Formal Paper II: An Exploration on the Theme of Education
The word education appears frequently in the English language and takes on a variety of contexts. The term may stand alone or it may be combined with other words such as: higher education, elementary education, driver’s education, religious education, self-education, special education, and co-education; the list goes on and on. With such diverse applications of the term education, we often forget to ask what the basic form of the word means and how such a prevalent term has been applied to the lives of all Americans, past and present.
What constitutes a good education? Or who is considered to be educated? Before providing insight into these questions, one must learn two important concepts of the word education. In this essay, I will provide the definitions of both “formal” and “informal” education. I will also compare and contrast the beliefs and models of education that are presented in the literary works of “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass” and “Ceremony”.
One way to define education is to view it as either “formal” or “informal”. Formal education refers to an education that is seen as an official process of learning in an institutionalized environment. According to the Oxford English Dictionary this education is “the systematic instruction, schooling, or training given to the young in preparation in the work of life; by extension, similar instruction or training is obtained in adult age. It also refers to the whole course of scholastic instruction which a person has received. Often this definition is limited to words denoting the nature of the predominant subject of the instruction or kind of life for which it prepares, as classical, legal, medical technical, musical and art education”(OED 4). In this sense of the word, formal education is limited to a specific setting for a specific set of learning.
On the other hand there is “informal” education. Informal education refers to the way people endeavor to pass along their wisdom and aspiration for a better world. This definition can be “the process of nourishing or rearing a child”, or “ the process of ‘bringing up’ (young persons) with reference to social station, kind of manners acquired, calling for employment for, etc”(OED 1,2). Finally, informal education also refers to the “culture or development of powers, formation of character, as contrasted with the imparting of mere knowledge or skill, often this is limited to words such as intellectual, moral or physical”(OED 3). With this form of education, adults will teach their children and other adults the attitudes, values, and skills and knowledge that will govern their behavior throughout their lives.
To deepen ones understanding of formal and informal education, it is valuable to look at beliefs and models of education that have arisen in American history. To do so, one can analyze the literary works of “A Narrative of Frederick Douglas” and “Ceremony”. These works provide the reader with a wide multicultural look at the education perspectives of an African American and Native American contrasted with that of the Caucasian American of a specific time period. By looking at specific communities of different cultures, one can see how our current and diverse educational systems have evolved. One can also broaden their views and opinions of what defines a good education.
In the novel, “Ceremony,” written by author Leslie Marmon Silko, several beliefs and models of education are discussed, both formal and informal in nature. This novel begs to ask the question, what does it mean to be educated as a Native American? There are two different beliefs of what constitutes as a good education in the novel. One prevalent belief is to educate in the informal way of story telling and passing down oral traditions. For these Native Americans, to know ones cultural and ceremonial background is most significant to being an educated individual and is necessary for their survival.
These stories and vignettes are scattered throughout the novel. A description of the story’s importance is found at the beginning of the novel: “I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have. All we have to fight of disease and illness. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories”(Silko 2). Without stories, their education could not exist. The main character of the book, Tayo, remains confused and uneducated until he can “find himself” and place himself within a context of the ceremony and stories that has been told throughout his life. He has an educational epiphany towards the end of the book, “He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together- the old stories, the war stories, their stories, to become the story that was still being told” (246). By being educated through his ceremonial journey and discovery of these stories, Tayo becomes a strong, cultured individual.
Not everyone in “Ceremony” believes in the structure of informal education through story-telling. The teachers of the Indian School (the school implemented by a white government) believe that an institutionalized formal education constitutes as the best form of education. When the white man entered onto Native American land, he brought with him the white man’s way of education. This can be seen when Tayo says, “He knew what the white people thought about the stories. In school, the science teacher explained what superstition was and held the science book up for the class to see the true source of explanations” (Silko 94). The teachers were saying that the Native American stories told were not educationally accurate and were simply superstitious.
The Native American characters of Rocky and Auntie also embody the white man’s belief of education. Auntie wanted Rocky to be a success and thought that he should embody the white man’s ways of learning. Rocky began to “understand what he had to do to win in the white outside world. He was an A-student and all-state in football and he always listened to his teachers”(Silko 51). He did not believe in the “superstitions” that his family and ancestors believed to be the root of knowledge and survival of their heritage.
The formal way of education, in the eyes of white people can also be seen in the “Narrative of Frederick Douglass”. In this novel, Douglass discusses what it means to be truly educated. He believes that in order to free himself as a slave; he must embody the white man’s model of education. Douglass tells the reader that in order to “make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason” (Douglass 102).
The same opinion of keeping a slave uneducated is seen in the character of Mr. Auld and his anger in finding out that Frederick Douglass was being taught to read by Mrs. Auld. He said that it is “unsafe to teach a slave to read…learning will spoil the best nigger in the world and if you teach a nigger to read, there would be no sense in keeping him. It would be forever unfit to him to be a slave” (Douglass 47). At hearing his master’s words on the danger in educating a slave, Douglass comes to a powerful realization that “he now understood what had been to him a most perplexing difficulty-to wit, white man’s power to enslave a black man. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom”(Douglass 47). The pathway to freedom he spoke of was continuing to educating himself in a formal manner of learning of taking his learned alphabet, and then learning how to read and write. This formal schooling, even though it did not take place in an institutionalized setting, allowed Douglass to have the necessary knowledge to read books on slavery and further increase his desire and hope to become a free man.
In his novel, Frederick also speaks of another way to educate himself formally besides through the medium of reading and writing. Douglass believes that to succeed in an economically developing country of the United States, he must educate himself in a technical trade. He began to learn the trade of ship building and carpentry. To be educated in this form, he began to earn money. At the thought of keeping his own wages, he realized that he could support himself and that he should no longer be owned by anyone. This led him to his eventual escape to live as a free man.
In the novels, “Ceremony” and “A Narrative of Frederick Douglass” share similar concepts of education. Both the Native American and African American cultures needed education to survive. These two cultures were enslaved in some form by the white man and were being forced to take on the white man’s formalized way of education in order to make it in the white world. The difference however was that in Ceremony, the author presents the message that Native Americans should never forget the stories and to always hold them in their hearts and in this way their culture and heritage will survive. However, in the narrative by Douglass, slavery has already seemed to rip away the stories and past cultures by families that were split apart. Therefore, Douglass says that in order to destroy slavery and to succeed as a free man, one should to be educated in the formalized way of the white man.
After a literary analysis of these two novels and how they incorporate the models of informal and formal education, one may ask the question, which model or belief is best? In my opinion, there is not one correct way to educate an individual. Today, there are so many forms of education, even ones that do not fit into the categories of formal and informal. The best form of education is a diversified one that combines all models and beliefs or at least an education that explores these possibilities. In opening one’s eyes to the expansive range of educational models that exist in the world today, America as a diverse rich and culture nation will continue to grow and prosper in a way that will bring positive change to all that live here.
