Our many cultures enrich us. Tragically, they have also divided us. Greater knowledge, and a better understanding of the science, history, literature and art about culture can help us live more ethically, more fully, and shape a better world.
- Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage . . .
[William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” Prologue.]
When I moved from Michigan to metropolitan New York in 1983, I expected not to see cultural isolation. After all, New York City was a cultural Mecca. Surely New Yorkers were past cultural divisions. Shortly after I arrived, I quickly discovered that metropolitan New Yorkers were in many ways more tied to their cultures of origin than people in the American Midwest, where I grew up. Many New Yorkers made a point of isolating themselves, and at least a couple budding relationships ended because I was not of the right religion or cultural background – or so I was told.
Generally, we have seen a movement toward a more open culture in recent years, an inevitable development in a society in which people have more contact with and exposure to people from other cultures. Some people just like the taste of sushi and Hoisin sauce, or find the tabla and sitar interesting; but some of us find people interesting and noble regardless of their cultural heritage. For both reasons, a culture that would have gasped at a televised kiss between a black man and a white woman has grown to accept it. An African-American like Barack Obama probably would not have been elected president until recently, no matter how prodigious his abilities were.
In the United States and around the world, cultural barriers are breaking down. The same forces that have made the world small by nuclear technology have also provided the tools for humanity to tear down ancient barriers. If we fail, people will suffer. This is a paramount motivation behind this attempt at a religion of all peoples.
Each culture contributes to the fund of knowledge and art.
- Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America (Bloomsbury, 2011).
General histories on cultures:
- Lawrence S. Cunningham and John J. Reich, Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities (Wadsworth Publishing, 2009).
- Ida Susser and Thomas C. Patterson, Cultural Diversity in the United States: A Critical Reader (Blackwell Publishers, 2001).
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations (Free Press, 2010).
- Peter C. Mancall and James H. Merrell, eds., American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850 (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2006).
- Frederick E. Hoxie, Peter C. Mancall and James H. Merrell, eds., American Nations: Encounters in Indian Country, 1850 to the Present (Routledge, 2000).
- Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
- James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1999).
- Francis Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies (W. W. Norton & Company, 1990).
- Francis Jennings, Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies and Tribes War in the Seven Years War in America (W. W. Norton & Company, 1990).
- Fred Anderson, Crucible of War : The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British America, 1754-1766 (Vintage, 2001).
- Jerilynn D. Dodds, Maria Rosa Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale, The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture (Yale University Press, 2008).
- Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010).
- Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, Volume 1: Finding the Words: 1000 BC – 1492 AD (Ecco, 2014).
- Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, Volume 2: Belonging: 1492-1900 (Ecco, 2017): about “a people who never seemed to belong anywhere.”
Personal narratives about culture:
- Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Times Books / Random House, 1995): “Mr. Obama was born into a cultural milieu that on the surface made for perfect social and racial diversity, but living such a life proved extraordinarily difficult. To balance the blessing of diversity and the pain of never feeling completely a part of one people or one place, the young Mr. Obama falls back on colorful stories from the world of his imagination.”
Documentary and Educational Films
Videos on human and non-human cultures (CARTA):
- Cultural universals
- Learning, Culture & Traditions in Monkeys, Chimpanzees & Sperm Whales
- Vocal Learning and Culture
- Learning, Culture & Traditions in Primates and Whales
Other videos on culture:
- Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 6 (African) (1909)
- Wassily Kandinsky, Solid Green
- Pavel Filonov, East and West (1912-13)
- Rodolphe Bresdin, The Good Samaritan (1861)
- Nikolai Alexeev, A Young Girl in Russian Costume (1837)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
A champion of cultural inclusion in music is Béla Fleck. He has created several albums with great musicians from around the world, highlighting and celebrating many cultures in music.
- “Throw Down Your Heart: The Complete Africa Sessions” (2009) (203'), with Toumani Diabaté and other artists
- “The Melody of Rhythm” (2009) (63'), with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer
- “Tabula Rasa” (1996) (54'), with Jie-Bing Chen on erhu (China) and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on mohan vina (Indian slide guitar)
Gregor Huebner is a violinist who has been praised for integrating classical, jazz and world music traditions. He is responsible for a multi-volume recording project of Latin music featuring the violin, called El Violin Latino:
- Volume 1: El Violin Latino (2009) (64’)
- Volume 2: For Octavio (2016) (64’)
- Volume 3: Los Soñadores (2019) (61’)
In these works, modern composer Lou Harrison incorporated an Indonesian instrument, the Gamelan, into the Western classical genre:
- La Koro Sutro, for 100 voice chorus with gamelan, harp & organ (1970) (approx. 29’)
- Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1973) (approx. 28’)
- Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987) (approx. 26’)
Several other composers from the Romantic, Modern and Contemporary eras also have used cultural inclusion as a positive theme.
- Ernest Bloch, Three Jewish Poems (1913) (approx. 24'): Bloch may have been paying tribute to his father.
