Through the writing and reception of her play Topdog/Underdog, Suzan Lori Parks sheds light on the notion that norms may either challenge the individual to surpass expectation, or they may limit one’s perceived identity to fit what is considered a norm. When Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002, an African American female achieving this recognition was unprecedented (Garrett). She did not stand alone as a black female Pulitzer Prize winner; the first out of all 21 Pulitzer Prize categories was the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1950). However, out of hundreds of winners in Parks’ category, it took 84 years for a recipient to be both black and female (“Annie Allen, by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper)”). This is not only the result of biased juries, but of systematic inequalities facing minorities in the United States. Our society claims to be a meritocracy, but in fact those with money and privilege are propelled much farther than those without them.
Inequality is a problem that is seemingly unsolvable; it is a component of every society. Cycles of poverty have grown to produce opposing beliefs: inequality may inspire an individual ambition to thrive or simply discourage any dreams for the future. The former is an essential result of our society’s value of hard work to succeed, but more realistically, no matter how hard one may try, inborn disadvantages may prevent them from breaking past cycles of poverty. These cycles may work on a smaller scale, within families. “If adolescents from unstable homes are to be compared with those from stable homes, it would be seen that the former have more social, academic and emotional problems…children of unmarried parents/separated families often fail and are at risk emotionally. However, this may not be completely applicable in all cases of broken homes. Some children irrespective of home background or structure may work hard and become successful in life (Omoruyi).”Topdog/ Underdog explores systems in place that fate Link and Booth for poverty and class struggle. Link and Booth embody opposing beliefs that have formed through cycles of inequality: Booth maintains that his wealth at birth and race prevent him from excelling, while Link holds the conviction that one may achieve success through hard work and ethical behavior. During an argument when Link rejects Booth’s pleas to turn to gambling to earn money, Booth highlights the ideological differences between the brothers: “Thuh world puts its foot in yr face and you don’t move. You tell thuh world tuh keep on stepping. But Im my own man, Link. I aint you” (Parks 82). Link’s source of achievement is centered on an inner locus of control because he truly believes he can win his battles through hard work. Booth, on the other hand, is spiteful, and wages revenge on the inequality he was born with by lying and stealing to get ahead. He sees Link’s conformity as him accepting the injustice they face. Booth also took their parents abandoning them much harder; both were in elementary school, but Booth stayed home that day, and he always blamed his brother for not stopping his parents from leaving as he did not even notice anything was wrong and continued on with his life. While both brothers struggled in adulthood, presumably in part due to this abandonment, Booth struggles more financially and in relationships because he was there when his parents left.
LINK: They each gave us 500 bucks when they cut out
BOOTH: That’s what i’m gonna do. Give my kids 500 bucks then cut out. That’s thuh way to do it.
LINK: You don’t got no kids.
BOOTH: I’m gonna have kids then I’m gonna cut out. (Parks, Topdog/underdog 69).
The connection between parent’s actions with their child’s subsequent values is clear through this interaction. The abandonment has made it hard for the brothers, Booth especially, to form meaningful relationships, he has normalized abandonment, creating a future cycle with his supposed kids, and their kids, and so on.
The American psychologist Martin Seligman proposed a surprising theory in 1965 called Learned Helplessness to explain why Link may have accepted poverty and abandonment rather than challenging it. Learned Helplessness is the notion that when faced with a situation one believes they can not change, rather that fighting to change circumstances, they give up and learn to cope with hardship (Overmier). This theory speaks upon the larger idea that humans value unrelenting determinism, but in reality find it difficult to maintain. When faced with adversity, there is no right or wrong course of action: often it comes down to sheer luck for one to “beat” poverty.