The Place for Technology in Multiculturalism
This paper will explore the meaning of technology, and explore how the movie “Bamboozled” utilized the internet, coin bank, electronics, tap dancing, recording devices, and musical instruments to position technology’s place in the multicultural context. The multicultural context is simply the integration of different groups of people with unique customs. Those customs could be based on race, religion, and many more attributes.
The word technology has several different meanings. In short, technology is the methodical learning of the practical or industrial arts. Furthermore, another interpretation of this is when practical arts are done by a group of people. The philosopher Martin Heidegger spent significant amount of time in his work to define technology. He introduces us the term poeisis and how it relates to technology. According to Heidegger, there are two different meanings of this term. First of all, it is the product craftsmen or artists bring forth; which is known as poeisis. Second, it is what develops in nature and referred to as physis. It is trivial to see the similarities between technology and poeisis. Both of them involve practical artistic development that results in a creative product. Where did this word come from? "Technology" is the derivative of the Greek word technikon. This word is related to techne; which is nothing more than expertise and the ability to manufacture. This definition should give us a clear representation of what technology is.
Once the definition of technology is clearer we can explore one of the latest technologies called the Internet. In the public domain, it has been in existence relatively for a short period of time. Yet, this movie “Bamboozled” portrayed the usage of World Wide Web effectively. Toward the end we see Man-tan is being captured by the Mau Mau group. They detain him for the sole purpose of showing his execution live over the web. Their act may or may not be surprising but it shows the drive and determination they held. This is also reflected the way Mau Mau group publicized the event. In the movie, it was apparent that media was told when and where the execution would take place. Why is this significant? This is significant because they showed they were willing to keep up to speed in order to make a political point. The political point was to show that they are capable of defending their cultural values and retaliate against those who knowingly or unknowingly damage the reputation of it. Also, this event allowed them to have everybody’s attention so that sensitive cultural issues could be addressed. In this movie, the issue was total disregard of colored communities appeal when the show went to production. Why would the black community want to see the show that symbolizes the torment their ancestors have faced? Unfortunately, it is not unexpected that the Mau Mau group felt Mandrake’s death is justified casualty. Other than information technology this movie also used slightly older technology.
That technology was given to Della as a gift by his secretary. This is a coin bank in the shape of a dark colored man. When a coin is placed in its hand the mechanical widgets automatically causes it to swallow it inside. This coin bank is interesting to consider when thinking about technology in the film because to Della, this bank represented humiliation and possibly failure. During the initial part of the movie we see Mandrake and his friend performing outside of the building. After a show, people would throw money to their collection jar. This frightens Della. The way Mandrake and his friend collects money is the same way the coin bank begs for it. In the movie, there are several moments when the bank worked by it self or stopped working. Della was having a nervous breakdown when those moments occurred. He was constantly paranoid by the possibility of some body taking over his precious career. In the event of failure, he might have to imitate the coin bank for the sake of survival. Suppose, the show becomes a failure and Della loses his job. The day afterward he is going to start sending his resume and beg others to hire him. Given the level of his expertise it would be harder for him to convince that a failed entertainer could possibly add value to another media production. When it comes to high level position he is going to face scrutiny by prospective employers. The worst case scenario would be Della gets no job and have no financial security in place. That is the situation when he may end up begging to others. Just like this coin bank electronic technology also plays a role in the movie.
Electronic devices such as computers, and announcement flashers were used in this movie. In the movie, we constantly saw group meetings where ideas are generated. The writers used pc’s to document their ideas and how to make them more attractive to black audience. It allowed them to learn about blacks in their own ways. This need not be right. During every show an electronic flasher would give instruction to the audience. This would involve how to react in certain situations. A list of reaction could involve laughing, crying, gasping etc. The direction given to the audience for how to react is interesting for two reasons. First, the audience is of many diverse backgrounds. In the movie, it was apparent people of different ethnicities attended those shows. By having the flasher, you are culturing your audience to act in certain manner and all acts alike. Secondly, this device brings forth creative interaction between the performer and the audience. Now, that we know the creativity that took place to make the event successful we can begin to find out about other creative technology.
Tap dancing is another form of creative technology that the movie showed us. One may wonder how tap dancing is a technology. If we refer back to the definition I mentioned technology was derived from a word related to techne. As we know, techne refers to expertise or know-how. Tap dancing in itself is a creative discipline. That’s why it deserves to be regarded as a technology. Mandrake used tap dancing to express his cultural background. This technique allowed him to escape the cultural frustration his black peers faced due to economic hardship. The film represents this as the culture of poverty faced by young black people like Mandrake and his friend. If tap dancing records their frustration then what is in use to capture their voice?
Well, recording devices are other forms of technology that is widely visible and captures their voice. We are shown the inside of recording studio ran by Mau Mau. In the beginning, we saw a group of enthused rappers who would gather together. First, they would verse in free style. Later, they would try to come up with a beat. By using cutting edge sound technology they are able to promote rap culture. This similar technology is also utilized by the band that played in the Man-tan show. As more artists contribute these forms of art will continue to mature.
It should be noted that both professional and non-professional instruments were in use in this movie. What is meant by professional or non-professional instruments? Professional instruments can be defined as they are any devices that are man made. The perfect example of non-professional equipment in use was when Mandrake used to perform on the street. His best friend would make drum like noise with his mouth. This worked perfectly because it allowed them to sync with the audience that liked a little bit of beat. It is a significant contribution because the next generation of street performers would be able to utilize this technique. In the run up to the Mantan show, we saw the competition to select musical artists. They all brought their unique talent and performed different style of musical art. Some had country music, rap, and pop etc styles. One of the performers played what appeared to be a uniquely made drum in the show. The presence of musical instrument is important because it allows artists with different cultural background to explore the technologies out there. It is what would allow the possibility of musical fusion.
This paper presented the place of technology in multicultural context and how it was portrayed in the movie “Bamboozled”. It explored topics such as internet, coin bank, electronics, tap dancing, recording devices, and musical instruments. We found out how latest technology such as the internet was utilized by the under represented side to get a grip on the majority. In the coin bank, we learned about the business struggle of colored professional like Della. Then we found out about the role electronic devices play in cultural productivity. Next, we learned the technique of tap dancing to relieve ones self from cultural misery. Also, we saw the way recording devices promoted different school of music. Finally, we noticed both professional as well as non-professional instruments capability in the movie. This is promising because in the multicultural context they would allow artists to fuse music together. Technology will in one way or another will have significant impact on multiculturalism. Bamboozled made it clear that technology has permanent place in multicultural context.
