The Souls of Black Folk
Education, self fulfilment and double consciousness in W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls Of Black Folk
The power of education and the power of the literary form within slave narratives has been a consistent and resounding theme. From Frederick Douglass’ Narratives In The Life Of A Slave to Harriet Beecher Stowe saying in 1879 that “[Freedmen] rushed not to the grog shop but to the school room- they cried for the spelling book as bread, and pleaded for teachers as a necessity of life”. Throughout these works we see repeatedly the value afforded to education as the tool with which slavery and subjugation could be escaped. First published in 1903 by one of few black individuals enjoying a decent standard of life (often attested to his mixed ancestry – his grandfather James Du Bois has been a white French-American), his work The Souls Of Black Folk can be read as a testament from the white community as to what African Americans at the turn of the 20th century could manage with ‘proper education’, as exemplified by his utilisation of the Sorrow Songs across this narrative.
In DuBois’ own words, though he knows little of technical music he found the Sorrow Songs “I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.” and this once more brings up the integral importance of education and it’s value within the black community following emancipation. As James D. Anderson summarises “Blacks emerged from slavery with a strong belief in the desirability of learning to read and write….it was expressed in the intensity and the frequency of their anger at slavery for keeping them illiterate.”, and DuBois was one of a host of black authors attempting to show the potential within his community should they no longer be oppressed. DuBois goes on in this except to consider being told by whites that “…know an excellent colored man in my town,”, which briefly touches on the problematic nature of the ‘Talented Tenth’ concept popularised by DuBois and his contemporaries. This is the notion that the top, educated class of blacks could go on to be leaders in their fields and culture, relegating the other 90% of his community to live under the same oppressive superiority he himself was trying to escape. It can be argued that this approach does injustice to the huge amounts of grassroots work and organisation occurring during the period and highlights the problems of the ‘education is the key to freedom’ ideology.
DuBois’ description of ‘the veil,’ has gone on to become a literary icon in terms of describing the African American experience. At a basic level, the veil describes a simple separation between white and black Americans – they are fundamentally different as described by DuBois when he states “it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil”. It also can be seen as holding deeper significance to race relations; in the same manner a bridal veil obscures the wearer while leaving them free to see beyond it, in essence giving them knowledge of both, black Americans can see the lives they desire beyond the veil while white Americans can’t truly know the horror of being behind it. Through his use of the specific symbol, DuBois’ suggests the fundamentally uneven nature of ‘separate but equal’ ideologies. In aligning himself with the blue sky above and “great wandering shadows”, Dubois suggests that through being able to see both sides of the veil (being both sides of the racial experience) has allowed him to see the faults and shortfalls of whiteness, which was previously viewed as ideal and desirable. We see this in the next lines, DuBois notes the difference in his reaction to the other black boys who “shrunk…into silent hatred of the pale world about them,”. Instead he begins to view his own African lineage as a benefit, a radical notion at a time when African Americans had recently been held as property. DuBois goes onto discuss this concept more thoroughly with the idea of double consciousness, of the warring American and Black identities.
This can be seen in DuBois’ desire to best his peers in spite of his clearly being at a disadvantage. He hoped to “beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads”. This repetition and rule of three has a strong impact upon the reader, especially in the last example as DuBois utilises a double meaning to go beyond wanting to best his peers academically to wanting to commit a violent act upon them. This seems reasonable enough given the abuses and degradation experienced by the black community, which DuBois outlines elsewhere. Beyond this, I feel the recognition of this desire and DuBois’ continued lack of violent outbursts or other aggressive tactics works in tandem with his belief that education alone is the way to equality.
Expressed most poignantly in the line “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” DuBois manages to succinctly and accurately describe the double consciousness to which he refers through the piece, to the innate conflict in being both American and Negro. From it’s founding America was seen as a meritocracy and land of equal opportunity (aka the ‘American Dream’ concept). As early as 1851 F. W. Bogen,writes that “[In America] wealth and possession of real estate confer not the least political right on its owner above what the poorest citizen has…. In such a country the talents, energy and perseverance of a person have far greater opportunity to display”. This can be seen as evidence of traits that became seen as fundamentally American – valuing hard work, self-fulfilment and personal responsibility for improving oneself and one’s situation. In direction opposition to this however there is the ‘Negro’ identity, carrying inferences of property without fundamental human rights, and a lack of ability to work towards self fulfilment and personal gain. In DuBois’ presentation, he attributes the ability to resist this oppression to the strength of character seen in black communities (their ‘dogged strength alone’), and could also be read as viewing this strength in the African American community to have come from the internal struggle of ‘warring ideals,’, placing value on a unique element of the African American experience. This concept of a value beyond blacks relation to whites is also a recurring theme within this extract, and the narrative as a whole.
When considering The Souls of Black Folk it is also of importance to discuss the treatment of black culture as in relation to white culture. In the modern age, we recognise the importance of separating European/colonial mindsets and influences on works created outside of them however we can tell through DuBois’ writing that this was not the case in 1903. He explicitly condemns “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” This critique poignantly identifies the issue with judging the value or validity of one culture through comparing it to another; it assumes one is fundamentally superior or ‘correct,’. In DuBois’ interpretation, judging African American’s through their value to white Americans is at its essence unjust, in that it denies the basic concept of self fulfilment to ex slaves. DuBois goes on to condemn not only oppressive whites but in addition the lack of self worth and value that comes from “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Here we see it is not just those at the top of the chain that wish to keep blacks pressed that are problematic, but that it is a layered and nuanced issue, as the gentle hearts looking at aspiring black intellectuals with ‘contempt and pity’ is a problem in and of itself. DuBois cannot completely move away from this structure if he hopes to be accepted as truthful, accurate and successful, however in the body of both this extract and the larger text we see his strives to be considered in and of himself, and for the African American community to be seen from its inherent value and strengths, rather than seen as a poor substitute for whites.
