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The Difficulties Faced by Minorities in America

Conflicting values are a constant issue in society. In diverse civilizations minorities become out ruled by the majority. In Twentieth Century American culture there are many difficulties in existing as a minority. The books My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, and the Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, portray the aspect of being torn between two cultures as a conflict for today's minorities. Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, examines the hardships for a minority by progressively revealing them. The events of the three authors' lives reflect how they portray the common theme of the difficulties for a Twentieth Century minority.

My Name is Asher Lev demonstrates that the aspect of the protagonist being torn between two cultures is a difficulty for minorities in America. Asher Lev was torn between being an artist and his Jewish community. In the novel, Potok describes in detail the "feelings, dilemmas and questions [minorities] bump into while trying to obey their traditions and their passions at the same time" (Chaim). The main character, Asher Lev, chooses to be an artist and winds up having to separate himself from his life. He explains, "I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians" (Potok 1). By choosing the life of an artist, Asher faces a life of continuous pain due to betrayal to his family. The protagonist's painting of the Brooklyn Crucifixion "raises disturbing questions about anti-Semitism, conflict between Christians and Jews, and the tension between artistic conventions and religious imperatives" (My Name is Asher Lev 2877). It contradicted everything his family had raised him to believe in. He never fits into society since he defies his people and mocks the majority in this painting. Asher describes how his double culture life is doomed. "Asher Lev . . . was the child of the Master of the Universe and the Other Side. Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts people he loves" (Potok 348). Asher moves from the religious to the secular world in the course of the novel. This is because Potok's novels "assume the impossibility of existing in both the religious and secular spheres" ("Potok, Chaim" 339). The difficulty in trying to find a harmony between his religious and artistic worlds shows the conflict a minority faces.

"I wanted my daughters to have the best combination," the character Lindo says, "American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things don't mix?" (Tan 289). This begins the feeling of being torn between two cultures. It was a major conflict in the lives of the Joy Luck Club characters. In the novel, Tan illuminates the ignorantly stereotyped and distorted elements of Chinese-American culture. The reader is made to understand the obsessions, weaknesses, and desperate fear that underpins the sacrifices of a Chinese-American (Dorris 90). The women in the book must sort out which values to keep, the Chinese or the American. One says that "too many choices" is the flaw which makes it easy to make the wrong choice (Chong 96). Making the wrong choice can result in a serious conflict in their lives. The four daughters in the book are first-generation Californians. They are stranded at the midpoint of a seesaw. "If they inch in one direction, they are traditional Chinese; if they inch in the other, they are Americans. Theirs is an ongoing quest for balance," involving many difficulties between their cultures of the past and present (Dorris 90). Their mothers have problems as well. For instance, one mother waited in vain, "year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect English" (Tan 4). However, she died before she was able to learn enough English to express her feelings. The lack of communication between her daughter and her proved to be a difficulty which arose because she was a minority in America who never accustomed to the language of her second country (The Joy Luck Club 2208). Another problem for the Chinese-Americans was finding a job. One of the aunties in the book describes her job in a cookie factory as "one of the worst . . . After the first day, I suffered ten red fingers" (Tan 298). She had longed to live in America, yet upon getting a job, missed her privileged life in China. The aunties also face the feeling of loss due to their adaptation to American society. This creates an emotional conflict for them. In the book, "the idea of China . . . has slowly metamorphosed in the minds of the aunties until their imaginations have so overtaken actual memory that revery is all that is left to keep them in contact with the past" (Schell 93).

Black Like Me progressively reveals the difficulties a minority in Twentieth Century American culture faces. "What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which no one has control?" is the question which motivated Griffin to disguise himself as an African American (Cook 202). Upon acting on this question, the details are revealed as to what an African American faced in the south. Griffin's experiment began as an adventure. He assumed that he would find racism. However, "he did not expect to find it in everyone, least of all in himself" (Sharpe 203). Griffin's journey began in New Orleans, where African American life was seen as privileged. However, Griffin found this to be false. For instance, as he was leaving new Orleans to go to Mississippi, a scowling woman ticket agent initially refused to change a $10 bill and then threw the change and bus ticket on the floor in front of Mr. Griffin (Loory 201). This woman gave Griffin his first experience receiving the "hate stare" (Griffin 53) a term he must apply continuously throughout the rest of his journey due to the racism constantly slapping him in the face. Griffin continued to receive appalling treatment from the whites, on numerous bus rides, as he encountered extremely hateful bus drivers. In one instance, all of the African Americans attempted to get off the bus at a rest stop, however the driver would not allow it. Griffin describes this driver's actions: "He stood on his toes and put his face up close to mine. His nose flared. . . He spoke slowly, threateningly" (Griffin 63). Later, on a hitchhiking tour, he was lasciviously questioned on his sexual desires by countless men (Loory 201). At the end of four weeks he ached with hurt and humiliation upon knowing the brutal reality of racism (Sharpe 203). Once Griffin completed his journey he was able to conclude that the treatment this minority received from the majority was "barbarian instincts in humanity" (Loory 201).

