Internal Struggle for Identity and Equality in African-American Literature
The story of the African-American journey through America’s history is one of heartbreaking desperation and victimization, but also one of amazing inspiration and victory. Any story of the journey that fails to include these seemingly diametric components of the African-American journey is incomplete. However, African-American culture reflects both the progress of the African-American community, its external struggle to achieve equality, and its internal struggle to acquire identity after displacement and forced deprivation of access to native culture. This is particularly true in African-American literature, which, taken as a whole, paints a broad portrait of African-American life, encompassing struggle, strife, conquest, sacrifice and triumph. African-American literature has been a way for African-American authors to express their own feelings about identity and struggle, but, perhaps even more importantly; it has provided a catalyst for broader discussion about those feelings on a cultural level. For example, Alex Haley’s seminal novel, Roots, and the subsequent mini-series encouraged many African-Americans “for the first time to speak openly and honestly about the lingering effects of centuries-old oppression” (Dyson, Kindle). Moreover, African-American literature has taken this discussion outside of the black community; it has historically been a way of sharing the Black Experience with non-blacks, which has helped foster a greater understanding of what it has meant to be African-American in the greater context of American society.
African-American literature began, for the most part, with works now known as slave narratives. After emancipation, African-American literature, like African-American life, changed, reflecting legal freedom from slavery that was still largely confined and defined by external forces, increasing strife within the community and making individual struggles for identity more difficult. Modern African-American literature demonstrates some of the successes from the earlier struggles, not only by directly discussing those successes, but also through the assumptions that modern authors make about what it means to be African-American within the larger context of American society, as a whole. Therefore, African-American literature can be said to be an accurate cultural representation of the African-American struggle for identity and equality.
One of the interesting literary hallmarks of many of the early slave narratives is that they sometimes take an apologetic tone. The authors, who had been slaves, seem keenly aware that they are addressing a primarily white audience, which is convinced that there are racial differences in intelligence and that those who are of African ancestry are less intelligent than white men. For example, in his preface to his account of his life as a slave, Equiano Olaudah, is addressing the British Parliament. Though the English and grammar in his account are of very high quality, particularly for someone who is a non-native English speaker, Olaudah makes a point of apologizing for the quality of his writing. He states, “I am sensible I ought to entreat your pardon for addressing to you a work so wholly devoid of literary merit; but, as the production of an unlettered African, who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen, I trust that such a man, pleading in such a cause, will be acquitted of boldness and presumption” (Olaudah, Web). Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass make similar statements about the quality of their writing in their own narratives, though their writing certainly surpasses what is considered average or normal during modern times. What this suggests is that these African-Americans, who were keenly aware of the reality of slavery and the racial animosity attendant to the institution, were simultaneously honest about their experience with slavery and careful about how they represented themselves to non-African-Americans. This suggests a splintering of identity that has been a hallmark of African-American culture since the time of slavery; a determination to show only part of the culture to those not living within the culture.
The history of the legacy of slavery remains a significant challenge for African- Americans in the struggle for identity and equality. Understanding this is simple when one considers the fact that slaves were literally stolen from their homelands and ripped from their core cultural identities, with the expectation that they would assimilate into the society into which they were sold, despite having little or no familiarity with that society. What is interesting is that many slavery apologists are quick to point out that slavery existed in Africa long before the Mid-Atlantic slave trade. This is a factually true statement, but a reading of slave narratives quickly highlights the fact that slavery in Africa was traditionally very different from the slave-system as it developed in the Americas. Equiano Olaudah, and African who was stolen from his home in Africa, describes fellow Africans who were slave-owners and slave traders, bringing slaves into his homeland. “They always carry slaves through our land; but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuring them, before they are suffered to pass” (Olaudah, Kindle). Moreover, he describes his people selling slaves to the slave traders, but indicates that slaves were either prisoners of war or criminals, and that the slaves were given the opportunity to purchase their freedom. This differed significantly from the way that slavery developed in the Americas, which was as a heritable system that eventually came to be based almost exclusively on African ancestry. Olaudah was eventually kidnapped and sold into slavery, experiencing not only an intentional deprivation of his home culture, but also a slavery very unlike that with which he had been raised; he was sold into a position of lifelong slavery and discovered that any children he fathered would be slaves, as well.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that this intentional deprivation of liberty and removal from culture was not simply part of the separation from traditional African culture. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, who had been born a freeman, describes how he descended from a family of slaves on his paternal side, but that his father had been freed upon his master’s death. As a result, Northup was born a free man. He lived as a freeman for the first three decades of his life. He was married to a freewoman, they had three children, and he was engaged in gainful employment as a musician. He had contact with slaves and had had conversations with them about their desire for liberty and recalled his father, who had been owned by a non-vicious master, describing the inhumanity of being deprived of one’s liberty. However, Northup had no personal experience with the institution of slavery until he was well into adulthood and accustomed to living as a freeman. Two men, who called themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, engaged Northrup in a conversation about his violin-playing skills and spoke to him about the possibility of hiring him. Instead, they seemed to have been “accessory to my misfortunes- subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men- designedly luring me away from home and family, and liberty, for the sake of gold” (Northup, Kindle). After the two men got Northup intoxicated, he was sold into slavery, despite the fact that he was a freeman. This would not have been possible if slavery had not been so intertwined with the concept of race, and had the assumption not been that an African-American man of that time period was a slave.