W.E.B. DuBois‘ notion of double consciousness is an important, but controversial, concept that has gone on to find use in not only literary circles but within the wider field of African American/Africana Studies. It was such a powerful device as it helped define the irony of black Americans being forced on the one hands to try to develop self-definitions while at the same time, being assigned hostile and negative identities imposed by the outside society through the racism of many white Americans of the era.
In many ways, the question at the crux of the novel is asked in this passage, and DuBois points out he himself has no good response,:“How does it feel to be a problem?”. The question highlights the ironic treatment of blacks in America in the early 20th century, and particularly the lack of control and support that was felt following Emancipation. A huge percentage of American population had suddenly been given rights, and therein lay the ‘problem’ DuBois speaks of – the discomfort and confusion still felt by many in the white community (as exemplified by the schoolmate turning away his visiting-card), the struggles of attempting to organise and be sustainable as a community having had no education, the desire of blacks to be seen as both different and beneficial to the US as a whole. These were issues that could be brushed off when slavery was enforced however following that, these problematic questions needed very real and tangible answers. In essence, through confronting the duality within himself, DuBois’ blackness and Americanness are being married by education and his ability to express these horrors in an accurate and evocation manner; DuBois is at last “able to penetrate to his own self-conciousness and culture.”
Anderson, James D. The Education Of Blacks In The South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Print.
Bogen, F. W. The German in America, Boston, 1851, as quoted in Ozment, Steven E, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. 2004. Print.
Brodwin, S. The Veil Transcended: Form and Meaning in W. E. B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk”. Journal of Black Studies, 2(3), 303–321. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2783720
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library, 1996. Print.
A Comparison of Booker T. Washington’s and W.E.B. Dubois’ Approaches to Assimilation Using Blacks and Asian Americans as Models
In some sense, the stage for the debate over how best to address racial inequality was set by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. In the aftermath of the civil war, these two leading Black figures put forth their contrasting ideas. Towards the long term goal of complete assimilation of Blacks into mainstream society, Washington advocated an emphasis on steady economic growth, while Dubois put more emphasis on immediate political agitation. There has never been a clear, evidence-based method to compare the two theoretical approaches, because they are almost mutually exclusive. However, in modern times America’s minority has expanded to include groups other than Black, such as Asians, and these two groups can be compared as concrete examples of the Washington plan and the Dubois plan. It is clear through the course of history that African Americans have traveled the Dubois route, as they have definitely had a history of agitation for political rights, litigation, and so forth. On the other hand, Asians have gone more the Washington route, as they have pursued a more economic approach and remain relatively apolitical even today. Thus, weighing Black and Asian success or assimilation in American society can be seen as an indirect way of weighing the merit of Dubois’ and Washington’s theories. However, there are several limitations to extending Dubois’ and Washington’s theories directly to the present: the radically changed political landscape, and Asian Americans’ immigrant status and render both theories unsatisfactory. However, a combination of both theories may be a viable approach toward assimilation. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were giants in their time; they are arguably the most well-known Black leaders in American history, taught in every American History class. Their approaches to solving “the Negro problem” were distinctly different. Washington was by far the more conservative, even criticized as submissive by Dubois. In short, he believed that Blacks should cease clamoring for political rights for which they were not ready, and focus instead on reinforcing Black economic power. In his famous Atlanta Exposition, he argued that Blacks should “stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one” (Washington, 148). He believed that after more assimilation in the private realms of human life (e.g., economic and social), political rights would naturally come; obnoxiously agitating for them would only create more bitterness and resistance on the part of Whites. While his is not the most empowering stance, it is ultimately framed as a practical one. Dubois, on the other hand, disagreed bitterly. The challenge Dubois throws out as follows: “Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No.” (http://www.bartleby.com/114/3.html). In short, political rights are absolutely necessary for progress, and Blacks should demand civic equality immediately. The hypothetical future Washington predicts where Blacks will be “accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to” (Washington, 155) will simply not occur because Blacks cannot make material gains without the relevant political equality to back them up. When these two views were put forth, it was extremely difficult to weigh them with direct evidence because they were only abstract plans, theories for the future. Until Blacks walked down one road or the other, no one could say for certain what would really happen. Now, a hundred years later, we have the benefit of perspective. Not only do we see that Blacks have indeed agitated for and gained political rights, we can also examine another prominent minority group, Asians, who have traveled the other route by focusing primarily on economic progress. As a result, the two groups have assimilated into mainstream American society in radically different ways. Asians have assimilated extraordinarily well in most “private” areas—that is, economically and socially, but have fared less well in the public or political arenas. Blacks have exhibited the exact opposite trends. For example, in terms of residential integration, Asians and Pacific Islanders live in the most diverse neighborhoods, while Black neighborhoods are only less segregated than White populations, living on average in neighborhoods 60% Black and 30% White (Blank, 38). As of 1990, Blacks had the highest proportion of endogamous marriages (92% for males and 97% for females), whereas Asian Americans had the lowest percentage (39% for males, and 34% for females) (Alba and Nee, 265). The discrepancy is striking, to say the least. The list goes on: Asian-American median income is $54,000 as compared to $29,000 for Blacks. 