The Concept of Empathy
Azar Nafisi writes that empathy is at the heart of the novel. My aim in this essay is to explore exactly what empathy means, how its usage has changed, and the various connotations it carries in preparation to examine how empathy is used in novels in the next essay. Empathy is closely related to the concept of sympathy. We cannot examine empathy without examining sympathy because their meanings are similar and their usage overlaps somewhat. The concept of empathy is a fairly new one, while the idea of sympathy has been around much longer. Empathy has evolved over the past century from its first usage as necessary to aesthetic experience to the idea that it is a fundamental part of human nature and necessary for psychological well-being. This essay will elaborate on how the concept of empathy evolved from the concept of sympathy to include understanding of a person or object, and how the modern usage of empathy is important in our understanding of the human condition.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, empathy is “the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” The two subjects one can find empathy listed under are psychology and aesthetics. Empathy comes from the German Einfuhlung, and was first used in 1903. Einfuhlung was first coined to mean putting one’s self into an aesthetic experience. The best example of this is an actor who actually becomes the part he is playing. The actor lives the experiences of the role he plays. The connotation of projecting one’s self into an aesthetic experience was the most common usage of empathy until the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, the concept of empathy changed to include the meaning of sharing another person’s feelings. The Oxford English Dictionary records the 1963 definition of “It is true that in both sympathy and empathy we permit our feelings for others to become involved.” Here we see that empathy as a feeling for another person necessarily includes the feeling of sympathy also. Encyclopedia Britannica states that the concept of empathy was modeled upon that of sympathy.
Sympathy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has many meanings. The closest definition to empathy is “The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling. Also, a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.” The concept of sympathy was first used in 1579. Its usage has evolved since then, but it still carries the connotation of sharing another person’s feelings. It does not imply understanding of the other person like empathy does. Empathy evolved from sympathy to include understanding how the other person feels, along with sharing the other person’s feelings.
The connection between sympathy and empathy is made in other languages also. In German, sympathy (sympathie) carries the connotation of liking and supporting another person. Empathy, or Einfuhlung, means sensitivity and intuitive understanding. The person who coined Einfuhlung expanded on the concept of sympathy as support for another person to include understanding. In French, sympathy (compassion) carries the connotation of pity, compassion, and condolence. Pity (pitie) carries the meaning of mercy and compassion. Empathy (empathie) carries the connotation of understanding a person. There are no words that are related to empathy in French like there are for sympathy. Again, this suggests that sympathy is more developed as a concept, and that empathy is a recent construct that draws on sympathy but also expands its meaning to include understanding. If we move out of Indo-European languages, we see that the same connotations and meanings are found in Arabic. Whereas there are very few related words to empathy in German, French, and English, the reverse is true in Arabic. There are more meanings in Arabic for empathy. More words are needed to explain it because it is a recent construct. Sympathy is a much older idea in Arabic, and thus needs less words to explain. Arabic employs a system of root words, where several hundred words can be related back to the root meaning. Sympathy in Arabic comes from the root word عطف. It has many meanings but the most common are to bend, to incline, be favorably disposed to, have or feel compassion, awaken affection towards, or close to one’s heart. Empathy can be traced back to three root words. The first is عطف, demonstrating again that one cannot feel empathy without feeling sympathy also. The second is عنق, meaning attach closely, embrace, hug, or associate closely. The third root is قمص, meaning to put on a shirt, clothe, wrap in, pass into another body (spirit), or materialize in another body. The third meaning is closest to that of understanding. It brings to mind the saying “walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” This implies that a person cannot fully experience another person or object unless they can place themselves into the other person or object and fully understand what it is like to be that person or object. In looking at other languages, we get a sense of how the concepts of empathy and sympathy are intertwined.
The usage of empathy has evolved over the years from an aesthetic experience to a more complex, related form of sympathy. Empathy is a much deeper, more intimate relation with another person or object than sympathy. If we look in the Oxford American Thesaurus, we see that sympathy and empathy are listed as synonyms for each other. However, because empathy necessarily implies understanding, whereas sympathy only implies caring, we see how empathy means deeper involvement and connection with a person or object. Caring and understanding are not mutually exclusive, but it is possible to care for another person and not understand them. The most prevalent example is that of funerals. People send cards and flowers to the bereaved relatives, but do not really understand the pain of losing that person because they did not have an intimate connection with the person who died. People who have gone through the pain of losing a loved one will better understand how the relatives feel. To understand a person is to know intimately what they are thinking, feeling, and have experienced in life. Caring for a person does not mean sharing their experiences and thoughts. It only implies concern for their well-being, but not necessarily knowledge of what the person is experiencing.
The concepts of empathy and sympathy can never be completely separated from each other, but if we look at their modern connotations we see that each implies something different today. Sympathy is thought of today as more of a condolence gesture, whereas empathy has evolved into a fundamental part of our psychological well-being. If sympathy is searched on google.com, the most common references are to flowers and cards. There are many websites for sending flowers and cards to a person for condolence. What this implies is caring that another person is grieving, but there is no engagement with what the person is experiencing. It is known that the person is grieving, but there is no understanding of what that is like. Flowers and cards can be sent off in remembrance, but the matter is often put out of the person’s mind after that because they do not understand and, thus, cannot do anything more. In contrast, if empathy is searched on google.com or amazon.com, the most common reference is psychological self-help. This implies that empathy is a necessary part of human nature. The word itself is a recent construct, but its modern usage has made it into a thing we must have to be psychologically whole. Encyclopedia Britannica states that the concept of empathy was an important counseling technique of the American psychologist Carl Rogers. The implication is that we must understand each other to be fully human. Part of being human is relating to other people. We do not go through life alone and, thus, must interact with people. Part of this interaction requires understanding if we are to fully engage with others. In its modern usage, empathy means being able to understand the human condition. The human condition is the full range of things which humans experience, to put it simply. If we cannot engage with and understand the world, there is a fundamental part of our humanity missing.
Azar Nafisi argues that empathy is at the heart of the novel because the reader’s understanding is precisely what the novel is trying to achieve. The novel attempts to draw the reader into an aesthetic experience of the human condition, evoking both the earlier and latter definitions of empathy. The concepts of sympathy and empathy can never be completely untangled and discussed separately, but there is this sense that we need empathy more to completely experience our humanity. Empathy will always include sympathy, so sympathy is not irrelevant. Sympathy alone is not enough, though. We see in Peter Gomes’ introduction to Frederick Douglass’ narrative that it is not enough to simply care. We must also engage with and understand what we are reading in order to fully experience what slavery was like. In the next essay, I would like to explore the literature to show how the authors conceptualized empathy as necessary to our humanity.