To understand how and why slavery has had such a dramatic and lasting impact on community identity, it is critical to read first-hand personal accounts of those who lived and struggled under slavery and see how it has impacted the development of the family unit, which is the core cultural unit. Frederick Douglass provides an interesting description of his own family life, which provides information about family formation and structure under slavery. First, he does not know who his father was, though he knew his father was a white, and therefore, free, man. “My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage” (Douglass, Web). He speculated that his master was his father, though this was not confirmed by others with whom he was raised Douglass’s descriptions of not knowing his father’s identity and the father not playing a role in his life were mirrored throughout the slaveholding world, where enslaved African-American fathers were often relegated to the role of stud and many pregnancies were the result of sexual assaults perpetrated by white men on slave women. This marginalized the role of the father in the lives of African-American children, and, in many instances, made women the sole caregivers for their children, a cultural legacy that remains in much of the African-American community.
Douglass’ descriptions of the way that slave children were deprived of contact with their parents, shattering their family units, is contrasted with Alex Haley’s description of family rituals in the Africa from which his own ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was stolen by slave traders. Though Haley’s novel, Roots, is a fictionalized account of his family’s history, it has sufficient historical basis to serve as a counter-point to the institutionalized destruction of family units that characterized much of slavery in the Americas. Describing a naming ritual, Haley has the father walking through a village to his wife. “Moving to his wife’s side, he lifted up the infant and, as all watched, whispered three times into his son’s ear the name he had chosen for him. It was the first time the name had ever been spoken as this child’s name, for Omoro’s people felt that each human being should be the first to know who he was” (Haley, p.3). This ritual shows the involvement of both parents in the child’s rearing; not only with the selection of name, but also with their involvement in the community. Moreover, it highlights the importance of naming to parents, which brings to mind the fact that so many African-Americans carry surnames that are linked to their former slave owners or to prominent white men, rather than being linked to their African history. This highlights the disconnect that African-Americans have from a broader cultural history that extends into the past beyond the Middle Passage. It also highlights the fact that there is nothing genetic about the absence of fathers in the lives of many African-American children; instead, it is a culturally shaped behavior that continues into the present day.
The ancillary role that fathers play in much of the African-American community is something that is frequently discussed, but what is not discussed as frequently, but is also a cultural hallmark, is the fact that oftentimes the women raising children in the African-American community are not mothers, but grandmothers, aunts, or sisters. Douglass was not raised by his own mother, but was intentionally separated from her by their master. She was able to sneak away at times to see him in the night time, but would have been beaten if she had stayed to see him during the daytime. Moreover, Douglass states, “it is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early ageâ€¦and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor” (Douglass, web). Douglass discusses how this impacted the mother-child relationship, not only blunting the natural affection the mother would have for the child, but also the affection that the child would have for the mother. It also helped establish an extended-family unit in the African-American community that encompassed both maternal and paternal female relatives who would step into caregiving roles for children. In some ways, this removed the stigma that African-American women would have otherwise felt at leaving their children in the care of others in order to pursue work or other opportunities. However, it also put a burden on many older African-American women in the community, who were traditionally not allowed the luxury of any type of retirement, and who now find themselves pressured to raise grandchildren or great-grandchildren if their children are unable or unwilling to do so. This tradition has also contributed to an anti-adoption stigma in much of the African-American community, because of a belief that a family or community member can and will step up to raise a child, without an investigation of the impact of these transient relationships on the children. Therefore, non-nuclear families became, in many ways, normalized within the African-American community, while still stigmatized outside of that community.
