This study explores the myth of the Melting Pot through an analysis of Act Three Scene Two of Angels in America by Tony Kushner. The scene focuses on an interaction between Louis and Belize, two gay men living through the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City with one key difference: their race. Despite their marginalization as gay men, Louis is still privileges in many ways particularly his race. In this interaction, Louis presents a long-winded argument about the defining characteristics of Americans, coming tot he conclusion that what defines and divides Americans is not race but politics. Louis has been able to assimilate into the American Melting Pot in a way that Belize has not; because he is white, Louis fits the narrow requirements set forth by Israel Zangwill in his work The Melting Pot. In this sense, my study contrasts previous work, namely that of Yong-Nam Park, by highlighting that the myth of the Melting Pot makes room for people of various sexualities so long as they are white.
I am analyzing an interaction between Louis, one of the protagonists of the play, and Belize, the only person of color in Angels in America. In this interaction, Louis goes on a long-winded rant about assimilation, race, and politics in which he comes to the striking conclusion that race is not a problem in America. Belize, understandably reacts poorly to Louis's assertion as although Louis is marginalized by his identity as a gay man he is still a white man imposing his own privileged understanding of race onto the world which he and Belize occupy very differently. In order to unpack this scene in relation to my larger research question, I will do a close textual analysis of Act Three Scene Two and connect it to the texts we have worked with thus far in lecture and in discussion. Further, I will watch the film adaptation of Angels in America in order to analyze not only what is being spoken by Louis but also how this rant is presented visually.
The image to the right is an old lithograph by C.J. Taylor that depicts Lady Liberty stirring the races of Europe into American citizens.
This scene deconstructs the myth of the Melting Pot by demonstrating how America is experienced unequally by people of different races and highlighting that the mythos is only accepted by those it privileges. Researchers have already dissected and explored the work as it relates to the destruction of the Melting Pot. A paper from Yong-Nam Park published by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania argues,
“Tony Kushner...challenges the judgmental mainstream’s views of homosexuality, and seeks sexual subjectivity in Angels in America. The great melting pot as a metaphor for American society, at least as represented in these superlative contemporary American playwrights’ plays, is nothing but a myth and not a reality. Individuals are not completely melted as one; rather, they challenge the mainstream’s social mores and strive to recover their own autonomous subjectivity” (Park).
Park argues that through the exploration of sexual identity in the play, Kushner is able to demonstrate the failure of the Melting Pot to homogenize its people; people of different sexual orientations challenge the mainstream, demonstrating the diversity of experiences in America. While Park argues that the sexuality of the play’s queer characters, including both Louis and Belize, sets them apart and prevents them from assimilating, I argue that Louis’s sexuality is trumped by his race, allowing him to experience the Melting Pot where Belize cannot.
The Melting Pot myth after all comes down to the matter of race. Zangwill’s work is careful to present a vision of an America where all Europeans may be molded into Americans, intentionally excluding people of color. One of Zangwill’s most important characters, a Russian Jewish immigrant named David, proclaims the glory of the Melting Pot: “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russian—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American” (Zangwill 81). David’s ommission of people of color, including the first indigenous Americans, is telling. The vision of the American Melting Pot, of the Crucible which can allow people to assimilate into Americans, is a vision of whiteness which it constructs only from the various peoples of Europe. In Angels in America, the protagonist Louis is a white man. Louis is allowed to assimilate and experience the American Zangwill constructed because he is white. His assimilation blinds him to the very real and detrimental effect being non-white can have on the American experience as he tells the increasingly skeptical Belize, “Ultimately what defines us isn’t race, but politics” (Kushner 90). Louis is inherently privileged in his ability to see beyond race and view the true defining factor of the American experience as politics.