Cultural identity is the collective personality of a people usually associated with a certain group or culture, or that of an individual in relation to certain behavior, thoughts, and influences. (Central Michigan University) These beliefs and shared characteristics allow a group to establish a common ground and in turn make them unique to others. A cultural identity may be national, ethnic, or even generational. Our identity is based upon our differences when compared to other groups. Cultural identity is essentially defined by differences rather than likenesses to others. The identifiable aspects of culture are historical, linguistic, and mental. These three factors may also be found in poetry and are related to the views that an author wishes to express. In my essay, I will seek to identify elements of culture in the following poems: “Bully”, “What it’s Like to Be a Black Girl”, “Self-Pity’s Closet”, “Rite of Passage”, and “The Panther”,
In Martin Espada’s poem, “Bully” cultural identity is evident throughout the length of the poem. The poem is introduced by way of location, the time period, and the year, "In the school auditorium / the Theodore Roosevelt statue / is nostalgic for the Spanish American War" (713). The poet themes seemingly focus on change within American society. This theme is noticeably identifiable in the following stanza:
But now the Roosevelt school
is pronounced Hernández.
Puerto Rico has invaded Roosevelt
with its army of Spanish-singing children
in the hallways,
brown children devouring
the stockpiles of the cafeteria,
children painting Taino ancestors
that leap naked across murals. (714)
Espada effectively provides contrast between Roosevelt’s belief of ethnocentrism and the invasion of the Spanish colonies by comparing the immigration of Puerto Rican families in a 1987 Boston, Massachusetts. At the poem’s ending we are able to envision a revenge of sorts with the children now invading Roosevelt himself. The following stanza is irony at its best and brings the element of culture and change to the forefront,
Roosevelt is surrounded
by all the faces
he ever shoved in eugenic spite
and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race,
hair and cheekbones of another. (714)
This bit of irony is representative of the fact that change once experienced on the island of Puerto Rico now too is prevalent within America. Roosevelt is declared the “bully” by his conquest and those that were once without power are now empowered through change and assimilation. This poem uses historical factors to establish a cultural identity.
Patricia Smith’s, “What it’s Like to Be a Black Girl” (for Those of You Who Aren’t) approaches the idea of a black girl becoming a woman at a time when race matters were still prevalent. The author begins with a direct but conversation like tone to denote the importance of what is being imparted:
First of all, it’s being 9 years old and/
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
The theme here is puberty based changes that takes place according to a “black girl.” The girl feels incomplete because her body is experiencing changes. Smith goes on to describe the girl’s desire to fit into society by wanting to have the physical traits of a white woman. The young girl is displeased with being black and seeks to change her appearance:
…it’s dropping food coloring
In your eyes to make them blue and suffering
Their burn in silence. It’s popping a bleached
White mophead over the kinks of your hair and
primping in front of the mirrors that deny your reflection…(672)
She goes on to describe the Black Power Movement and the Motown era by mentioning “it’s flame and fists and life according to Motown.” As a blossoming young girl approaching womanhood she finds it not only difficult to become a woman, but a...
Cited: Central Michigan University. Cultural Identity as an Instrument. 8 May 2006. 3 November 2009 <http://www.reslife.cmich.edu/rama/index.php?section=Diversity&category=Cultural_Identity>.
Boisseau, Michelle. "Self Pity 's Closet." Mayer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Bedford/St. Martin 's, 2009. 999-1000.
Espada, Martin. "Bully." Mayer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Bedford/St. Martin 's, 2009. 713-714.
Olds, Sharon. "Rite of Passage." Mayer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Bedford/St. Martin 's, 2009. 811-812.
Rilke, Rainier Maria. "The Panther." Mayer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Bedford/St. Martin 's, 2009. 674.
Smith, Patricia. "What It’s Like to Be a Black Girl." Mayer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Bedford/St. Martin 's, 2009. 672-73
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