In some ways, the fact that behaviors that were normative within the African-American community were viewed as not only nonconformist, but, in many ways, dysfunctional, led to the treatment of the African-American community as a problem. W.E.B. DuBois addresses this issue in The Souls of Black Folk. He begins the book with a discussion of what it feels like to be treated as a problem to be solved, simply by virtue of his race. He openly addresses the issue, “being a problem is a strange experience, – peculiar even for one who has never been anything else” (DuBois, Kindle). He discusses how being treated as a problem, if not individually, then because of one’s membership in a race, is isolating and, in many ways, discourages efforts at assimilating into a non-racial society, because it encourages scorn for those who would consider someone a problem. This does not mean that DuBois did not agree that race and race relations were a huge issue that needed to be solved in order for the United States to move forward in a productive manner; he agreed that they were. What he disagreed with was the notion that African-Americans were the problem. Instead, he believed that the historical treatment of African-Americans was the problem and that addressing that treatment and remedying lingering discrimination were crucial to solving the problem. One way he believed that this could occur would be by revealing the humanity and development of culture in the African-American community, thereby stripping away the assumptions that African-Americans were somehow less developed or less capable than their white counterparts. To do this, DuBois outlined the development and celebration of African-American people. His efforts at legitimizing the African-American culture and experience are vital to the evolution and survival of it as it is subjected to discrimination not only from without, but from within as well.
In fact, the post-slavery era depictions of African-American life in the United States provide an interesting portrait of what it means to be a member of a minority group that has, in many ways, internalized the prejudices of a majority society, while still struggling to develop pride and a stand-alone cultural identity. Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi examines the negative aspects of living in a white dominated society in the 20th century. One of the most telling scenes is when Anne is describing her father’s mistress, Florence. Moody says, “Florence was a mulatto, high yellow with straight black hair. She was the envy of all the women on the plantation” (Moody, p.11). This line clearly indicates that the African-American women on the plantation had incorporated white ideals of beauty into their own ideals of femininity and that they were concerned that their men would also prefer the white beauty ideal, which was most closely approximated by Florence, a mulatto woman. Moody even points out how attractive her own mother is, but her mother’s looks appear to be inconsequential when compared to the fact that Florence has the pale skin and straight hair that are most associated with being white.
Perhaps, the most powerful novel about the white beauty myth and its impact on African-American culture, particularly how African-American girls and women view themselves, is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Unlike the works of literature previously discussed, Morrison’s novel is a novel; it is not autobiographical, a memoir, or a historical account. However, the fact that it details the lives of fictional characters does not detract from its ability to impact the reader or to help convey certain elements of African-American culture. Morrison’s fascination with the blue-eyed standard of beauty had its roots in a conversation she had with her own childhood friend. It blossomed for her in the 60s and 70s, when people were making an effort to reclaim black as beautiful, and Morrison was wondering how black had ever come to be associated with a lack of beauty. This led her to consider the process of internalizing these external ideals and how marginalization contributes to that process. The story of the novel is a horrific one. Pecola Breedlove, who has features traditionally associated with being black, is mocked because of her appearance. However, she is vulnerable to their words because of horror going on in her home; she has been raped by her father and is pregnant with his child. Though the novel does not excuse the father’s assault of his young daughter, it does investigate the social conditions that might contribute to an absence of an appropriate father-daughter relationship and make incestuous contact with one’s child more possible. This reminds the reader of what Douglass said about his father and the systemic means of separating children from their parents that existed under slavery. Morrison wanted to investigate racial self-loathing. In her own words, she wrote the novel to answer her own questions about her friend’s perceived lack of beauty: “Who told her? Who made her feel it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her” (Morrison, Kindle).