“Empathy.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 24 Jun 2004.
“Empathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004
Gomes, Peter J. “Introduction.” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House, 2003.
“Sympathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004. < http://80-dictionary.oed.com.floyd.lib.umn.edu/cgi/entry/00245131?query_type=word&queryword=sympathy&edition=2e&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=1&search_id=J0BC-ucBLoH-15936&hilite=00245131>.
Oxford American Thesaurus.
The Concept of Empathy in Literature
Azar Nafisi writes that empathy is at the heart of the novel. My aim in this essay is to define the concept of empathy and discuss how authors use empathy as crucial part of their novels. Empathy has evolved over the past century from its first usage as necessary to aesthetic experience to the idea that it is a fundamental part of human nature necessary for psychological well-being. This essay will examine how the authors of Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Soul on Ice, and Wynema utilize both meanings of empathy to show that it is not an intrinsic quality in humans, but learned by the author, readers, and characters in the novel.
First, empathy needs to be defined. It is important to understand empathy specifically as “the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation” (Oxford English Dictionary). Emerging from psychology and aesthetics, empathy comes from the German Einfuhlung, and was first used in 1903. Einfuhlung was first coined to mean putting one’s self into an aesthetic experience. The best example of this is an actor who actually becomes the part he is playing. The actor lives the experiences of the role he plays. The connotation of projecting one’s self into an aesthetic experience was the most common usage of empathy until the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, the concept of empathy changed to include the meaning of sharing another person’s feelings. The Oxford English Dictionary marks the 1963 change in meaning as “It is true that in both sympathy and empathy we permit our feelings for others to become involved.” Here we see that empathy necessarily includes the feeling of sympathy also. The authors of the novels under analysis utilize both meanings, that of aesthetic experience and connection between people, to argue that empathy is a
necessity for humans.
Sympathy is a similar concept to empathy. Their usage overlaps somewhat, so it is important to define sympathy and understand it as a distinct concept from empathy because they are used in different ways in the literature. Sympathy has many meanings, but the closest to that of empathy is “The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling. Also, a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.” (Oxford English Dictionary). The concept of sympathy was first used in 1579. Its usage has evolved since then, but it still carries the connotation of sharing another person’s feelings. It does not imply understanding of the other person like empathy does. Sharing and understanding mean two different things. Empathy evolved from sympathy to include understanding how the other person feels, along with sharing the other person’s feelings.
Examining other languages further illustrates the distinction between empathy and sympathy as concepts. In German, sympathy (sympathie) carries the connotation of liking and supporting another person. Empathy, or Einfuhlung, means sensitivity and intuitive understanding. Einfuhlung expanded on the concept of sympathy as support for another person to include understanding. In French, sympathy (compassion) carries the connotation of pity, compassion, and condolence. Empathy (empathie) carries the connotation of understanding a person. There are no words that are related to empathy in French like there are for sympathy. Again, this suggests that sympathy is more developed as a concept, and that empathy is a recent construct that draws on sympathy but also expands its meaning to include understanding. If we move away from Indo-European languages, we see that the same connotations and meanings are found in Arabic. Arabic employs a system of root words, where several hundred words can be related back to the root meaning. Sympathy in Arabic comes from the root word عطف. It has many meanings but the most common are to bend, to incline, be favorably disposed to, have or feel compassion, awaken affection towards, or close to one’s heart. Empathy can be traced back to three root words. The first is عطف, demonstrating again that one cannot feel empathy without feeling sympathy also. The second is عنق, meaning attach closely, embrace, hug, or associate closely. The third root is قمص, meaning to put on a shirt, clothe, wrap in, pass into another body (spirit), or materialize in another body. The third meaning is closest to that of understanding. It brings to mind the saying “walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” This implies that a person cannot fully experience another person or object unless they can place themselves into the other person or object and fully understand what it is like to be that person or object. Empathy is more of a state of understanding, but also means sharing feelings. Sympathy involves the heart and feelings, but does not include understanding.
If we look at modern usage of sympathy and empathy, we further see the distinction between sympathy and empathy. Also, this discussion will demonstrate more fully how the psychological meaning of empathy is conceptualized. Sympathy is thought of today as more of a condolence gesture, whereas empathy has evolved into a fundamental part of our psychological well-being. If sympathy is searched on google.com, the most common references are to flowers and cards. What this implies is caring that another person is grieving, but there is no engagement with what the person is experiencing. It is known that the person is grieving, but there is no understanding of what that is like. In contrast, if empathy is searched on google.com or amazon.com, the most common reference is psychological self-help. This implies that empathy is a necessary part of being human. The word itself is a recent construct, but its modern usage has made it into a thing we must have to be psychologically whole. The implication is that we must understand each other to be fully human. Part of being human is relating to other people. We do not go through life alone and, thus, must interact with people. Part of this interaction requires understanding if we are to fully engage with others. If we cannot engage with and understand the world, there is a fundamental part of our humanity missing.
The authors of the three novels under discussion use the psychological meaning of empathy as a connection between people in their novels as a way to understand how to live with other people. They conceptualize empathy as necessary to have a functional relationship with others. The format in which they make their argument, the novel, is itself another form of empathy. Using the novel as a way to argue their case draws upon empathy as an aesthetic experience. The authors are attempting to teach the reader empathy by using empathy itself.
However, far from being intrinsic in human nature, empathy can be learned or unlearned. The capacity to have empathy is part of human nature, but this does not necessarily mean that people automatically feel empathy all the time. In fact, what the three authors portray in their novels is the struggle to find empathy and learn to be with others. Truly understanding others is something that all people struggle with because everyone besides the “self” is “other,” meaning that there is some part of everyone else that is truly unknowable. What is knowable about others is what it is like to be human, with all of the struggles and triumphs that are included in being human. The struggle to both know and understand is depicted in the novels Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Soul on Ice, and Wynema. All three novels ask the reader to learn empathy, although it is questionable whether the reader will truly empathize with the characters if he or she cannot understand the experience of the characters. The novel is full of external (author and readers) and internal (characters) struggles to learn empathy.