- Jacques Halévy, La Juive (The Jewess) (1835) (approx. 175') (libretto): forbidden romantic love between a Jew and a Christian
- Thomas Beveridge, Yizkor Requiem (1994) (approx. 53’): combining Catholic and Jewish traditions, and music
- George Benjamin, Antara (1987) (approx. 20’): “Antara is the ancient Inca word for panpipe, a term still in use today in Peru. And the history of the panpipes is indeed ancient, with roots dating back thousands of years around the world, not only from South America, but also China, the Pacific and Southern Europe.”
- Yehudi Wyner, Tants un Maysele (Dance and Little Story) (1981) (approx. 14’): the composer explains, “I began working on a piece that would be dancelike, filled with Hassidic-type dance rhythms, but also infused with a kind of violence and peremptory rage that one would not find normally in a Hassidic dance; and, also, with a sense of extreme mystery and confusion.”
- Mieczysław Weinberg, Polish Tunes, Op. 47, No. 2 (1950) (approx. 14’), “offer a world far removed from strife and suffering: moods are uniformly chipper and festive; tunes are folkish and catchy; and the orchestration is colorful.”
- Alexander Glazunov, Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 48 (1893) (approx. 31-35’): here, the composer looks outward toward German culture, instead of inward toward his native Russia.
- Jesús Guridi, Diez melodias vascas (Ten Basque melodies) (1941) (approx. 22-23’): “It is more than an agreeable orchestral setting of folk tunes, but could be heard as a ten movement suite or symphony, sometimes reminiscent of Rodrigo in its eastern Iberian gaiety and lyrical tenderness.”
- Alberto Hemsi, Quintet for Viola and String Quartet, Op. 28 (ca. 1943) (approx. 18’), “breaks from the use of Sephardic themes, and includes a movement that mimics a stomping dance and another that sounds like an English jig.”
- Guo Gan and Emre Gültekin, “Lune de Jade” (2016) (55’), features instruments from “Two different worlds who, a priori, have nothing in common”.
- Orquestra Afro-Brasileira, “80 Anos” (2022) (38’): “. . . the sole remaining member of the 1968 unit, percussionist and vocalist Carlos Negreiros, spells out the importance of the Candomblé rituals and their leader’s message: 'I became aware of what it is to be black, discovering the extraordinary potential of the Afro-Brazilian culture in the making of the national ethos.'”
- Eric Jacobsen, Sandeep Das and Kayhan Kalhor, “Blue as the Turquoise Night” (2021) (54’): “There are five pieces and although it’s nominally a classical album, much of the music is close to the diverse traditions that have inspired it.”
- Barbora Xu, “Olin Ennen” (2021) (37’): a Czech singer and instrumentalist exploring shared symbolism in Finnish and Chinese poetry
- K.G. Westman & Zaعfaran, “KG Westman & Zaعfaran” (2022) (50’): European sitarist K.G. Westman collaborates with musicians from Sweden, Egypt and India to produce this elegant set of instrumentals.
- Duke Ellington, “Far East Suite” (1966) (45’): “The Far East Suite was meant to convey the excitement and awe felt by the band when traveling to lands that were truly foreign-exotic and totally different from what most of them had experienced before.”
- Bill Alves, “Guitars and Gamelan” (2015) (51’)
- Jordi Savall & Hespèrion XXI, “Mare Nostrum” (2011) (156’): Mare nostrum is defined as “a navigable body of water (such as a sea) that belongs to a single nation or is mutually shared by two or more nations”. “Mare Nostrum (Latin for 'Our Sea') was a common Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. The term was always somewhat ambiguous: it both implied Roman dominance of the Mediterranean and the cultural diversity of the nations that have bordered it for well over two millennia.” Savall describes the album as “an attempt at promoting intercultural dialogue, using the history of the different cultures and religions clustered around the Mediterranean both as a metaphor and as illustration.” Here are Savall and ensemble in live performance.
- Wadada Leo Smith & N’Da Kulture, “Golden Hearts Remembrance” (1997) (69’): “This sextet, which uses Eastern and Western instruments, authors into being a kind of folk music for the emerging century, one that relies deeply on poetry, improvisation, subtleties in tone, timbre, and rhythm. The six pieces here reflect Smith's ongoing concern with marrying the vanguard jazz tradition he comes from to the history of the ages in Eastern music, particularly the music of Asia.”
- Firelight Trio, “Firelight Trio” (2023) (65’), “lead us on an exhilarating jaunt from Scotland’s glens and isles through France’s majestic countryside to the glorious Balkan hillsides, and Scandinavian landscapes, all topped off with a tasty garnish of irresistible Klezmer.”
Now we turn to the dark side. Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” is a story of a young couple kept apart by divisions between their feuding families. They were not from different cultures (Shakespeare’s story reflects social tribalism within a culture) but through today’s lens, that may be the most salient message. The story is among the most famous in literature, and is well-represented in Romantic opera, theatre and the orchestra.