Of course, the fictional Pecola Breedlove and was not the only young African-American women to feel as if her real worth and value would only be discovered if she had the trappings of white beauty. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical book of prose mixed with poetry, Maya Angelou engages in her own exploration of the internalization of white standards of beauty by female African-Americans. As a young child in a hand me down dress, who is being made fun of by her peers, Angelou recalls thinking:
Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about “my daddy must have been a Chinaman” (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet, and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil (Angelou, Kindle).
Not only did Angelou incorporate the representation of white as the beauty ideal, but she clung to the belief that she was actually a white girl who was being punished by being placed in the body of an African-American girl.
Some might suggest that the focus on the white beauty ideal is not appropriate for a discussion of African-American culture, but any investigation of African-American writing by female authors during that time period demonstrates that the white beauty ideal created a significant barrier to identity development in African-American women. That is not to say that all African-American women who had some white-features were considered luckier or more fortunate than others; white features revealed a history that was almost always sordid, most likely suggesting sexual assault by white males on black female ancestors in the woman’s past. Furthermore, up until the point of being able to pass for white instead of black, this whiteness rarely carried overt privilege in the broader social context. Segregation was still enforced against anyone who was visibly African-American, no matter how diluted that ancestry appeared to be. However, it is important to note that African-Americans who appeared whiter may have received some privileges from society at large, even if they were not overt legal privileges. For example, they may have been more likely to be hired for better jobs or visible jobs. During slavery, they were more likely to work in the house, and to be selected as sexual slaves for white masters, which could sometimes carry privileges, such as better food and housing conditions, that other slaves were denied. Therefore, it is important to realize that there was a historic basis for envying more Caucasian-appearing features by members of the African-American community that was not necessarily based in self-loathing, but in an honest and realistic appraisal of the fact that those who appeared to be lighter were treated better by society as a whole.
Additionally, it is important to note that Angelou’s description of whiteness is not limited to physical attributes; she also specifically mentions the refusal to use slang in her description as setting her apart from the other African-Americans (Angelou, Kindle). The use of slang or other non-standard English is a controversial cultural topic in the African-American community. First, it must be recognized that American English is different from British English; the language has evolved in the United States. However, the educational standard focuses on mainstream English and teaches African-American children that their own slang is unacceptable for communication. Lisa Green suggests that this goal of eradicating slang from the speech of African-American students is counterproductive to learning because it “discourages the students and inhibits them in the classroom” (Green, p.232). The focus on grammar instead of content marginalizes experience and hampers communication. Moreover, the focus on grammar ignores the fact that there is a historic basis for how and why language evolved differently in the African-American community than it did in the white community; slave language developed into a patois because of the various different countries of origin of the slaves and their exposure to people from a variety of different nationalities during their transportation as chattel. Once divided, much like British English and American English, African-American English and American English evolved along similar, but different trajectories, so that some words and phrasing are acceptable in one culture, but not in another. Suggesting that only the standard American English approach is acceptable can be seen as a way of marginalizing some elements of the African-American experience. On the other hand, some African-Americans find it unacceptable if people suggest that, as African-Americans, they should be unable to speak standard American English. This continues to be a significant cultural debate in the African-American community.
Another common theme in African-American literature is the sexual victimization of African-American girls and women. Pecola was vulnerable because she was raped and impregnated by her father. This vulnerability is repeated in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. The narrator, Celie, is raped by her father repeatedly, her mother treats her poorly because of it, and her children are stolen away from her. Celie describes seeing a little girl that looks just like her and her father and would be the same age as the child she thought her father killed. “I think she mine. My heart say she mine. But I don’t know she mine” (Walker, Kindle). This theft of her child and the uncertainty about its future is something that African-American women had to deal with throughout slavery, and, its vestiges remain in the African-American community in the present day, though it is now likely to be family members or government agencies arranging for the displacement of children rather than masters removing them through sales. The combination of sexual victimization and the theft of a child is reminiscent of slavery, though it is critical to understand that in Walker’s novel the first antagonist is an African-American male, not a white male. In fact, the African-American males in The Color Purple are marked by violence, which may be a hallmark of their impotence in broader society, but makes them caustic to their families, even when they love them.
While works by female authors discussing the African-American experience often focus on the internalization of white beauty ideals and the sexual victimization of African-American girls and women, works by male authors often discuss the rage that African-American men have historically felt in a society that prizes masculinity above all, but has historically deprived African-American men of the means of expressing that masculinity. This, in turn, leads to rage, frustration, and a feeling of invisibility that can make African-American males feel both superfluous to their families and also as if they are pressured to achieve things that society has placed out of their reach.