44% of Asian Americans have a college education or more, as compared to 17% of Blacks (Lecture 14, slide 6). Basically, on every indicator of social assimilation, Asians far outdo Blacks, demonstrating their extraordinary success in assimilating into American society on the private front. On the other hand, Blacks are far more politically incorporated. In terms of politics, “Blacks participate at the same rate as Whites” (Lecture 7, slide 10), whereas Asians have very low rates of voting (Lecture 14, slide 9). They are far more politically visible than Asians, and have more political clout. Thus, both groups are incompletely assimilated, but in radically different ways. If both groups have followed plans whose ultimate end was total assimilation and equality, it is certainly a worthwhile question to ask why the two groups look so different and why both are still incompletely assimilated. Thus, we can weigh the original theories put forth by Washington and Dubois. As was mentioned before, Blacks have largely ended up following Dubois’ plan of political agitation. According to his theory, political gains should enhance economic progress—indeed, the two should go hand in hand. It should therefore come as a surprise, then, to find that the largest economic gains Blacks have made were well before the Civil Rights Movement, and growth actually dropped after that. “In fact, the growth of the black middle class long predates the adoption of race-conscious social policies. In some ways, indeed, the black middle class was expanding more rapidly before 1970 than after” (Thernstrom, 185). More concretely, “Since 1970 progress in cutting the racial gap in incomes has been much slower than in the preceding three decades” (Thernstrom, 195). By 1970, Blacks males had narrowed the income gap by a third, and Black women by even more. After 1970, though, advances have been much less. In short, Black economic progress was fastest in the decades before 1970, and slowed down thereafter. However, the key point is that Black political progress has followed the opposite trend in time; before 1970, there were only a handful of Black elected officials: no more than 103 at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed (Thernstrom, 289). After the Civil Rights Act, though, Black representation jumped dramatically, to the point where by 1994 there were 8,406 Black elected officials (Thernstrom, 289). Thus, the fastest economic progress occurred before the Civil Rights Movement and their fastest political progress. The conspicuous lack of correlation between economic and political progress strikes a major blow to Dubois’ theory. In fact, one might even be able to argue that Blacks political focus has not helped economic assimilation, but even harmed it. Today, mostly as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks have a great deal more equality under law than before, yet Dubois’ theory still does not account for their lagging numbers on SES indicators. Political participation was supposed to ensure Blacks the power to protect themselves and give them the tools for assimilation in other arenas. However, the Civil Rights Movement so changed the political landscape that Dubois’ theory and Black political participation has only been able to go so far in helping Black assimilation. During the Civil Rights Era, Paul Frymer argues that “Kennedy’s death, the civil rights movement’s ability to galvanize public opinion and place pressure on the national government, and fears of foreign policy officials that the communist and potentially communist world was watching helped provide the necessary incentives for the Democratic-controlled government to finally pass a number of significant pieces of legislation in the mid-1960s” (Frymer, 99). Now, however, those other circumstances have changed, and moreover society looks equal enough such that the necessity of special governmental programs to assist minorities is questionable among the White majority. Thus, while Blacks have voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic party since the Civil Rights Era, today their interests are not represented by the Democrats, who “fear making appeals to black voters because they fear that the salience of blacks will overwhelm an electoral coalition of white voters united by largely economic concerns” (Frymer, 10). Democrats would rather distance themselves from ideologically “left” Black interests in favor of attracting White swing voters. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is even less of a choice for most Blacks, so the Democrats can safely count on the Black vote without having to represent Black interests. This political situation leaves Blacks marginalized and disillusioned with the new political system, with their political interests nowhere on the agenda. This is exactly Frymer’s profile for a “captured” electoral group, and this situation renders politics a dead end for Blacks, or at the very least, we have reached the point where there are diminishing marginal returns for political participation. For the future, anyways, looking to politics to help assimilate Blacks socially and economically is ineffective, but this outcome could not at all have been predicted by Dubois. The relative social upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement changed the racial landscape in America forever, and it appears that in this new world, a hundred years later, Dubois theory is no longer sufficient. Having come to this conclusion for Dubois’ model of assimilation for the future, we can now turn to Asian Americans, who have more or less followed Washington’s model from the beginning. Despite being an extremely racialized group upon their first arrival in the United States, arguably even more racialized than Blacks on the West Coast, Asian Americans have always managed find an economic foothold anyways. For example, in an analysis of California’s history of racial hierarchy, Tomas Almaguer notes that early on, “the success of this Japanese ethnic enclave in California agriculture was dramatic: by 1925 nearly 50 percent of the Japanese population was engaged in small farming” (Almaguer, 186), and this success is despite overwhelming racial animosity and legal obstacles, such as laws mandating segregation in schools, laws rendering Asians ineligible for citizenship, and laws preventing Asians from owning land. Asians have persevered, demonstrating that it is still possible to achieve some progress without the law on your side. This view runs directly counter to Dubois’ conviction that political power is necessary for economic and social progress, and gives some credence to Washington’s focus on economic progress. However, there are two glaring complications to extending Washington and Dubois’ model to Asian Americans of today. First, as mentioned before, the political landscape has changed since the Civil Rights Movement. We can argue that Asian Americans’ extraordinary economic and social success today further demonstrates that politics and private affairs are not as intertwined as Dubois believed, but we have to take