Chaim Potok developed many of his ideas in My Name is Asher Lev by writing autobiographically. The aspects he incorporated from his life express the difficulties of growing up as a Jew in America. Potok stated to the New York Times that he "grew up. . . in a Hassidic world without the beard and the earlocks." The rough life of his father reflects the life Reb Yudel Krinsky led. His father immigrated to the U.S. from Poland and sold stationary before the depression (Chaim Potok: Homepage). The choice Asher Lev makes in painting the crucifixion was a major choice for Potok to make, being a Jewish writer. The Conservative rabbi ("Potok, Chaim" 338) explained that this choice was very poorly received amongst people in his culture. "Echoes of it continue to this day," he explained (Novelist). This problem could be due to the fact that Potok painted the "Brooklyn Crucifixion" and has it hanging in his house (Chaim Potok: Homepage). Additionally, the general defiance Asher takes against Judaism in the book left a lasting impression on Potok's life. He described this, stating, "I paid a high price for that book, but that's the job of a writer. You pay the price, but you have to be honest." Potok, like Asher Lev, chose to rise above his religious restrictions despite the effects it would leave on his life (Novelist).

Amy Tan's life as a minority, being Chinese-American, has also left a lot of bruises due to the effects of her heritage. Her older brother and father both died of brain tumor's within seven months of each other. Her mother was diagnosed with having one a short time later. She also has Alzheimer's disease (First Person). These traumatic events came from their Chinese background. Additionally, as a minority in America, she came to feel pecimistic about how society perceived her equality in writing. Amy Tan explained that when The Joy Luck Club was sold to Putnam in 1987 she thought it was "all a token minority thing. I thought they had to fill a quota since there weren't many Chinese-Americans writing" (Wang 95). Due to personal feelings that she did not fit in, Tan dreamed of the opportunity to have plastic surgery to Westernize her features. In her quest to end the difficulties of being a minority, she recalls "deliberately choosing American things - hot dogs and apple pie - and ignoring the Chinese offerings" (Wang 95).

In contrast to Potok and Tan, John Howard Griffin led a privileged life growing up with the majority, as a Caucasian man in the U.S. He wanted to write Black Like Me from the same autobiographical aspect as Potok and Tan. However, he did not have a true understanding of the difficulties that come with being a minority. Therefore, he had to transform himself into a black man. Griffin wrote, "How else, except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? . . . The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro" (Loory 201). Griffin was the first white person to experience directly certain nuances know only to black people (Bonazzi 190). His experiences were horrifying due to the treatment he received from the white citizens who lived in the Deep South. Griffin reclaims his true identity while looking in the mirror (Bonazzi 191). He was happy to return to his life as a married Catholic raising a family (Griffin 193).

With the next millennium rapidly approaching, it is time to end the problems minorities face based on their heritage. Mark Twain said, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect." This is, perhaps, the solution to lessening the difficulties for minorities in Twentieth Century America. The majority needs to reflect their lives, in contrast to that of the minority groups, without racist inclinations. By doing so, the realization of the inequality in America will become apparent. Then the steps to lessen the hardships, faced by the minorities, can be made.

Works Cited

Chaim Potok's Bibliography. Amsterdam. 7 May 1998. .

Chaim Potok: Homepage. LaSierra University, California. 1999. .

Chong, Denise. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 59. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 96-7.

Cook, Bruce A. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 68. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 202.

Dorris, Michael. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 59. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 90-1.

First Person: Amy Tan. KRT Interactive. 14 Jan 1999 .

Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. New York, New York: Signet Printing, 1996.

"The Joy Luck Club." Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction. 1996 ed.

Loory, Stuart H. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 68. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 201-2.

"My Name is Asher Lev." Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction. 1996 ed.

Novelist Chaim Potok Speaks at SPU. Seattle, Washington. 3 Jan. 1999. .

Potok, Chaim. My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972.

"Potok, Chaim." Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 2. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 338-9.

Schell, Orville. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 59. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 92-3.

Sharpe, Ernest. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 68. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 202-3.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy Books, 1989.

Wang, Dorothy. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. 1954. Vol. 59. Ed. Cherie Abbey. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 95.

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