Langston Hughes discusses the desire to be white specifically within the context of the African-American artist. He approaches this by examining the differences between black and white culture and how many middle-class African-Americans believe that appreciating the trappings of African-American culture is a hallmark of being lower-class. He even discusses the fact that he has been discouraged from reading some of his poetry in front of white audiences because of a concern that it will tarnish the image of middle-class black intellectualism that many have tried hard to cultivate. However, Hughes makes it clear that he does not care what his critics think about his very racial approach to his artwork. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too” (Hughes, p.1271). In other words, he is not willing to live his life or create his art as a means of earning the approval or disapproval of any group of people, but particularly not of a group of people who do not, cannot share his experience as an African-American growing up in a society that marginalizes him. Instead of seeking validation from others, he will provide his own validation. It is a strong position, but one that can be difficult to maintain when confronted with the realities of earning a living and maintaining real physical safety in the context of a world where one’s skin color marks one as a member of a minority that is irrationally hated and feared by many.
Ross Posnock would agree with Langston Hughes, but also disagree with him in some ways. After all, Posnock takes the position, which was initially taken by DuBois that intellectualism is not confined to whites. Therefore, what Hughes dismisses as hallmarks of white society, Posnock might suggest are simply hallmarks of socioeconomic class lines that are more pervasive than color-lines. He does not seem to endorse the notion of cultural pluralism, with its emphasis on racial group solidarity as intrinsically valuable. Instead, he seems to second the notion that African-American intellectuals are simply seeking to be both American and black at the same time; “by making claims of particular identity, be they racial or national, Negro or American, irrelevant” (Posnock, p.87). However, it seems likely that Hughes and others that Posnock characterizes as black intellectuals would disagree that this is possible. Since their race helps shape how the world interacts with them, their race necessarily informs their artwork. Therefore, it would be dishonest and disingenuous to omit references to race and racial identity from that artwork or from any intellectual discussions of that art. Moreover, it seems impossible that these experiences would not inform that artwork in a meaningful manner. The idea that intellectualism can be cultivated outside of the context of race seems ludicrous, given that intellectualism has to start with a historical foundation and the historical foundation of most African-Americans includes a history of being impacted by their race in both positive and negative ways.
In fact, Posnock’s version of intellectualism makes a presumption about the idea of black equality that may be unwarranted. Many people have assumed that black equality and the Civil Rights struggle has been a way of elevating blacks to the standards of whites. In many ways this is true, as African-Americans have struggled to be afforded the same legal and civil opportunities as white Americans. For example, the struggles for equal access to education and for an end to segregation have played a transformative role in the African-American community and have changed the lives of most modern African-Americans in countless significant ways. However, the desire to obtain equal opportunity should not be confused with the desire to be white or to somehow achieve whiteness. The notion that equality should somehow be conflated with being colorblind is not one that is helpful to the African-American identity, as it suggests that being African-American is less desirable than being a human being without race. It also ignores the fact that white Americans have demonstrated a long-lived commitment towards keeping blacks from achieving legal equality. For example, while the 1960s are often touted as a period of tremendous legal advances for African-Americans, it was also a time period of significant legal and social backlash against African-Americans, and that backlash continued well into the future. For example, Ronald Reagan “came to power in 1966 on the strength of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and his tough stance towards the rioters in Watts” (Sitkoff, p. 211). Reagan would, of course, eventually become President and then eventually become a benchmark for conservative political ideals that oftentimes dismissed the struggles of African-Americans to achieve equality. To suggest that these outer realities do not or should not shape the experience of black Americans seems to suggest that marginalization is somehow an intrinsic part of the black experience in America.
This marginalization is explored, at length, in Ralph Ellison’s ground-breaking novel Invisible Man. As the title suggests, in Invisible Man, Ellison explores the idea of African-American men being considered invisible by society at large. He opens the novel with the protagonist explaining:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination- indeed, everything and anything except me (Ellison, Kindle).