Frederick Douglass wrote his narrative to tell white Americans what it was like to be a slave in an attempt to abolish the system of slavery. It was his hope that by showing the horrors and inhumanity of slavery he would move people at least to have sympathy that some people were being dehumanized by a brutal system. Douglass also argues that it is not only the blacks who were being dehumanized by slavery; the whites were also being dehumanized because they were unlearning empathy. He includes the story of his new mistress in the best household in which he had ever lived to illustrate his point that slave owners are made, not born (Douglass, 46-7). His mistress treated him kindly because she had never owned a slave before. According to Douglass, “The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face.” (46). His mistress had never been indoctrinated into the system of slavery and, thus, treated Douglass like a human being. It is arguable whether his mistress had empathy for his plight in slavery because she had never experienced slavery, but at the very least she understood him to be a human being. She treated him well because she did not view him as an animal. However, his mistress unlearned her empathy for Douglass when she was confronted with the power that is inseparable from being a slave owner. She began to mistreat Douglass because the brutal power system embedded in slavery caused her to unlearn her empathy for slaves, and, thus, dehumanized her because she no longer saw him as a human being.
In contrast, Soul on Ice and Wynema offer instances where empathy is learned. Soul on Ice is an angry narrative about a life of oppression in the United States during the civil rights era. It was written with the intention of informing Americans about the injustices carried out by the powerful in the United States, both domestically and internationally. However, the book also reveals that Eldridge Cleaver had a personal motive for writing it. Writing the book served as a therapy of sorts to help himself learn empathy. With this novel, we see the external struggle of the author. That writing helped him learn empathy is evident in Cleaver’s words:
After I returned to prison, I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray-astray not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized-for I could not approve the act of rape. Even thought I had some insight into my own motivations, I did not feel justified. I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered. That is why I started to write. To save myself. (34)
Writing the book saves him from his life as a rapist and criminal. The former rapist began to think about the relations between people in the United States and regained the humanity that he had lost by being a rapist. He learned empathy because he realized that the same things that had happened to him had happened to countless others (Cleaver, 34). However, his empathy was very selective. From his narrative, we see that he did not have a high opinion of gays or women. Still, his narrative becomes increasingly more complex as it progressives from his earlier writings to the end of the book. As time passes, he learns more about human relations, and in doing so, he learns more empathy.
In Wynema, S. Alice Callahan writes about the plight of the Native Americans with the United States government in an effort to show her readers the cruelties carried out against the Native Americans, and also to portray them in a better light. The character of Genevieve Weir is a good example of a person learning empathy in Wynema. Genevieve decides that she will go live among the Indians and teach the young children without knowing what Indian life was like. However, she felt that she had a moral duty to go (Callahan, 8). When she arrives in the town that is later named Wynema after one of her pupils, Genevieve is confronted with a strange way of life that takes time for her to understand. She views medicine men as barbaric and prefers Western doctors, but Gerald Keithly demonstrates how strange white customs must seem to the Indians (Callahan, 21-22). Even so, a few years later, she comments on how barbaric their dances are, and Gerald Keithly informs her once again that the Indian customs are not as barbaric as she thinks (Callahan, 27-8). By the end of the novel, Genevieve has a better understanding of Indian life and culture and does not think that they are that barbaric. By living with the Indians, and by experiencing their way of life and problems with the United States government, she learns empathy for the Indians. Thus, we see that experience is a vital part of having empathy. It is difficult to understand unless one has the experience. Genevieve gains experience with the Indian way of life, even if she does not like or agree with everything, and empathizes and sympathizes with the plight of the Sioux Indians at the end of the novel.
Azar Nafisi argues that empathy is at the heart of the novel because the reader’s understanding is precisely what the novel is trying to achieve. The novel attempts to draw the reader into an aesthetic experience of the human condition, evoking both the aesthetic and psychological definitions of empathy. The authors of the three novels discussed conceptualized empathy as necessary to live humanely with others, but as a state that can be learned. The authors argue that sympathy alone is not enough. We see in Peter Gomes’ introduction to Frederick Douglass’ narrative that it is not enough to simply care. We must also engage with and understand what we are reading in order to fully experience what slavery was like. It is questionable whether readers will ever be able to empathize with slaves since slavery is absent from many people’s experience, but the novel’s purpose is to try to teach empathy to the author, readers, and characters in the novel. Minority literature in the United States, as represented by the three novels discussed, serves precisely this purpose. It tries to bridge the gap between the many cultural groups in the United States, but most especially tries to inform whites about the power inequalities present. Even though the different cultural groups present in the United States may never fully understand the other groups’ experience, minority literature attempts to convey, at the very least, a minimal understanding to all parties involved with the novel.
Callahan, S. Alice. Wynema. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Random House, 1991.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
“Empathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004
Gomes, Peter J. “Introduction.” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House, 2003.
“Sympathy.” Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 24 June 2004. < http://80-dictionary.oed.com.floyd.lib.umn.edu/cgi/entry/00245131?query_type=word&queryword=sympathy&edition=2e&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=1&search_id=J0BC-ucBLoH-15936&hilite=00245131>.
Nathanial S. Roloff
The term Ethnicity recently developed into a very significant and emotionally charged statement in American culture. Ethnicity now signifies that which is pertaining to “ethnic character or peculiarity”*. In order to properly understand the noteworthy meaning of the word ‘ethnicity’ one must first understand the consequence of the base word ‘ethnic’. Ethnic has changed meanings several times throughout the course of history originally defined by monks and Christians. I will address the importance of different meanings of ethnicity in terms of class, race, culture and society as the meaning of the word contains immense significance in all of those areas. The changing significance of the term contributes to the issues of displacement in the minority status. These issues are sometimes manifested in movements in politics and culture demonstrated by Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
The different definitions of the term ethnic have varied quite widely and demonstrate an important progression of thought in the world’s history. Today we have many words in which ‘ethnic’ functions as a derivative. ‘Ethno’ has become a very popular prefix to many far ranging words in the English language*. The evolution of ‘ethnic’ from its first usage until contemporary understanding* has a direct correlation to our world’s constantly changing outlook on minorities in class, race, and culture. The changing meanings of ethnicity demonstrate societal power over the language we use to represent the minority status in our country. Societal power can be defined as the ability of the mass to unconsciously dictate the shift of popular understanding of a word or term. The affect of the term ‘ethnicity’ forces people of color into a state of otherness in relation to the white majority.
The term ‘ethnic’ is considered to originate from the mispronounced word “heathenic” to “hethnic,”* Thus becoming the term used today, ‘ethnic.’ The original definition of the word was simply “Pertaining to nations not Christian or Jewish; Gentile, heathen, pagan.”* Ethnic was considered a word denoting that of the societal ‘other’ or something which is not the norm in relationship to another group. Despite the fact that this definition has not been in active use since the 1874* it is important to indicate that the term was originally coined by the Christian and Semitic world. The terms association to the term ‘heathen’ demonstrates that originally the term was not innocent or unmarked. ‘Ethnic’ referred only to those who lived in a nation outside the established Christian nations of the world. The term heathen means something very specific and negative, “restricted to those holding polytheistic beliefs, esp. when uncivilized or uncultured.”*
Therefore the connotation associated with the term ‘ethnic’ is that races and religions who were not commonly considered Christian or Jewish were heathen or pagan and somehow lesser people. This definition contributed directly to the active participation of society in using a term which demonstrates otherness created by religion or race based upon generalized concepts of being “uncivilized.”