into account that the Asian Americans of today immigrated primarily after 1965, and have had the full advantage of the Civil Rights Movement which Blacks worked so diligently to bring about. Without those critical political developments, it is hard to speculate how Asian American assimilation might have progressed from their rather humble beginnings in California. The second complication is the fact that Washington and Dubois never meant their theories to apply to immigrants—they were specifically formulated for Blacks. Asian Americans’ phenomenally fast economic growth, outstripping anything Washington might have dreamed for a minority, was aided by the fact that many of them were what is termed “human capital immigrants” (Alba and Nee, 239), and were already very highly educated upon entry into the United States. Moreover, “immigrant parents, regardless of their own educational attainment, appear to emphasize to their children the importance of education as a route to success in the United States and to maintain relatively strict homework regimens (Alba and Nee, 239). Thus, Asian American success cannot be contributed entirely to the intrinsic merit of the economic focus which Washington advocated; a moiety may stem from their immigrant status as well. So, the waters are muddied and Asian-Americans are not strictly a model of Washington-type assimilation, nor can they be seen as a direct refutation of Dubois’ theory. One cannot rule out the possible influence of Civil Rights Era programs and immigrant status on Asian American success. However, it is this same immigrant status that has also contributed to Asian Americans’ inability to penetrate politics and assimilate completely. Branded as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” ever since they first appeared in substantial numbers in California, they have been politically marginalized and viewed as a threat. Today, Asian Americans are clearly eligible for citizenship, but are somehow still not politically involved. Claire Jean Kim provides a framework for examining this phenomenon. She theorizes that Asian Americans suffer from “civic ostracism”—in other words, they are perceived as perpetually foreign, no matter how many generations they have been in the United States. “White opinionmakers continue to police the boundary between Whites and Asian Americans by imputing permanent foreignness to the latter. They do not overtly deny civic membership to Asian Americans; yet their skepticism about the legitimacy of Asian American participation in public life and their readiness to see Asian American public figures as agents of a foreign power powerfully constrain what civic privileges Asian Americans do enjoy” (Kim, 126). Thus, Asian Americans are still effectively barred from being accepted in public life. Kim raises the example of a 1996 presidential campaign finance scandal, where opinionmakers were so quick to believe that Asian donations were part of some secret Communist plot, which resulted in the Democratic National Committee telephoning donors with Asian-sounding surnames and interrogating them without any evidence. Simply the Asian-sounding surname was enough to trigger vague connections to some menacing foreign plot. This insidious perpetual foreignness barring the way to effective Asian American participation in politics basically forces Asians to concentrate on economic means to assimilation. Thus, because Washington did not mean his theory to apply to immigrants who have the danger of being civically ostracized, the failure of his economic approach to complete assimilation for Asian Americans is perhaps not all due to shortcomings in his theory. Furthermore, this “civic ostracism” Kim outlines is like Frymer’s “electoral capture” in that both are clearly beyond the scope of Washington’s or Dubois’ original theory, so ultimately neither model alone can quite account for the present, or have an applicable prescription for the future. In the end, we have two groups following two different models of assimilation, ending up in two radically different places. While comparing the assimilation paths of Asian Americans and Blacks is a useful way of comparing Washington’s and Dubois’ models of assimilation, it has its limits. The Civil Rights Era so changed the political landscape that Dubois’ original faith in political agitation, conceived in an era where Blacks had almost no civil rights, may now be misplaced, as Frymer’s analysis suggests. Moreover, the extraordinary success of Asian Americans today may also be partly attributed to these already existing civil rights which had their roots in the 1960s, thus complicating the evaluation of Washington’s conviction that focusing on economic progress is the best way. In this manner, the radically altered political landscape makes both theories inadequate for today. A further circumstance that renders both theories somewhat inadequate is Asian Americans’ status as immigrants, which may contribute both to their extraordinary economic success, and their inability to politically assimilate. Therefore, we cannot know if it was a flaw in Washington’s focus on economics or their immigrant status and “civic ostracism” that contributes to Asian Americans current incomplete assimilation. In conclusion, what we have are two prescriptions for assimilation which, taken singly, are insufficient for today’s circumstances. Perhaps a genuine dual approach is necessary. If we could apply Washington’s economic approach with Blacks (who, not being Asian American immigrants, do not suffer from “civic ostracism”), perhaps the extraordinary economic and social success Asian Americans have seen can be translated to Blacks. Moreover, within a few years, Asian-Americans have the potential of becoming a larger force in politics by sheer growth in numbers. If political participation short of electoral capture could be combined with that existing economic assimilation, the results for Asian Americans might well be astounding. Thus, though neither model is sufficient as a road to assimilation today, some combination may be the key for the future. Works CitedAlba, Richard, and Victor Nee, “Evidence of Contemporary Assimilation,” Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and contemporary Immigration.Almaguer, Tomas. Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1994. Blank, Rebecca M., “An Overview of Trends in Social and Economic Well-Being, by Race.” America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, (Vol. I): 264-301. Dubois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. http://www.bartleby.com/114/index.html. 12/19/2004. Frymer, Paul. Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America. Princeton University Press, 1999. Kim, Claire Jean. “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics and Society, (Vol. 27, No.1):105-138. Thernstrom, Stephan, and Abigail Thernstrom. American In Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Touchstone: New York, 1997. Washington, Booker T., “Two Thousand Miles for a Five-minute Speech,” “The Atlanta Exposition Address.” Three Negro Classics.
