel Lapp

According to Merriam and Webster, culture is defined as, “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” Another definition from Merriam and Webster is, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Dictionary.com has a slightly different definition which is, “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.” All of these definitions are different, but they all go back to the social aspect of life. An example under the first definition on Merriam and Webster is the features of everyday life and how we interact with each other in the same place and time. According to Google Ngram around 1940 the popularity of the word culture began to spike right around the time A Raisin in the Sun was written; the use of culture jumped up even more during the 1970s when a The Woman Warrior was written. Throughout both these books culture is seen in many different aspects and used throughout each book. In A Raisin in the Sun you see the African American culture get knocked down so much by whites, and even by other African Americans sometimes. You see this when George comes over to take Beneatha to the show and he is arguing with Beneatha about her new look. George says, “Let’s face it, baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts” (Hansberry 81). In The Woman Warrior by Maxine Kingston, Brave Orchid constantly looks down on the American culture and thinks Americans are rude. When the children receive a gift from Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid says,  “How greedy to play with presents, in front of the giver” (Kingston 131). In A Raisin in the Sun and The Woman Warrior you see culture being brought up in one way or another.

In A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, you see the Younger’s beliefs, race, and religion all challenged throughout the play. In the post World War II era being African American in America was a struggle. Many African Americans were brutally murdered and falsely prosecuted. They were lynched, murdered and were scared for their life. In A Raisin in the Sun you see this with the Younger family. They struggle to survive and work their way up the social ladder. Walter is a prime example of this; throughout the book Walter works himself crazy trying to get money to open a liquor store, and make a better life for his family. Walter is a personal driver who on a everyday basis sees the luxury in life, but he can not obtain that type of lifestyle due to the Younger’s race. The definition of culture from Merriam and Webster says that race is a trait of culture, and race plays a huge role throughout this play. Throughout the play you hear about bombings and other things that focus on whites treating African Americans poorly. A quote from the play to help back this up is when Mrs. Johnson says, “You mean you ain’t read ‘bout them colored people that was bombed out their place out there?” (Hansberry 100) Towards the end of the play the Youngers are presented with an opportunity to move out of their home, and into a better one in a predominantly white neighborhood. A man by the name of Mr. Lindner comes and pleads with them about taking a payment to not move in. Mr. Lindner says, “I sure hope you people know what you’re getting into” (Hansberry 149). This quote strictly is all about race and culture and the ignorance of white people; white people have tried their hardest to keep African Americans from prospering.

Culture is in every aspect of life.  It can be seen in the music we listen to, the clothes we wear and the books we read.  A piece of literature is often seen as a written piece of culture. Literature can carry on the stories and traditions of a culture for generations.  A reader can learn more about their own culture through literature, along with finding role models in their culture that they may not be able to find in mainstream media.  A culture can also be rediscovered because of literature. Finding old books and stories can bring light to cultures that may have been forgotten about over time. A reader can learn a lot about a culture just by reading a piece of literature.  For example, reading The Woman Warrior can teach a reader about old Chinese culture and American-Chinese culture.  A novel may also spark an interest in the reader and cause them to go on to read other texts surrounding the culture.  There is a hope that reading about other cultures can help readers understand and accept a culture in a way that media often doesn’t.  We live in a racist society today and reading something like A Raisin in the Sun has the potential for readers to reject the stereotypes they hear from the media.  The hope is that readers understand and sympathize with a culture, and fight back on any stereotypes the culture faces.  Culture in literature can help readers learn about cultures and help cultures flourish and continue on for generations.