The relation of these meanings to our society today exhibits the ever-present lack of respect that our society, consciously or not, has had for minorities of race and religion throughout time. The previous definition remained popular until the late 1800’s and maintained significance after slavery was abolished. The use of ‘ethnic’ today continues to reinforce the systemically unequal status of minorities. Our common use of ethnicity illustrates how certain societies tend to marginalize the meaning of race, and to ‘whitewash’ difference toward achieving a homogenous culture. The connotation of ethnicity as a negative term presents those commonly considered to prescribe to a certain ethnicity (Italians, Arabs, Blacks, etc) a subversive attack, shaming them for their culture. The changes in perceived meaning of the word fail to absolve us of the discrimination the word’s history carries. It rather conceals the terms negative meaning throughout history so that we find today a total acceptance of a word which, originally, was significantly derogative. The change in meaning is akin to that of the word “nigga” in American dialect. Once being a term only used derisively by whites toward blacks, now it gains new importance as a word commonly used among blacks to refer to themselves. This demonstrates the ability of the mass to project a feeling of inadequateness onto another group causing them to enforce a sense of inferiority on themselves. The widespread use of the word ‘ethnic’ to denote cultural and racial identity may appear to imply a respect for difference. However it is clear that, in performing this action, it continues to reveal that difference is produced in relation to a particular set of racial and cultural characteristics taken to be the norm (e.g. white). In the United States ‘White’ is considered to be a race without any attachment to a particular ethnicity as opposed to the minority status where race is considered inextricable from culture.
The second meaning of ‘ethnic’ demonstrates the issue of word power to contribute to the creation of self-definition and otherness. The second definition of ethnic is “Pertaining to race; peculiar to a race or nation; ethnological. Designating a racial or other group within a larger system; hence foreign, exotic.”* This new definition carries special meaning in the United States because of the importance of other races to America’s characterization of self. The United States is a country comprised of different races. Therefore a term demonstrating the otherness of certain races is extremely significant to the progress of equality in that nation because it implies that there is one race from which to gauge all others. The first part of this definition comes as little surprise because of the relatively unassuming nature of the language used. The second part contains the importance racially, culturally, and in society. The term ‘other’ is important in the connotation of race because it designates primary and secondary positions. The usage of “foreign” and “exotic” to refer to ‘ethnic’ people demonstrates the inextricable link between otherness and ‘ethnicity’. This more recent definition was created in the 1850’s eventually overtaking our first definition of the term.*
It is obvious that this term still resonates within our society today as a significant meaning of the term ethnic. People of minority status will often find themselves referred to as ethnic especially when said person is not of United States origin. This usage of ethnicity was an interesting step in the direction of acceptance on the surface. The implications of shifts in definition throughout time camouflaging the old connotations remain crucial to understanding the marginalization of the identity of the minority in the United States. By using a more politically correct (in terms of our current society) explanation for that which is ethnic, we allow the term more leeway in its significance. Society’s acceptance of a non-criminal term for defining themselves in terms of race causes the unconscious consent to the decimation of their rights as equal races and cultures, instead perpetuating the imposed concept of societal otherness.
There is a significant literary connection to the displacement of the black and minority identity within books written by the minority which can be attributed to the gradual creation of otherness within minorities. Eldridge Cleaver writes, “since they constituted the majority the whites brainwashed the blacks by the very processes the whites employed to indoctrinate themselves with their own group standards. I intensified my frustrations to know that I was indoctrinated to see the white woman as more beautiful and desirable than my own black woman” (Soul on Ice, 29). This quote illustrates the subversive techniques that society utilizes in order to create a more dominant and powerful culture. The white race and culture has dominated America for so long that it is nearly impossible to remove from our current understanding of beauty and prosperity.
In the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, she further demonstrates the ability of the concept of beauty to displace the concept of self-worth within a certain type of people. In the novel, a young black girl is forced to reconcile her understanding of what makes someone worthy and beautiful with her own looks. Eventually the young girl forfeits her understanding of self in order to imagine herself with blue eyes. This surrendering of self is a representation of the forced state of affairs in the country. Minorities are forced to give up their understanding of selves within a minority in order to assimilate to the dominant culture of White America. The term ethnicity, when used as an instrument to separate the peoples of America on a scale of oneness or otherness, serves to create a severely separated society in which only one type can dominate and the rest are forced to follow in line attempting to “pick up the table scraps thrown into their corner” (Soul on Ice, 164).
The evolution of this term allows for another, more recent invention of the term ‘ethnic’. The new definition continues in the same type of shift as the last. The third definition of ‘ethnic’ is “a member of an ethnic group or minority.”* The reading of this definition offers two interpretations. The first is that an ‘ethnic’ is either a member of an ethnic group or a minority. The second is that the meaning is either a part of the ethnic group, or the ethnic minority. The two interpretations vary only in the specificity of the reference. The important understanding to gain from the description is that in either case ethnic group is similar to ethnic minority. In an earlier sub-definition of one of our meanings the Oxford English Dictionary characterized groups and minority to be the same thing. The dictionary simply subtitles the definition ethnic group (minority). The inclusion of ‘group’ in both parts of the dictionary serves to relax the naturally read undertone of the definition. When examined, dual purposed meaning is merely another way of undermining the races and cultures that are not considered part of the majority by associating the term group and minority as one in the same. In doing so, society limits the ability of the minority to strike against such covert attacks. By creating a smoke shield around the implied meaning of the words, society simply masks a problem and demands the constant overlooking of that problem. This creation of societal otherness contributes to the social and economic differences that we have as a nation.
The class separation demonstrated by this definition is not apparent at first, but plays a vital role in understanding the underlying consequences of allowing this type of discrimination to exist in our documents. Continuing this clandestine and methodological maintenance of an oppressive social structure permits society to remain as disparate as it has throughout the years; only perpetuating itself generation after generation in an attempt to create a less definitive but more powerful upper-class that continues to defend the social position of the majority. The minorities are left to continue life within the caste designated to them at birth because of our societal structure built around the constant marginality of the importance of our racial differences. Racial differences do not include skin color, but rather socially acceptable position within our greater American culture. The words definition only holds significance because we constantly work, subconsciously, as a society to influence these types of differences in rights and treatment within our communities. The power of our words is pervasive on all levels of life and understanding of position in society. In order to change this situation, society must reconsider the importance of implication and meaning surrounding these words and actively pursue more sensitive definitions. The definitions of words are always subject to the societal whims and because of that truth, we must recognize that this problem begins and ends in our society.