The Veil of Economic Inequality
In 1903 the controversial black rights leader W.E.B. DuBois wrote one of the most influential African-American books to date. In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois proclaims that the “problem of the twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”(xxxi). Now, the twenty-first century has begun and it seems as though the color-line issue, of distinct racial prejudice, has been resolved through the elimination of slavery and racial segregation and the application of the Civil Rights Act. In truth however, America has not conquered the race problem. Now, though less identifiable, the new problem of the color-line is even more applicable post the benchmark Civil Rights Act. Though there have been slight advancements in social equality, there is, more than ever, economic conflict and class struggle embedded in racial discrimination, leading to the new problem of the twenty-first Century, racial inequality in economics and class. DuBois very broadly describes the “problem of the color-line” in The Souls of Black Folk, in much length and expertise. However it can be summed up in one question from the book: “How does it feel to be a problem?” To which, DuBois answers “being a problem is a strange experience” (DuBois, 1). DuBois poses this query to himself, other blacks in America, and even whites. He asks African Americans to revaluate their current status in America. DuBois seeks out blacks that will not only understand and realize the current anti-black sentiment of the time, but also actively work to change the distinctive conception of black racial identity, in a society that viewed blacks with contempt. DuBois openly announces that he is the problem. He doesn’t wish anyone to avoid the issue of racial division, saying such things as “I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville” (DuBois, 1). He admits to contributing to the twentieth century problem in America, the continued struggle for social recognition and cultural identity of blacks. The problem is both as simple and complex as the statement. According to DuBois, the problem in twentieth century America is blacks. However, complexity arises when analyzing the social situation of blacks in America. The “problem” is rooted in ethnic divisions between blacks and whites, but develops much further into the effects, mentally, economically and socially, on African Americans. Thus we have the seemingly changed twenty-first century, where due to elimination of forced slavery and segregation, we have so proclaimed “equality” between blacks and whites. However, does this forgiveness of the dark side of American history, really give us evidence of equality? Though we have made advancements, racial inequality is still prominent in our post-Civil Rights age. Is equality evident in schools, where teenagers still self-segregate between races? In Gary Younge’s article “White-Only Proms Dancing to an Old Southern Segregationist Tune”, he reported in 2003, students in rural Georgia at Taylor County High School self segregated their prom. A milestone event, the school held its first integrated prom in 31 years in 2002. However, due to interracial conflicts in the 2002 school year, school officials stopped sponsoring dances, and shortly after, parents and students began organizing separate dances for whites and blacks. However, this self-segregation is not an isolated issue; Bob Jones University in South Carolina only lifted its ban on interracial dating in 2000. Also in 2000, the high school in Coldwater, Mississippi, held separate votes for its black and white homecoming queens (Younge). Though these situations were all self imposed by blacks, self-segregation instances do shed light on an important critique in American social inequality. If blacks were made to feel equal with whites they would not self segregate themselves, and perhaps be more motivated to incorporate themselves into a higher social and economic status, on par with whites.Thus we begin to uncover the psychology of the black individual, the fragmentation of power. DuBois refers to the “strange experience” as being “born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world… always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (DuBois, 38). This fragmentation creates a sense of two selves, neither one recognized by whites. In a study connecting physical ailments with subtle racial prejudice, Rob Stein reported Sarah Person, a member of the study; to having said “It (racial prejudice) happens all the time. It’s part of day-to-day experiences, unfortunately. But you are never prepared for it, it makes you feel like you’re out of rhythm with the rest of the world, and like there’s no justice.” Blacks want what we all want, to better ourselves. They however, must first merge the double self into one truer self, recognized by all of America. Unfortunately, this decision to change cannot be made by blacks alone. DuBois called out to Americans all across the nation to “make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed rough in his face” (DuBois, 39). The doors of Opportunity, unfortunately, have not been completely opened to blacks, even since DuBois’s call for justice in 1903. Though advancements have been made in black education efforts, social welfare and sports, America has really not developed as well or as quickly as the “greatest nation on earth” should have. White America fails to recognize many important black attributes. For example, in the 1996 Olympics, “European squads’ fantasies of gold were being crushed by a U.S. Dream Team of eleven West African-Americans and a lone white” (Sailer). However, we ignore those aspects of American society where equality is most important, such as equal employment opportunity and social equality. One may argue that blacks are slowly rising to equality in these areas, for example, publicly important figure Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. However, only upon investigation of her role as Secretary of State can we truly understand her function as a false ethnic icon. Rice stands on a pedestal to be viewed by all American’s, blacks and whites. Her purpose is to portray blacks as rising in social and economic standing. According to The Black Commentator, blacks, historically excluded from high titles, have applauded every African American “first” as collective victory. “This was a logical and correct response to the solid wall of white refusal to tolerate the presence of Black faces in high places. In such circumstances, which still prevail today in vast swaths of American society, individual advancement actually does represent a kind of collective triumph. The rule applies, even in areas of endeavor having little effect on the lives of Black people. Indeed, the more exclusively white the enclave or activity, the greater the shared victory once the color line is crossed” (The Black Commentator). However, as one critic states, “Rice is the purest expression of the race traitor” (The Black Commentator). Many would say, according to DuBois, that she has “bleached her Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism”, supporting such anti-black opinions as the Bush party’s campaign against affirmative action. Though we are making progress, at what alarmingly slow rate is this progression continuing? Blacks are still the targets of economic and social prejudice in mainstream areas, such as the American judicial system. The Federal Bureau of Justice revealed an alarming statistic; “Twenty percent of all black men born from 1965 through 1969 had served time in prison by the time they reached their early thirties. By comparison, less than 3 percent of white males born in the same time period had been in prison.” Being jailed in federal or state prisons has become so common today that more young black men in the United States have done time than have served in the military or earned a college degree. (Schwarz). Spending time in jail, or persecution by the law seems to be an everyday part of black lives. Is it that blacks are really dramatically more crime prone than whites? Or could the issue at hand be unequal treatment under the law? This concept is so real and appropriate nowadays that the issue of unequal racial treatment under the law has even forced itself into contemporary music. Popular black rapper, Jay-Z, brings light on the subject in his song, 99 Problems. The song describes all of the problems a young black man faces, one being unequal race treatment. The song details the correspondence between a white police officer and the black male driver he has pulled over: White officer: “Son do you know why I’m stoppin’ you for?” Black man: “Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hats real low. Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know. Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo’?”White officer: “Well you was doin fifty-five in a fifty-fo’. License and registration and step out of the car. Are you carryin’ a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are.” (Jay-Z)Contrary to the common stereotype, there is no evidence to suggest blacks are simply more violent or prone to crime. They are perhaps, more motivated to commit profit crimes in order to rise in economic status. Therefore, there is a social and psychological reason behind these crimes. We, as Americans, then have a more complex dilemma to solve, establishing economic equality between blacks and whites. Thus, blacks would be less inclined to commit the two most frequent non-violent crimes in the United States, theft and drug possession with intent to sell (Federal Bureau of Justice). Then blacks can be further integrated into higher American society, enough to shed their double selves for a more concise, accurate and respected one.Economic inequality is further evident where black wages are still lower than white wages. PhD. Professor of Sociology, David Newman states, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, that the average annual income for black households is $30,43, compared to $44,232 for whites. Black unemployment is also twice as high as that of whites and only 48% of blacks own their own homes compared to 74% of whites (Newman, 389). Though America has abolished such inequalities as slavery and forced segregation, Americans have not proved the wishful idea that after years of racial inequality, blacks and whites are finally equal in all aspects of law and society. The color-line problem has not been resolved, merely changed to show the economic and psychological aspects of black fragmentation and powerlessness, the new problem of the twenty-first century. The problem of economic inequality is simply an expansion of the racial crisis. This powerlessness was horrifically made known to the rest of America after the crisis of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Over a million people were displaced after the class five hurricane hit the city of New Orleans on August 29, 2005. The official death toll stands at 1,325, with 6,644 others unaccounted for, and 1,300 of them “feared dead” (Hurricane Katrina). The hurricane not only did irreplaceable damage to one of America’s great cities, it also devastated America’s progressing racial equality. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the 2004 New Orleans population to be 20% white and 68% black. Within the city itself, the poorest citizens tended to live in the lowest parts that are most vulnerable to flooding, most of these citizens being black. Vivid news video and photographs accurately showed primarily poor, black citizens stranded in New Orleans, without food, water or shelter. Furthering the racial conflict, specific derogatory language was later used in regard to predominately black citizens, referred to as “looters”. Looting usually means large-scale theft and pillaging, not the taking of necessities such as water, that some desperate people engaged in. On September 2, while presenting the Concert for Hurricane Relief, music producer and rapper Kanye West openly said what so many black activists and political minds were thinking. He strayed from his script and addressed the racism of both the government and of the media, stating, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He also asked the media to stop labeling African-American families as “looters” while white families were depicted as “looking for food” (Hurricane Katrina). Hurricane Katrina has opened many American minds to United States racial inequalities, including that of health. Poverty, unemployment, and neglect all contribute to the health divide for the poorest black communities across the United States. However, the result is a racial health gap, which has endured and even grown, despite years of health development and overall economic growth. As we struggle to rebuild the damage of Katrina, the most destructive and natural disaster in the history of the United States, American, now more than ever, should analyze and speculate to create more racially equal communities. “It is even more important that we and others apply these lessons to help the many other individuals and communities who continue to languish out of the public eye” (Dickinson). The root of under employed and under paid black Americans is unequal racial prejudice and discrimination. If blacks are not equal in racial standing how can they receive equal treatment, legally and socially? Therefore we have the altered, the veiled economic problem, of the twenty-first century. In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois coins one of the most simple and descriptive terms in understanding the quintessential African American experience. He reveals that all African Americans are living in “the two worlds within and without the Veil”, a Veil of uncertainty that implies the white’s lack of clarity in seeing blacks as true Americans, deserving of every legal and social right they themselves posses (xxxi). The veil also explains blacks’ lack of understanding as to how they see themselves, separate from white America and their stereotypes and assumptions. Even after racial advancements such as the Civil Rights Act, we have a new crisis that is not actually so different from the old one. Racial inequality has been veiled, though evident in so many aspects of everyday American life, to reveal economic inequality, the new racial problem of twenty-first century America.Works CitedDickinson, Emma. “A Virtual Katrina’ of Deaths Every Week in US Due to Racial Health Gap”. 20 Oct. 2005. British Medical Journal. 5 Dec. 2005. < http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-10/bmj-vk102005.php> DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co., 1903. “Hurricane Katrina”. Wikipedia. 6 Dec. 2005.
Color-Coded America: How the White “Dream” Employs Socio-Economic Limitations in African-American Culture and Beyond
In taking on the colossal notion of American culture, it would be ideal to begin with its inhabitants. The questions of what defines us and what we give value to are inherent challenges in themselves because the country is split by several subgroups: by race, by class, by creed, by ethnic group, and so on. Since this essay addresses minority culture in excess, another challenge for those groups surfaces in terms of “achieving an independent personal and group identity; gaining access to political power and economic opportunities; and finding ways to think, speak, and create that are not dominated by the ideology of the oppressor” (Tyson 423). When diving into the topic of multi-cultural literature and its voices, an even deeper challenge arises. By default, it seems that white culture has passed as universal culture due to its strong literary and political influences from the country’s very beginning. “…if colonizers acknowledged that a native culture existed, they claimed that such cultures were not worth sustaining in the face of the ‘superior’ civilization offered by the Europeans” (Tyson 424). White privilege has oppressed other identities, other values, and made our culture uniform. What’s more, stifling or covering up other histories has made it seem like whites are solely to commend for American heritage, given that history books, narratives, and biographies focused solely on white American accomplishments. Therefore, it is the belief that the white voice is the most “accurate” voice. We are still sending the message of “cultural capital,” as essayist Henry Gates calls it, and we are still directly affected by cultural imperialism: the takeover of one culture (the “non-white” culture) by another (the “white” culture) in terms of, more specifically the customs and values of the economically dominant culture. So where are the other voices, and what do they have to say about all of this?