In the book The Woman Warrior the author tells us two influenced stories. Two stories that are told by Kingston and her mother based on their cultural backgrounds. It’s important to understand that the story that Kingston’s mother is telling is so that Kingston continues a new great name and legacy for her family in America. For example, Kingston’s mother’s story begins with her telling her daughter about a woman who had ruined their family name. This is a story that her mother intends to be passed down through generations with her kid and her kid’s kid. Kingston states “In China, your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born” (Kingston 3). The mother goes on with the story to describe that her aunt had gotten pregnant after she had married, but it wasn’t by her husband. She insights us that the village had been counting down the days until the baby was born. When the baby was nearly born they raided their house because in their culture, they didn’t accept woman sleeping with other men. Kingston states “The villagers broke into the back doors. Their knives dripped with the blood of our animals. They smeared blood on our walls. […] Your aunt gave birth in the pigsty that night. The next morning when I went for water, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well”(Kingston 5). Due to the cultural identities that have been put on them for many centuries Kingston’s mother has described this event through her own perspective and experiences that she grew up on.  

Kingston growing up in a completely different culture, does not see the same way her mother see’s. Her mother, very caught up in her cultural ways and Kingston, very sympathetic, looks to defend her aunt’s honor with her own version of the story. Kingston starts off her story by hinting at cultural differences between her and her mother. Being Chinese and being American-Chinese is completely different in comparison to what is Chinese and what is Chinese tradition and what is made up. Kingston starts off her own version of her story by saying “the Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence” (Kingston 5). Kingston means that the Chinese culture she knows through her mother, hide the names of the people that defied their cultural norms and create a brand new name, where people remember you for the good in your name and not the bad. She then introduces old China where woman had no say in their partner that they pick. Kingston says “woman in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family” (Kingston 6). Kingston also uses a strong quote, that really puts into perspective how old China really used to be.  Kingston states “the other man was not at all much different from her husband. They both gave orders: she followed. If you tell your family I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you. Be here again next week. No one talked sex, ever. And she might have separated the rapes from the rest of the living if only she had not had to buy her oil from him or gather wood in the same forest” (Kingston 7). These two quotes really tell the reader what old China’s culture used to be compared to America, where she is living now. She infers if the culture hadn’t been the men that had ruled everything, her poor aunt wouldn’t have been raped and forced to kill her baby and commit suicide. Every culture is different, and along with every different culture comes different views and beliefs. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Kingston is a great example of two different cultures being presented that influence the outcomes of each other’s stories.

Culture is seen throughout A Raisin in the Sun and The Woman Warrior in many different ways. Culture can be expressed through art, beliefs, values and race; in both of these pieces of literature you see just that. Culture is very important because it helps us see where we came from and why we practice the things we do, without culture we wouldn’t know our past. Culture in literature can help carry on a culture through generations and help us learn more about our own cultures and others.

Works Cited:

“culture, n.” Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/culture

“culture, n.” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun, First Vintage Books Edition, December 1994

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior; Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Vintage International Edition, 1989.

Photo by Vitaliy Lyubezhanin on Unsplash

Adventures in Worldmaking Extra Credit

I attended the Adventures in Worldmaking extra credit event on April 30th. This event had a group of graduate students from two different English classes in the graduate program speaking about work they have done in the semester thus far. The first group of students that presented were from the African Bildungsroman class with Dr. Kim Stone, and the second group was from the Feminist Worldmaking class with Dr. Danica Savonick. Students from the first class read papers that they had written about different books they had read throughout the semester. The second class presented some of the assignments and presentations they had done throughout the semester. Each person that presented brought something new to the conversation and brought up different topics and points of view.

The first group of students that presented were from the African Bildungsroman class. They each read a paper they had written about one of the books they had read in that class throughout the semester. Some of the books that were presented were Nervous Conditions, The Small Island, and Americana. They explained that African Bildungsroman books are African coming of age books. Each book that was talked about was an African Bildungsroman and had main characters that were confused or struggling to come to terms with their culture and where they stood in life. Some of the characters discussed were mixed race, some not, all from varying countries in Africa. Mostly all the characters traveled to other countries and had to figure out how to live and thrive in these countries. The main theme of these books were all coming to terms with one’s culture, with many secondary themes including education. Many of the books talked about compared the education systems of one country to that of another. I thought the students did a great job presenting their papers and introducing this genre of literature. I had never heard of the African Bildungsroman genre, but listening to the grad students present their papers and analyze these novels sparked an interest in the genre for me. I thought all of the presentations were very professional and all the papers were very well written.