Nicole M Johnson
Miracle—Its Usage and Etymology
Miracle has transformed in its usage and definition over the past several thousand years. Its secular and religious uses have changed the way we view the events and objects connected to it. Miracle on 34th Street certainly carries more importance than if the same movie had been titled, “This super wonderful thing happened on 34th Street.” The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team’s gold medal winning game gained fame as the “Miracle on Ice” when they beat the Russians. Why does that claim compel us to learn about what happened so much more than if they had called it “Amazing Hockey Game on Ice?” Miracle’s journey from its Latin roots to its religious connotations to its marketing associations tells the tale.
Miracle has its origins in the Latin word mirari which means, “to wonder at” (Grolier, 217). The mir root of the word, “to see,” suggests a visual vehicle to this wondering. The Greeks used semeion, “sign,” teras, “wonder,” and dynamis, “power,” as words to fulfill the idea of a miracle (Harper). We see the “wonder” part miracle in the Old English wundorweorc, and in the modern German wunder (Harper; Terrell, 424). This idea of seeing and wondering at an event led us to our modern dictionary definition:
A marvelous event exceeding the known powers of nature, and therefore
supposed to be due to the special intervention of the Deity or of some
supernatural agency; chiefly, an act (e.g. of healing) exhibiting control
over the laws of nature, and serving as evidence that the agent is either
divine or is specially favoured by God (Onions, 1257).
For something to have been considered a miracle in Ancient Rome, it needn’t have achieved supernatural status; instead, a miracle could be anything that could be viewed as exhibiting a heightened sense of everyday characteristics such as beauty and power. The Seven Wonders of the World, therefore, were known in Latin as miracula mundi (Grolier, 217). The word wonder was chosen for the Modern English expression as miracle came to mean something more mystic than majestic beauty or incredible ingenuity alone. So how did we make the leap from simply marveling at the extraordinary to this godly association?
Our best guess lies in religion. Daoist, Buddhist, Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic mythology abounds with stories of miracles. We can conjecture that religions needed a word to specialize the unexplainable events surrounding their beliefs, and in English, miracle developed into that word (Britannica).
Over time, religions have cornered the market on miracle in regards to its dictionary definition. They use it for recruiting purposes. Muslims boast that Allah gave them the ultimate miracle in the Quran. It was written in Arabic, a language that has remained largely unchanged since the holy book’s inception 1500 years ago, unlike the Christian Bible, which has gone through so many translations that as many as fifty words in the Bible’s Ancient Greek have meanings that remain unknown. Muslims claim their miracle and reason for believing is in the purity of an unadulterated message (Khan).
Unlike the single-miracle-minded-Muslims, Christians celebrate many miracles God has provided for them through Jesus Christ. Among them are turning water into wine at a wedding celebration, healing lepers of their disease, curing the blind, and
feeding five thousand people with two fishes and three loaves of bread (Mejia). Christians point to these events as evidence of Jesus being touched by the hand of God. And although the central tenet to Christianity is the resurrection of Christ, and not simply his miracles, their importance in the faith cannot be doubted. Indeed, they are cited as reasons for believing in Jesus as the savior of mankind (Mejia).
Over the past century in America, miracle has lost some of its resonance through marketing. Religious media groups are no exception. Canada’s first Christian television station is called “The Miracle Channel,” and PAX TV is running a television show about “miraculous escapes from death, mystifying healings, and chance encounters that change or save lives” called “It’s a Miracle” (Miracle Channel; PAX TV).
Secular companies and corporations, however, are not to be outdone. In attempts to increase the selling power of their product, they use miracle in the title to introduce a sense of wonder into it because of the religious, godly-intervention connotation inherent in the word. For example, “Miracle Ear” is a brand of hearing aid that claims to help your hearing so much you won’t believe it’s true (Miracle Ear). Kraft Foods, Inc. began to produce “Miracle Whip” in 1933 under the slogan, “Salad miracles with Miracle Whip Salad Dressing” (Kraft Foods). “Miracle Blade” knives are so sharp they can cut through glass and metal, but then turn right around and slice a delicate tomato. The 12 million sets that have sold since 1989 show that Americans certainly are believers (Miracle Blade).
On Amazon.com, miracle gets 184 hits with popular music, seventy-seven with kitchen and housewares, and even thirteen with restaurant menus. Miracle is the new
sales buzzword. Perhaps these items can claim the “wonder,” and “sight” parts that define miracle, but even that “tangy zip” cannot pretend to have been created through divine intervention. In this way, then, our society has retreated to miracle’s earlier definition of something simply possessing heightened qualities of greatness. At the same time, however, companies are hoping we as consumers still connect miracle with the religious part of its definition of surpassing human explanation and race to buy their product. As more and more products introduce miracle into their title, however, the duller this word will ring in our ears and the less special it will become.
Miracle has developed a split meaning in 21st Century America. Both religious and secular in its connotation, miracle’s sense of wonder, and of visually witnessing that wonder, unites its definitions and usage. Perhaps it is this dual connection that makes us re-live a 25-year-old hockey game over and over, and watch a skeptical little girl learn to believe in Santa Claus year after year.
Miracle Paper II
“Miracle”—Its Etymology and Use in Literature
Leslie Marmon Silko’s book Ceremony and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass explore how two people react to miracles in their lives. Before we can delve into their situations, we must first identify the meaning of “miracle.”
When did English speakers start using the word “miracle?” Miracle has its origins in the Latin word mirari which means, “to wonder at” (Grolier, 217). The mir root of the word, “to see,” suggests a visual vehicle to this wondering. The Greeks used semeion, “sign,” teras, “wonder,” and dynamis, “power,” as words to fulfill the idea of a miracle (Harper). We see the “wonder” part of miracle in the Old English wundorweorc, and in the modern German wunder (Harper; Terrell, 424). This idea of seeing and wondering at an event led us to our modern dictionary definition:
A marvelous event exceeding the known powers of nature, and therefore supposed to be due to the special intervention of the Deity or of some
supernatural agency; chiefly, an act (e.g. of healing) exhibiting control over the laws of nature, and serving as evidence that the agent is either
divine or is specially favoured by God (Onions, 1257).
A leap is made, however, between the ancient visual wondering connotation and our understanding of the word today: the intervention of a Deity. For something to have been considered a miracle in Ancient Rome, it was not expected to have achieved supernatural status; instead, a miracle could be anything that could be viewed as exhibiting a heightened sense of everyday characteristics such as beauty and power. The Seven
Wonders of the World, therefore, were known in Latin as miracula mundi (Grolier, 217). The word wonder was chosen for the Modern English expression as miracle came to mean something more mystic than majestic beauty or incredible ingenuity alone. So how did we make the leap from simply marveling at the extraordinary to directing our marveling at an assumed responsible Diety?
