Layers of Heritage: How to Make the Melting Pot into a Good Gumbo

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The potential and the tragedy of the United States is bound up in the ways we deal with–and fail to deal with–where our people come from.

America’s musical culture has created spaces where – from time to time – the many social boundaries (class, race, gender, ethnicity and more) we maintain have melted or lowered to reflect the best of humanity.

At The Rhapsody Project, we are all for melting down prejudice. However, the myth of the melting pot must go. Our country does not benefit when the things that make you special are boiled away into a colorless mush. When immigrants arrive here, we do not want them to trade in their culture and identities to become American–that act of trading in is the thing that created “whiteness.”

We want a gumbo–where our people’s ingredients, flavors and spices combine while still retaining some of their own shape and texture.

To dash The Myth of the Melting Pot and establish the Era of The Gumbo, we have cooked up the following ideas for discussing and discovering the layers of our heritage.

No layer is more valid or important than any other–though some may be more visible or dormant in a given individual’s qualities, and the place they stand their path. We also do not believe that these are the only layers of heritage – this is simply a good starting point.

We strongly encourage everyone to explore and absorb steadily (in drips, sips, or full on immersion) these various layers.

Please look them over, reflect on your relation to each, and then connect with us if you would like to collaborate with The Rhapsody Project as you chart a path for that journey.

Every identity is formed of layers of Heritage, all layers are not created equal:

Where Your Body Comes From

If you know your biological parents, what ethnic identities do they embody? What can you learn about those parts of yourself, and what resonance do you feel with the identity, practices, movements or migrations of their ethnic groups?

Who Raised You

What were the cultural practices of the communities you grew up in? Did you have the good fortune to experience indigenous ceremonies? Did your people spend Sunday in church? How did you celebrate during the winter holidays? What routines or rituals reflected your community’s ethnicities?

What songs were played or sung, and what was the function of that music?

The Land You Are Raised On (& Its History)

What is the history of the place you call home? How does it relate to the place you were raised, and the places your ancestors were raised? If you are not indigenous to your birthplace, what is the history and current status of its Indigenous peoples? What treaties were signed and broken there?

What plants and animals are native to the place you live? What about the shape and space of the land is reflected in the people who live there?

The Individual Layer

Many fundamental parts of a person may not show up until they choose to reveal them. A person’s queerness, gender identity, neuro-diversity, or physical ability are often not readily evident. Still, they play a large role in how that person moves through the world. To respect this crucial layer of a person’s heritage and identity, we work to assume nothing, and allow people to reveal this layer in their own time.

Your National or Cultural Identity

In the United States, this may simply be American culture: the songs on the radio, entertainment that serves as a touchstone for your family or friends, and any national pastimes you engage with. This identity is not only defined by values or ideals of liberty and justice for all–but also the cultural social pressures that sway us to engage or disengage, and work to embody the promise of a more perfect union.


Many people seize an opportunity to choose what people and cultures we are surrounded by. This layer is defined by the family you forge for yourself, and the communities in which you raise that family.

This layer may also include a culture or tradition you are drawn to, even though you do not embody or otherwise reflect its origins. In this case, it is vital to regularly acknowledge your relation to this chosen tradition. You may absorb it to a profound degree, but any “insider” status you earn therein only makes your distinct identity more important and relevant to acknowledge.

Forcible Acculturation

Many Black Americans and Indigenous nations in America are compelled to navigate cultures and religions that continue to be forcibly imposed upon them.

“Tragedy” is not a strong enough word to reflect the magnitude of this violence. The ongoing failure of both our society and government to address this injustice is the reason we agitate and demand actions that establish cultural equity. Equal opportunity for all is necessary but insufficient for justice.

If you choose to join The Rhapsody Project, you commit to addressing injustice in your work and your life. Meanwhile, you can strengthen that activism when you celebrate every layer of your heritage. How do we effectively balance the celebration with the ongoing movement for a just world? That is one of many questions that The Rhapsody Project invites you to explore.