The protagonist does not believe that people cannot see the physical him; what he is pointing out is that people do not take the time to differentiate him as an individual, but, instead, when they see the color of his skin dismiss him. Ellison’s work was written more than a half-century ago, prior to the major accomplishments of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, but these words ring true for many modern African-American males, as well. The protagonist eventually ends up living underground, having fled the police and a group of men who are attempting to lynch him, which makes him literally invisible to society, rather than the figurative invisibility he described at the beginning of the novel. However, the protagonist also indicates that he is tired of being invisible and is ready to take his place and emerge from the underground.
Invisible Man is considered a significant work not only because of its narrative account of the life of one black man, but also because of how the narrative forms a thumbnail version of the history of African-Americans in American society as a whole. The narrator is initially infused with rage that he is not seen by society, and even responds with violence to a white man who initially does not see him, but then attempts to demand an apology after the two men collide. However, the narrator seems to realize the futility of allowing this rage to control him, and, instead, begins to realize that a society that ignores him is unlikely to discover when he is not playing by the rules that it simultaneously attempts to impose upon him. In some ways, this places the narrator, and, by extension, African-American males, outside of the socio-cultural norms established by white society. “Since the general population refuses his humanity, he no longer abides by society’s rules” (Hill and Hill, p.18). This has certainly been the case for many African-American males, who have turned to criminal activity as a way to support themselves and their families after discovering that traditional venues for self-sufficiency are not open to them because of their lack of visibility in society. However, and Ellison explores this as well, there are consequences to making those choices; there is already a presumption by many whites that the African-American male is inherently criminal, so that any suspicious activity by an African-American males will receive greater scrutiny and a harsher penalty than similar activity by a white male. The recognition of this remains part of African-American culture and the discriminatory judgment remains part of white society as a whole. For example, when Trayvon Martin was killed by a man who thought he looked suspicious because he was walking down the street in a hoodie and eating some candy, an alarming number of people agreed that he was suspicious. This aspect of invisibility combined with suspicion continues to help shape the African-American cultural identity, so much so that even the majority of African-American males who never engage in criminal activity are treated like criminals by much of society.
The ability of African-American authors to write powerful works such as Native Son by Richard Wright has given Americans of all ethnic backgrounds a chance to see into the mind of those that are abused, and uneducated, preventing escape from detrimental behaviors that ultimately cause prejudice. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American male growing up in relative poverty. The novel opens with a dramatic example of that poverty; the family is terrorized by a rat. Though Bigger manages to kill the rat, the episode is jarring for him. He is frustrated and angry that his family has to live in such horrific circumstances and, because he is unable to take out that frustration and anger elsewhere, he turns the anger and frustration in on his family, using the rat’s carcass to terrorize his family. Bigger’s father is not in the picture and he has taken it upon his shoulders to help support his family, but, like many African-American males, Bigger struggles to find a job that pays well enough to support a family. In fact, the goal of the job is not even to make enough money to support the family; instead, Bigger must be employed in order to keep his family eligible for public assistance. As his mother reminds him, “if you don’t take that job the relief’ll cut us off. We won’t have any food” (Wright, Kindle). Though Bigger is no longer held in slavery, he is forced to take work he finds demeaning in order to support his family or sacrifice his masculinity because of a failure to support them. Either way, he ends up doing something considered not masculine by society, as a whole. He ends up as a driver for a wealthy white family and, after driving home the intoxicated daughter of the family, he kisses her. Her mother, a blind woman, enters the room, and Bigger responds in terror and kills the girl. Bigger has not planned a homicide, and, in fact, was not acting with animosity or anger towards the girl. On the contrary, he was responding to the very real threat that existed towards black men that engaged in even consensual sexual behavior with white women. However, this pivotal act changes the course of his life. He flees with his girlfriend, but ends up assaulting and killing her as well. Most importantly, the novel describes the public’s perception of Bigger; whites hate him because he has embodied their fears about black males, but blacks hate him as well because he has done something to bring shame and scorn upon their community.