There is a distinctive theme in African-American literature, especially pertaining to how this minority experiences economic and social limitations that inhibit their success. As we know, Americans in general have practice in internalizing their success as a form of self-identity. Essayist Leslie Hawkes explains that “the notion of fresh self-creation is a deeply American one and it is in fact a founding principle of the country” (21). Self-creation and individualism is rooted deeply in the notion of the American Dream. Critic Lois Tyson has made the connection between the discourse of the self-made man and the “success manuals” that circulated during the time the American Dream began to take shape. Around the turn of the century, success manuals were created to give young boys an idea of how to succeed through adopting certain practices and symbols of success. Gates’s essay about our nation assimilating into “white” culture, reinforcing Ivy League and activities that symbolizes the “upper crust,” echo these manuals, and it seems like this is where the problem lies. Tyson states, “The discourse of the self-made man ‘erases history’ in choosing to ignore or marginalize the enormous character flaws of many famous self-made men while simultaneously defining self-made success as a product of one’s character rather than a product of one’s environment. The discourse is permeated by the desire to escape history, to transcend the historical realities of time, place, and human limitation” (308). These success manuals, like the Dream, erase history, enabling us to deny our pasts and ignore our flaws, as well as ignore how well we conceal and continue to conceal oppression and constraint. Ironically, the American dream was built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and, as we will soon find, continues to thrive on the abuses suffered by immigrants and the socioeconomic barriers against people of color. The American dream was built upon the misery and limitations of our cultures, endeavored throughout history to be concealed. This essay will explore three short stories by African-Americans about African-Americans, and its commentary will work to showcase how the concealment of the past, the employment of internalized racism, and the unattainability of wealth symbols have fixed a barrier between African-Americans and the Dream their culture holds in such esteem.
I. Retrospect In discussing American culture and its fascination with “moving up,” we must recognize how society aims to limit African-Americans from this quest by obscuring the past. Nowhere else is the theme of a concealed past more apparent than in Alice Walker’s short story, “Elethia.” The theme of forgetting and remembrance create a mood for her motif of disguised physical decay on the part of Uncle Albert and gives us a larger sense of a fictional past and an imagined history on the part of slave testimony. In “Elethia,” Uncle Albert’s corpse that decorates the window of a diner wherein no blacks are allowed is a reminder of the fake continuity with the present the civil rights movement tried to shatter.
The fake past is alive in the image of the stuffed corpse of Uncle Albert. All teeth, smiles, and servitude, in reality Albert was slave who had his teeth knocked out for his defiance against slavery. “They used to beat him severe trying to make him forget the past and grin and act like a nigger” (Walker 309). He decorates the window of an all-white restaurant. Believed to be a “dummy,” Elethia learns that the body is his actual corpse. This mirrors the undermining of the white community against the black plight: they believe in the triviality of the crimes committed—everything is an allusion, not real. Elethia and her friends steal the corpse and burn him, aiming to rid the world of its false and stereotypical images of blacks and to rectify its misrepresentations, recover the past, and preserve the truth for those after her.
The image of Uncle Albert in the window is racist; it underplays the severity of slavery and erases the past struggle and pain Uncle Albert and all slaves went through. Elethia carries the ashes of Uncle Albert in order to mourn and heal, much like one would for a family member who has passed. She is healing from the damage done to Albert’s corpse as well as the damage done to her ancestors. “Everywhere she looked, there was an Uncle Albert…. And she was careful that, no matter how compelling the hype, Uncle Alberts, in her own mind, were not permitted to exist” (309). Elethia is trying to preserve a cognitive relic, which has been painted over with sugar-coated brush strokes to lighten the plight of slaves. She realizes that all the Uncle Albert types were not permitted to be remembered because that would mean owning up to a disgraceful and shameful past.
Walker is able to find, through her themes of remembering, a vocabulary for the civil rights movement’s own personal grievances and preoccupations. “Elethia” represents the time of the civil rights movement and the tension between white and black societies. While the white community as a majority seemed to want to perpetuate black oppression, the black community rose up to end it. Elethia’s mindset during this story is much like the mindset of the black community during this movement. Elethia’s and her friend’s defiance against the older community’s acceptance of the racial stereotype employs her ability to transcend the identity chosen for her. Charles Taylor wrote in his essay “The Politics of Recognition” that the misrecognition of others can cause a group of people to “suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Non-recognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (75). Uncle Albert’s image is distorted, he is imprisoned and confined behind a glass case and forced a demeaning and reduced expression of happy servitude: “His lips were intensely smiling and his false teeth shone. He carried a covered tray in one hand…and over his other arm was draped a white napkin” (Walker, 307). Elethia, much like supporters of the civil rights movement, attempted to reshape the misrepresented past and bring these social issues back in the spotlight. They are essentially working against decades of false representation, orally, psychologically, literary, and as we see here, even the physical presence of Albert is omnipotent: “Everywhere she looked there was an Uncle Albert…in her textbooks, in the newspapers, and on TV” (309). The Uncle Alberts who are “not permitted to exist” give us an idea of the invisibility of black history and culture. Not only are African-Americans unacknowledged as victims, their histories and identities are essentially erased. Through misrecognition, they are reduced and belittled.
As we now know, although boastful of its diverse society, America has had and continues to struggle with its racist attitude. Springing from this hindrance is the phenomena of internalized racism, which has succeeded in crippling the success of African-Americans. In “The Death of Horatio Alger” by LeRoi Jones and Amiri Baraka, a young African American man named Mickey engages in an altercation with his friend J.D. over a game of words that gets out of hand. Their three white friends stand by and cheer them on. Mixed in with this outer conflict is Mickey’s inner unrest over white society and his isolation from it. This work deals in large part with racial politics: exploring the racial issues of the social and psychological effects of racism. The fight scene allows us to understand Mickey’s preoccupation with white society’s ideals of beauty, his acceptance of racialism, and the stereotyping of blacks that forms his identity.
It is clear that Mickey has internalized society’s ideals of beauty: “And it is a useful memory here, because such things as these were the vague images that had even so early, helped shape me. Light freckles, sandy hair, narrow clean bodies. Though none lived where I lived” (155). He realizes those white ideals are out of his reach, and he will never “win:” “Or something a Deacon would admit was beautiful. [A white painting.] The conscience rules against ideas. The point was to be where you wanted to, and do what you wanted to. After all is ‘said and done,’ what is left but those sheepish constructions” (155). There is another layer to the fight scene here when Mickey informs us of his realization that he is beneath his white friends due to society’s petty ideals. He has bought into the notion of racialism, which critic Lois Tyson refers to as “the belief in racial superiority, inferiority, and purity based on the conviction that moral and intellectual characteristics, just like physical characteristics, are biological properties that differentiate the races” (360). Mickey’s identity is formed by white society: “We are named by all things we will never understand. Whether we can fight it or not…” (156). And he is suffering from internalized racism. “Victims of internalized racism generally feel inferior to whites, less attractive, less worthwhile, less capable, and often wish they were white or looked more white” (Tyson 362). Because Mickey shapes his narrative with his internal feelings of futile inferiority, the fight between he and his other black friend becomes a source of racial mockery and entertainment for Norman, Johnny, and Augie.