The second group of graduate students that presented were from the Feminist Worldmaking class. Each student presented something different based on an assignment they had to do for class. There were two presentations that really stood out to me. The first was a woman who read what she called her manifesto, and showed her collage images. She brought in a collage of words to pass around, had a collage at the front of the room, and clicked through pictures of her collages on the screen. While she flipped through the pictures, she read her manifesto allowed which had to do with why she was a type of witch. She connected her collages and making collages to one’s identity. Her entire presentation was very relaxing and pleasing to listen to. The second presentation that stood out to me was a woman who presented an exquisite corpse exercise she had designed for their class to do. Each person in the class answered different questions in relation to making a new fantasy world for a novel, however students were unable to see the answers before them after a certain point. Each student created different aspects of the world like location, government, and technology all without seeing the answers that came before them. The presenter read some of the final worlds that they had come up with in their class and they were incredibly creative and imaginative. I thought this activity was extremely creative and interesting and made me want to try this out with friends and see what we could come up with. I really enjoyed this idea of creating a world by only having control over one part of it. It created some very interesting worlds. I thought all of the presentations from this class were very interesting and creative.

The Adventure in Worldmaking event is one of my favorite extra credit events I have been to. Each presenter talked about something different and added something new to the conversation. Every presenter kept my interest and made me think about things I hadn’t thought of before. This event introduced me to a new genre of literature and many new ideas about identity and worldmaking. I thought all of the graduate students did a great job presenting and really showcased the classes and their work well. I learned a lot from this event and I’m very glad I went.

Love The One You’re With

I chose the song “Love the one you’re with” by David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash. This song is about learning to love the person you are with if you can’t be with the person you love. It’s about settling for one person even if you want someone else and trying your best not to think about the person you really want. This song gets under my skin and makes me angry because of a bad experience I had the first time I heard this song. After further listening to it I realized that the lyrics of this song are really upsetting and unhappy despite the sound of the song. So I decided to take the lyrics and flip the meaning of this song on it’s head. I changed the meaning from being about loving the one you’re with to being with the one you love. It turns an unhappy song into a happy found poem and I think everyone could use a little more happiness in their lives.

The Lonely Woman

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston starts out with a powerful chapter called “No Name Woman.” Kingston covers many topics in this short, 13 page chapter. Everything from cultural differences between China and America, to stories from her childhood and finally, to what this blog post will focus on, the treatment and views of women in Chinese culture. The most shining example of this is the story of the author’s aunt, who inspired the name of the chapter.

The chapter begins with the author’s mother telling her that her “father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born” (3). As the chapter goes on we find out that the aunt had gotten pregnant while her husband was away in America. The day the aunt was meant to give birth the villagers raided her family home, destroying their belongings and killing their animals. The aunt gave birth alone that night in the pig’s pen after her family kicked her out yelling “ghost! Dead ghost! Ghost! You’ve never been born” (14). They next morning they found her and the baby dead in the bottom of the family well.

The most striking part of all of this to me was when the author explains that the aunt was most likely raped by someone in the village. She says, “the other man was not, after all, much different from her husband. They both gave orders: she followed. ‘If you tell your family, I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you. Be here again next week'” (7). The aunt never said the name of the father, not that it would have mattered anyways. There was no sympathy for her being raped, no respect for her from the man, her family, or her village. There was no support for her, no understanding. She was discarded from the family to the point that no one will speak her name. She took her and her child’s life knowing that there was no one there to support them for something she had no control over.

Rape culture in America is a big problem, but not to this extent, or so I’d like to think. The lack of respect for women is clearly shown in this story. No woman should ever have to experience that kind of pain and loneliness. To be blamed and punished for something that is by no means her fault is heartbreaking. To not even have your own family stand behind you and support you creates a loneliness beyond compare. This story was one of the most blatant examples of how women are treated and viewed in this culture, but it is by no means the only example in this chapter.

What other examples did you notice that highlights the views of women in Chinese culture?

Can you find any connections between this book and any of the other readings we’ve done so far this semester, in regards to the treatment of women in different cultures?

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. Random House, 1975.