Our best answer lies in organized religion. Daoist, Buddhist, Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic mythology abound with stories of miracles. We can conjecture that religions have all sought ways to identify and specialize the unexplainable events surrounding their beliefs, and in English, the concept of the unexplainable event came to be expressed as the word miracle (Britannica).
Even though many religions use the term “miracle,” they recognize and handle it differently; miracle isn’t a universal concept. Islam, for example, names only one miracle, the gift of the Quran. It is a miracle that never ends as it continues every time the Quran is read. Even though it is the only miracle in Islam, it is very important, serving as the cornerstone of the Islamic belief system (Khan).
Christians, in contrast, recognize many, single event miracles in the name of God and his earthly son Jesus Christ. Among them are turning water into wine at a wedding celebration, healing lepers of their disease, curing the blind, and feeding five thousand people with two fishes and three loaves of bread (Bible). Christians point to these now historical events as evidence of Jesus being touched by the hand of God. And although the central tenet to Christianity is the resurrection of Christ, and not simply his miracles, their importance in the faith cannot be doubted. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way,
the truth, and the life!…Without me, no one can go the Father.” Believing in Christ and his miracles leads to the acceptance of Jesus as the savior of mankind.
It is interesting to turn to author Frederick Douglass at this juncture. In his autobiography The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, he describes several events that we could, armed with our modern definition, call “miracles.” Douglass is representative of many of his Christian faith however, in that he is willing to give credit to the Almighty for every day pleasantries, but when it comes to the unexplainable in his life, an event “exceeding the known powers of nature,” he is reticent to acknowledge these daily events as miracles and attributes his good fortune to little more than chance.
One example of Douglass’ acknowledgment of God happens when he and his fellow slaves are rounded up by his master to be redistributed amongst the slave-owning family’s siblings. Douglass hopes against all hope that he will be returned to the kind treatment he has known under Master Hugh. When he does get assigned there, Douglass thanks “a kind Providence” (59). Later, Douglass escapes slavery and flees to the North, where he finds himself lonely, hungry, and without direction. “Thank Heaven,” he credits, “I remained but a short time in this distressed situation” (110). Douglass is doing little more than thanking his maker for the fortune bestowed on him in these trying states; he is not really calling them “miracles.” We can assume he does not feel that these events were unexplainable or that God specially intervened on his behalf.
Back on the plantation, however, one could argue that Douglass experiences a miracle that saves his sanity and possibly his life, but he refuses to recognize it as such. Sandy Jenkins gives Douglass a length of root and instructs him to carry it at his right
side. This root will protect him from being beaten by his master or any other white man forever. “To please him,” Douglass tells us, “I carried it upon my right side” (79). It is clear that Douglass distrusts that the root has power. When a potential beating from Mr. Covey leaves Douglass unscathed, we find he still will not buy into the miracle. He footnotes Sandy Jenkins a few pages later, explaining, “We used frequently to talk about the fight with Covey, and as often as we did so, he could claim my success as the result of the roots which he gave me. This superstition is very common among the more ignorant slaves” (87). According to our modern definition, Douglass has been handed a miracle; by calling the belief in the root “superstition,” he refuses to credit anyone but chance. By these comments on his story, Douglass reveals his belief that intelligent people can explain the unexplainable. By aligning himself with such people, he discounts modern-day miracles in order to be considered an intellectual.
Early on in his work for Mr. Covey, Douglass again slights a miracle. He is instructed to drive the oxen into the woods to work but has no experience or instruction to help him. His first attempt disastrous, he marvels, “How I escaped death, I do not know” (69). Then on the way back home, he has another near-death run-in with the gate post and says, “I escaped death by the merest chance” (70). So why will Douglass not give credit where credit is arguably due? Is he so desperate to be labeled an intellectual, or is he fighting against something else?
Some blame the Greeks. Along with inheriting Christianity and its miracle stories from the Grecian people, modern believers also inherited their scientific and philosophical minds. Even though modern Christians maintain the position that 13th
century philosopher Aquinas concluded, that God can break any law of nature he wants to because that is his will, these same modern believers have difficulty accepting miracles can happen to them (Grolier 217). We see evidence of Douglass feeling his credibility is on the line with his readers before his narrative even begins when he includes two letters of support of his book written by white men: Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison (12, 16). Perhaps he fights to maintain credibility by maintaining a scientific mind toward the mystical as well, explaining away the miracles in his life.
In Leslie Marmon Silko’s book Ceremony, however, we see the concept of the unexplainable and miraculous working differently in a different cultural context. Silko’s main character, Tayo, is Native American. He has a tendency to accept, and in fact, invoke the unexplainable as a part of his every day life. He demonstrates the opposite gesture from Douglass when he attributes these events to a higher power.
While fighting in Japan, he curses the rain only to return home and find there is a drought. Tayo believes he is the cause of the drought, having offended Mother Nature. He attempts to recreate the rain ceremonies knowing that “the holy men had their ways during dry spells” (93). These ceremonies have no basis in modern logic or science, but the rain returns. And although Tayo struggles with modern explanations of how the world works, deep down, “despite all they had taught him in school…[he wants to believe] long long ago things had been different, and human beings could understand what the animals had said” (95). Believing in the unbelievable makes sense within his cultural logic; the white culture challenges this logic.
Later, Tayo is saved by a series of events, all falling into place to assure his safety. First he is captured by Texan cowboys as he attempts to reclaim his family’s cattle and drive them home. They find mountain lion tracks they would rather hunt than take Tayo in to the authorities however, so they release him. Then the snow begins to fall, covering a multitude of Tayo’s trespassing and theft sins, as well as the tracks and scent of the mountain lion and the family’s cattle. All are safe. In this case, these events individually might be argued as chance. Together, however, their coincidence becomes tough to ignore, especially when grouped with the next four or five events in Tayo’s life that bring him back home. Like Douglass, he could choose to ignore these events as miraculous. Although he never uses the word “miracle,” he recognizes these events and celebrates them as the ceremony he is meant to complete.
Even though Frederick Douglass and Tayo handle the unexplainable and wonder in their lives differently, we as readers glean valuable lessons from both. Douglass demonstrates that logic in the face of uncertainty produces drive and hard work. Silko suggests the power of story in our lives and asks us to let ourselves go and become a part of it. We see Douglass repressing his miracles and Tayo welcoming his own. Where does this leave us with miracle? In both cases, with a sense of wonder, no matter how we label it.