America: A Country Built On Racism In A Stranger In The Village
Although the United States is a very diverse country, its history has been entwined with racism. In Becoming (2018), Michelle Obama recalls her experiences from her childhood in Chicago to her days of being the first lady, and the blatant racism she faced from people like her teachers to congressmen who had preconceptions about her. In contrast, James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (1953) discusses his trip to an isolated, predominantly white village in Switzerland and the racism he experienced there as a black man by the ignorant villagers. While Obama discusses her experiences with open racism in America, Baldwin recounts his encounter with the ignorant villagers which reminds him of his black-white experience in his home country. Nonetheless, both authors’ end goal is the same, to be acknowledged as Americans.
Obama focuses on how, from a very young age, she had been exposed to the concept of racism and inequality. Her parents often told her that the color of their skin made them vulnerable. She realized at an early age that this racial discrimination changed the lives of the black men in her life as it “limited their incomes, opportunities and finally their aspirations” (Obama 38). For example, Obama’s paternal grandpa Dandy, maternal grandfather Southside, great-uncle Terry and her Uncle Pete, all had to settle for jobs they were clearly overqualified for and were denied access to stable high-paying jobs because it was difficult for them to join labor unions due to the discrmination they faced (Obama 38). America had come a long way from slavery, but the racisma and discrimination black people faced still evidently existed. Obama goes on to describe that many people, espeially white people, started moving from the city to the suburbs, and an invite to the Stewarts’ new neighborhood, a predominantly white neighborhood, revealed the racial discrimination present between whites and blacks (29). Obama states that during the visit, someone intentionally scratched her dad’s beloved Buick, making a “thin ugly gulch that ran across the door and toward the tail of the car” (Obama 29). On the ride back to Chicago, no one acknowledged or discussed what had happened. She could feel the tension of being black in a white neighborhood and the problems her fellow black people have to face and have grown accustomed to. Additionally, Obama describes that she hated being seen as incapable, so when her counselor questioned if she was “Princeton material,” she felt the strong need to prove her wrong (66). She was determined to not let others assumptions about her set her up for failure. Her experiences prove what Baldwin states in his essay about how “people are trapped in history” (389). They both encounter racism because people refuse to learn and change their ways of thinking. Certain stereotypes of black people have been ingrained in them and they live that lifestyle without ever challenging those social stigmas that exist against black people. However, as she grows older the racism she experiences becomes even more apparent and direct. When Obama’s husband was campaigning for president, as his wife she was also placed under the spotlight. She faced harsh criticism and scrutiny from social media and news sources who used her blackness against her. Discussions of her “militant anger,” her “terrorist fist jab” and being referred to as “Obama’s baby mama” all arose due to the preconceptions people have of the black community which made her seem as an angry, dangerous woman (Obama 264). The scrutiny did not stop there. Obama continues to forthrightly describe the racism that she experienced on the campaign trail when she was accused of not loving her country. “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country” was circulating on conservative radio and TV talk shows (Obama 260). Her speeches were completely taken out of context and spun to portray her as anti-American. Her words were twisted and manipulated to put the public against her. She was heavily criticized for everything, from her demeanor to her appearance. People were ready to condemn her and any of her actions because they were not ready for change or of having a black president and a black first lady.
While Obama details her experiences with the open racism she faces, Baldwin starts out his text in a village where the white people had never seen a black person before. Therefore, the racism he faced there was mostly due to their ignorance. Baldwin states how everyone in the village comes to know his name yet he remains a “stranger” in the eyes of the villagers (Baldwin 388). They know little to nothing about him and about who he is. Therefore, the villagers are extremely curious about his physical features and they do not hesitate to satisfy their curiosities. Baldwin points out how some even dare to put their fingers on his hair or rub his skin to see if the color will come off (388). The children call him “Neger”, which resembles the racial slur used against blacks in the United States (Baldwin 388). They have no clue about the weight that the derogatory term carries for him therefore, they do not feel any shame in using the term. Similarly, Obama also faces the constant harsh commentary regarding her appearance and her attitude due to people feeling no guilt of making those remarks. They do not care about the effects those comments have on Obama, all they care about is making sure that the public does not support her and her agenda. While Baldwin is aware that the villagers mean no harm, he is still unsettled by the fact that he is not even being treated as a human being. To the villagers, he “was simply a living wonder” (Baldwin 388). They had never seen anything like him before and wanted to know more about what he was than about who he was. Baldwin later learns of a custom that the villagers take great pride in which involves the “buying” of African natives to convert them to Christianity (Baldwin 389). Baldwin is happily told by one of the naive wives of the bistro owners that last year they “bought” six to eight African natives. She relays the news in the hopes that it would please Baldwin without knowing what this actually means due to her ignorance and lack of knowledge. So, while Obama is forced to face direct and open racism, Baldwin talks about how his encounter with the ignorant and racist villagers reminded him of his home country.
However, although both authors illustrate their different racist experiences, at the end they just want white Americans to realize that they are no different than them. Obama recalls the time her senior thesis was treated as some black-power manifesto and as a plan to overthrow the white majority. She is again seen as a dangerous woman whose thesis about race and identity “wasn’t written in any known language” (Obama 263). People viewed her thesis as being written in a language that they did not understand to show that the people saw her as an outsider and as an alien who did not belong, similar to how Badlwin feels in the village and in America. Obama argues how the rumors and the commentaries always seemed to carry a racist undertone in order to convince the public to “prevent the black folks from taking over” (262). They are portrayed as being different and their vision being different from the general interest of the public so they should not be the leaders of their country. The conservative Americans refuse to acknowledge blacks as Americans yet all Obama hopes for is unity and change.
Likewise, Baldwin zooms out from his particular experience in the village and relates back to the discrimination occurring in America. In the United States, Baldwin states how blacks continue to be excluded, oppressed, and terrorized by the white supremacists that hope to keep their power over the black community (394). The black people are given limited human rights by the white Americans who refuse to see blacks as their equal because in doing so they would jeopardize their status. Although Obama’s book is written about fifty years later than Baldwin’s essay and Jim Crow laws and segregation no longer exist, yet people are still stuck on the concept of racism. Half a century has passed, yet not enough has changed. To continue, Baldwin discusses the way his home country has shaped him, yet he is unable to identify himself as being American. Baldwin has no identity as he is neither recognized as American nor can he trace back his ancestry. “He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him” (394). Yet, both Barack and Baldwin feel alienated in their own country. The only home they have known is America yet they are still seen as outsiders. They only hope to be accepted by the white Americans and be seen as equals. However, this is difficult as indicated by both Obama and Badlwin, since the white people are not prepared to give up the power they hold over the black people and they want to avoid being held accountable for the actions of their predecessors. This prevents black people from being viewed as equal to the white Americans and hinders their ability to form an identity.
Overall, both Obama and Baldwin describe the racism experienced not only by them, but also the racism and discrimination prevalent towards the black community in the United States. While Obama faces blatant racism, Baldwin recalls his experience in the isolated village and relates it back to the racism prevalent in America. Despite the two authors being relatively successful and coming from two very different times periods, they are connected in these experiences of racial discrimination due to the same skin color they share. Their color limits them because of the preconceived notions society has of them. Additionally, their identity is defined by the white people which will continue to persist until people acknowledge that America is not a post racial society.
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