By William R. Ferris
Chairman, U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities

Before I knew there was such a thing as American literature, I was immersed in stories. Growing up in Mississippi, I inherited a rich tradition of storytelling from my family, my neighbors and my friends, both black and white -- all of whom, I suspect, had heeded the old African proverb that "when an old man or old woman dies, a library burns to the ground." It's hard to resist the magic of a grandfather who always said he was raised on "cornbread and recollections." I heard stories on the back porch on steamy Southern nights, and on the lawn of the Rose Hill Church, where black families have worshipped since before the Civil War. And I began to gather stories of my own.

Over the years, I've developed a particular love for the work of the sons and daughters of the South -- William Faulkner, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty and Alex Haley. Each, in his or her own unique way, told a story -- a personal history of the United States. Many others have, too -- sons and daughters of many countries and many cultures.

Multicultural literature is a major source of insight into the rich cultural dynamics of our society, a primary medium for Americans to comprehend our nation's rich cultural heritage, and for international audiences to fathom life and thought in the United States. In the stories they tell from different points of view, U.S. authors of a multitude of backgrounds build bridges of understanding over which all of us can cross into each other's worlds.

At the National Endowment for the Humanities, we recognize how vital these writers and storytellers are, across the spectrum of experience. And so we have created a number of programs to promote understanding among cultures. "Storylines America" is a series of live "talk radio" programs in which listeners can chat with authors about the beliefs -- and the stereotypes -- that have shaped American identity. "Bridges That Unite Us" brings audiences of all ages together at public libraries in the Southwestern United States to discuss Hispanic American immigration and acculturation. Many schoolteachers spend their summers at seminars on university campuses, studying multicultural U.S. literature, to be able to return to their students reinvigorated by their new knowledge.

Ultimately, the power of multicultural literature affects us all, because literature defines the true essence -- and soul -- of our country.


William R. Ferris is an author, folklorist, filmmaker and academic administrator. In 1997, President Clinton appointed him chairman of the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH is the U.S. Government agency responsible for funding humanities programs on literature, history, philosophy and foreign languages across the United States.

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