Race often magnifies the effects of inequality. On average, white and Asian Americans have higher incomes, while Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans comprise the lower end of the economic spectrum. Furthermore, black and Hispanic students are less likely to graduate high school than white students, and even less likely to graduate college. “In 2013, about 40 percent of whites between the ages of 25 and 29 had a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to about 20 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Hispanics and 58 percent of Asians…About 82 percent of high school graduates from high-income families enroll in college, compared to 52 percent of graduates from low-income families. By comparison, just under 70 percent of white high school graduates go to college, versus 65 percent of blacks. There is a clear correlation between income and education levels, with race getting dragged into the mix” (Casselman). Assumptions that follow associate all white people with privilege and education and people of color with poverty and a lack of education to create dangerous stereotypes in society. They can create a divide among individuals based on ethnicity, creating a group mentality between races. There is a new form of racism developing called Modern Racism, in which traditional outward beliefs that one race is inferior have developed into subtle discrimination associating an entire group with negative connotations (Sherman). For example, popular stereotypes like the intelligent Asian or the athletic Black man perpetrate these identities. Link and Booth of Parks’ play Topdog/Underdog epitomize the ease in fulfilling one’s assigned racial identity, rather than challenging these stereotypes. Booth told his brother, “I boosted them… from a big-ass department store. That store takes in more money in one day than we will in our whole life” (Parks, Topdog/Underdog 28). It’s the simpler route for Booth to fulfil the stereotype of the “thug” black man, especially when he faces poverty, which is difficult for him to change. Rather than challenging the larger problem, he fights this battle through the easier route, shoplifting, which does not challenge the norm. However, individuals like Suzan Lori Parks confront stereotypes and normalize individuality. Parks claimed her success “brings a huge amount of responsibility because you’re the spokesmodel, and I’m fine with that — I can represent” (Parks qtd. in Reich). Her success is one for all people looking to challenge notions of Modern Racism through breaking barriers. According to acclaimed theatre critic Shawn-Marie Garrett, “many theatres are still afraid to take what they consider to be financial risks and often assume, a priori, that audiences will bristle at unfamiliar or marginal work. ‘Marginal’: a code word for formally experimental or ‘culturally specific’ plays. According to marketing departments, Parks’s are both.” What makes Parks’ writing so successful is her ability to question racial identity in society, through characters that embody racial stereotypes.
On a positive note, there has been a push in recent times for all races, religions, genders, sexual identities, income levels, and other groups to make their issues heard to strive for social equality. Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who gave one final lecture after receiving a prognosis of terminal cancer. In his lecture, which explored the question, “What wisdom would you try to impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?”, he advised students, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something” (Pausch). While this does not apply to systematic challenges like racial inequality or the wealth gap, which are so ingrained in society that the individual may not be able to defeat them no matter how badly they want it. However, social barriers that come with these systemic issues such as norms and stereotypes can be challenged by the individual. Pausch’s idea that barriers in life serve to challenge stagnancy is relevant to all people confined by social roles. There is a widespread rejection of the norms that once made up our collective beliefs; with this newfound ideology, it has become a new norm to accept individuality and diversity. For example, in American demographics, there is a new minority majority. More millennials favor gay rights, gender equality, and funding for public higher education (Tierney). At the end of Topdog/Underdog, Booth kills Link, an outcome expected foreshadowed by the illusion created by their name. Parks leaves it up to the reader to determine whether the brothers were fated by their names from the start, or the murder was Link exercising his free will. However, there is an underlying set of norms and stereotypes that the brothers embody, such as violence, that follows systematic inequality. The murder serves to reveal the dangers in the social result of poverty and racism, creating another level of blame for Link’s death; should Booth avoided the violent stereotype, or was it created for him to embody?
The fight for social and economic equality is one that faces many systematic setbacks, which influence people’s beliefs and norms. However, the ideologies that result from them are less concrete than the cycles that create them. While racism, sexism, poverty, and insecurities are results of the dangerous cycles that promote inequality, out of these setbacks a new paradigm is formed that places value on the underdog beating the odds and overcoming adversity. Parks ironically exemplifies this notion in her personal success, through writing a play chronicling the underdog’s attempt and failure to succeed despite the odds.
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