- Vincenzo Bellini's opera I Capulete e I Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) (1830) (approx. 120-135’) (libretto) is Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as opera. Here are links to performances conducted by Abbado in 1966 with Aragall & Rinaldi; Muti in 1984 with Baltsa & Gruberová; Callegari in 2002 with Devia & Ganassi; and Luisi in 2008 with Netrebko & Garanča.
- Leonard Bernstein updated the story to New York City in the 1950s, where warring street gangs replace feuding families in "West Side Story". In Bernstein’s telling, it was Puerto Ricans versus “regular Americans”. Here is a full performance of the music conducted by Bernstin (76’). Here are clips from the classic 1961 film.
- Charles Gounod, Roméo et Juliette (1967) (approx. 145-180’) (libretto) is an operatic treatment of Shakespeare’s play. Excellent performances are conducted by Cooper in 1947, Lombard in 1969, Plasson in 1998, and Minkowski with video.
- Hector Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette, Op. 7, H79 (1847) (approx. 95-100’) (libretto)
- Constant Lambert, Romeo & Juliet (1925) (approx. 30’)
Giacomo Puccini‘s Madama Butterfly (1904) (approx. 120-150’) (libretto) presents a similar theme but in this story, only the woman is a victim. Because she is a Japanese woman, being taken advantage of by a U.S. naval officer, it illustrates both cultural and gender discrimination. In addition, Butterfly is only 15 years old. Video-recorded performances were conducted by Fabritiis, Casero and Conlon. Erede in 1951, Karajan in 1955, Kempe in 1957, Serafin in 1958, Barbirolli in 1966, Karajan in 1974, Sinopoli in 1988, and Pappano in 2009 conducted top audio-recorded performances.
Novels and plays:
- William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is a tragic drama about feud between two families that prevents two young lovers from realizing their dreams and results in both their deaths.
- Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (McSweeney's, 2009), about a man who tries to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, only to be harassed because of his apparent heritage.
- Nuruddin Farah, North of Dawn: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2018): “Dressed in a ‘body tent’ and reciting Quoranic verses in the back of Mugdi’s car, Waliya refuses to fasten her seatbelt, stating that her death is the will of Allah. Mugdi responds that he may have to pay a heavy fine to the police if she doesn’t. Her compliance is not acquiescence. The battle lines are drawn.”
- Margaret Verble, Cherokee America: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin, 2019): “ . . . the novel is about more than individual events; it’s about life in the Nation when it was a sovereign land with a government of its own. It’s also about the Cherokee culture and its rules, spoken and unspoken, that have been passed down for generations.”
- Mahir Guven, Older Brother: A Novel (Europa Editions, 2019): “A young Muslim who feels disenfranchised in the West: You can imagine where this might go.”
- Xiaolu Guo, A Lover’s Discourse: A Novel (Grove Press, 2020): “The book reverses the common theme of a perplexed Westerner baffled by the habits and rituals of an Asian country. Transplanted to London, the Chinese-born narrator struggles with the city’s transport system, tries to find “Brexit” in her dictionary and wonders if London Wall is anything like the Great Wall of China.”
Film and Stage
- The Chosen, about Hasidic Jews who struggle to fit in
- Bad Day at Black Rock, about anti-Japanese bigotry
- Beautiful People, “a portrait of the multicultural life of London,” humming “with the vital cacophony of daily life”
- Heat and Dust: two women, sixty years apart in age, confront cultural India through the respective lenses of their time
- Paisan (Paisà): this 1946 film portrays “the tenuous relationship between the recently liberated Italians and their American liberators”
- Yana’s Friends: “a light comedy about romance and culture shock”
- Embrace of the Serpent, depicting an encounter between and Amazonian Shaman and two foreign scientists
Post-World –War-II films confronting anti-semitism:
- Crossfire, portraying “a frank and immediate demonstration of the brutality of religious bigotry”
- Gentleman’s Agreement, on the “shabby cruelties of anti-Semitism”
I see vapors exhaling from unexplored countries,
I see the savage types, the bow and arrow, the poison'd splint, the fetich, and the obi.
I see African and Asiatic towns,
I see Algiers, Tripoli, Derne, Mogadore, Timbuctoo, Monrovia,
I see the swarms of Pekin, Canton, Benares, Delhi, Calcutta, Tokio,
I see the Kruman in his hut, and the Dahoman and Ashantee-man in their huts,
I see the Turk smoking opium in Aleppo,
I see the picturesque crowds at the fairs of Khiva and those of Herat,
I see Teheran,
I see Muscat and Medina and the intervening sands, see the caravans toiling onward,
I see Egypt and the Egyptians,
I see the pyramids and obelisks.
I look on chisell'd histories, records of conquering kings, dynasties, cut in slabs of sand-stone, or on granite-blocks,
I see at Memphis mummy-pits containing mummies embalm'd, swathed in linen cloth, lying there many centuries,
I look on the fall'n Theban, the large-ball'd eyes, the side-drooping neck, the hands folded across the breast.
[Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-92), Book VI, “Salut au Monde” (10).]