Of course, not all works by African-American males focus on how African-American males are often pushed to criminal behavior by marginalization. Some of them focus on other themes. One powerful element of the African-American community is religion, with Christianity being a strong driving force among many African-Americans. However, whether this is a positive or a negative force is something that many people question. There is no doubt that the Christian church was used as a means of helping keep African-Americans in slavery, and is still used as a tool for shaming and manipulating people. On the other hand, there is also no doubt that it can provide comfort, strength, and solace to people. In Go Tell It on The Mountain, James Baldwin explores the role that the church plays in the black community, and is not afraid to explore the complexity of that role. What appears to complicate Baldwin’s relationship to the church is his own sexuality. The novel is considered to be highly autobiographical and features hints that Baldwin may be homosexual or bisexual. The African-American church has always been conservative regarding issues of homosexuality, so that homosexuals, particularly homosexual males, in the African-American community oftentimes feel as if they lack community support for their sexuality, and are pressured to deny their own true identity. Baldwin hints at this when his protagonist John is examining his mother and finds her lacking. “John thought with shame and horror, yet in angry hardness of heart: He who is filthy, let him be filthy stillâ€¦for was it not he, in his false pride and evil imagination who was filthy?” (Baldwin, Kindle). This phrase captures the dichotomy of the church for many African-Americans; while it could provide them with solace and comfort and give them guidelines for living, the moral rigidity of those guidelines set people up for inevitable failure.
Moving on to 21st century and many African-American writers have entered mainstream America and race no longer appears to play a pivotal role in their story-telling, but is merely one facet of their characters. For example, in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, the African-American experience appears fully integrated into many sectors of mainstream American society and the “internal struggle” has yielded rewards. The family is comfortably middle-class and the struggles it faces appear to be the struggles that many Americans face, regardless of race. That does not mean that race plays no role in On Beauty. However, the role of race is a subtle one. For example, Howard is estranged from his son Jerome, apparently because he has a problem with the idea that Jerome, a man in his early 20s, is still a virgin. This focus on sexuality as a sign of virility is partly a cultural issue, as Baldwin’s exploration of homosexuality and African-American culture indicated. However, the race-linked overtones of that discussion are only hinted at by Smith; instead, Howard’s concerns appear to be the concerns that any father might have about his son. However, when Howard approaches his younger son Levi about Levi’s choice to wear a stocking on his head, there are indications that Howard is well aware of how race can and does impact them:
“What’s the deal with this?” asked Howard, flipping the interrogation round and touching Levi’s head. “Is it a political thing?”
Levi rubbed his eyes. He put both arms behind his back, held hands with himself and stretched downwards, expanding himself hugely. “Nothin’, Dad. It’s just what it is,” he said gnomically. He bit his thumb (Smith, Kindle).
In other words, Levi, the son, is able to look at fashion that marks him as an outsider, as ethnic, as merely a fashion choice, while Howard is aware, but unable to convey to his son why he feels it is more than merely a fashion choice.
Looking at the history of African-American literature, it becomes clear that black authors have struggled to explain their experience to their audience and help create a cultural identity for their community. The evolution of the literature also makes it clear that America has changed and many racial norms in society have been realized that were not possible in marriage, economics, and societal institutions in the past. African-American writers mentioned here have had a definite impact on African-Americans in general, helping to change their society for the better, as well as an influence on “White America.” It is through writers like these that all people can learn from and appreciate the many freedoms that some Americans take for granted, and were only gained fairly recently by African-Americans through patient sacrifice and suffering. This has made not only them stronger in identity and equality, but has made America a stronger and wiser nation.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House. 2009.
Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Vintage International. 2013. Kindle.
Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
Gutenberg. 2006. Web.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “Haley’s Comet.” Roots. Haley, Alex. New York: Vanguard Books,
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, 1989. Kindle.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage International. 2010. Kindle.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Equiano Olaudah. Dover. 1999. Kindle.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus
Vassa, The African Written By Himself. Gutenberg. 2006.Web.
Green, Lisa J. African-American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2002.
Haley, Alex. Roots. New York: Vanguard Books, 2004.
Hill, Michael D., Hill, Lena M. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Reference Guide
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Norton Anthology
of African-American Literature. Gates, Henry Lewis, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds.
New York: Norton, 1997. 1267-1271.
Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dell Books. 1992.Web.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage International. 2007. Kindle.
Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. New York: Start Classics. 2013. Kindle.
Posnock, Ross. Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality. New York. Hill and Wang. 2008. Print.
Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. Penguin Press. New York. 2005.Print.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Open Road Integrated Media. 2011. Kindle.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Collins E-Books. 2009. Kindle.
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