The battle scene ensues, and the three white boys laugh at the spectacle. With race lines set up, the conflict between Mickey and J.D. seems, on a larger scale, to depict the struggles and humility of African Americans attempting to define and defend themselves, and the satisfaction and insensitivity derived by white society in controlling and stifling their progress. Since the conflict initially begins between two black men, this symbolizes the difficult struggle for equality for the black culture and their efforts to overcome oppression spawning from the persecution of segregation. Mickey is clearly torn between two worlds, his own personal life and culture and the culture of white America. The battle between he and J.D. becomes something larger to Mickey than a quibble over name calling; it becomes a war between the sides: a conflict brought on by his inability to live harmoniously in a mixed culture. W.E.B. DuBois first described a phenomena many African Americans experience in The Souls of Black Folk as double consciousness or double vision, the awareness of belonging to two conflicting cultures: the African culture and the European culture imposed by white America. DuBois calls it”a peculiar sensation…. One ever feels this twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (89). Norman, Johnny, and Augie watch from the sidelines and laugh, and we have a sense of white men’s feelings of superiority and Mickey’s realization of his twoness. In addition, the white men can vicariously live out their desire to be less civilized through the fight. That the fight for them is a spectacle and a source of their entertainment represents the state in which the white men of the society enjoy keeping the black men in a state of inferiority, conflict, and oppression through manipulation.
Mickey seems to feel ashamed by buying into the stereotype. Moreover, Mickey is ashamed of his internalized feelings. “And I was conscious first of my father saying, ‘Go on Mickey, hit him. Fight back.’ And for a few seconds, under the weight of that plea for my dignity, I tried,” “…[B]ut J.D bashed me when he wanted to” (157). This last was not a literal “bashing,” but a symbolic one. J.D. had to show Mickey his own shame of his blackness. Mickey and J.D. attack their three white friends who had been watching them and cheering them on, but the final image of Mickey’s frozen hands gives us an idea that although this is progress on the part of Mickey and J.D., and they tried to strip themselves of their alienation, it only leaves them in a frozen state.
Mickey’s “frozen hands” at the end that may “[n]ever thaw” (157) speak for his position in his society as well as his conflicted identity. Since fighting with J.D., he has bought into the white stereotype of blacks and into the white stereotype of what is beautiful: “Negroes and Italians beat and shaped me, and my allegiance is there. But the triumph of romanticism was parquet floors, yellow dresses, gardens and sandy hair. I must have felt the loss and could not rise against a cardboard world of dark hair and linoleum” (156). Although he would like to fight for himself and his race, he has bought into the stereotype of the whites. This reinforces the notion of his twoness. He wants to rise up against the whites; he wants to rise up against his own people so he can be one of the “beautiful people in the white society,” but he can do neither; thus, he is frozen in between the two worlds. He cannot be of the white world (which he yearns to be) and he cannot reject his own black world Charles Taylor says, “…the withholding of recognition can be a form of oppression” (81) and Mickey is withholding the recognition of himself.
“The Death of Horatio Alger” speaks in large part for the social construction of race and identity. Because we are inherently a nation of clashing cultures, there is a conflict between race being socially rather than biologically produced. In this story, there is a struggle to find one’s identity in the midst of these warring influences as well as a struggle in debunking or feeding into society’s racism and social expectations for “inferior” races. Mickey cannot, in this time, break through the social expectations forced upon him. He cannot essentially “make a name for himself” or his race. He is frozen and limited, unable to progress normally in a society that passions progression.
During the civil rights struggles from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, African Americans became increasingly aware of the consequences to blacks as a whole when individual blacks adhered to white middle-class values. “Many African Americans engaged in unified group efforts that created a sense of community and established ethnic pride, while others associated individually with privileged whites but never became completely part of the privileged society, creating instead a divided subset of the African American community” (Champion 69). In “The Lesson,” by Toni Cade Bambara, a group of black school children embark on a field trip to F.A.O Schwartz in Manhattan that, in the end, creates this aforementioned division in the African-American community. What’s more, the contrast between the impoverished children and their new environment creates a commentary that parallels the absurdity of the presence of economic inequality and the American dream. Significantly, our narrator Sylvia does not immediately follow the other children into the store because she feels “funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody” (93). As the children enter the high society store, they quickly become aware of their limitations, and they begin to use comparisons that suggest they are becoming aware of class divisions and their inabilities to obtain these “sign-exchange-value” symbols and signifiers of wealth. Sugar asks if they can steal, while Sylvia criticizes a white lady for wearing a fur coat even though it is hot. It is also interesting to note that upon exposure to their extravagant lifestyle, Sylvia never assumes an economic structure hierarchically. Rather than respecting and admiring the privileged, she makes comments such as “White folks crazy” (89). Junebug says she has no need for a $480.00 paperweight because she does not own a desk. Flyboy claims he does not need a desk because he is homeless, a claim that disgusts Sylvia because she thinks he only makes such comments “to keep the white folks off his back and sorry for him” (148).
When Miss Moore asks if she is angry, Sylvia says she won’t give her the satisfaction of expressing her emotions. This scene demonstrates the growing tension Sylvia experiences as she becomes aware of unequal distribution of wealth. “Whereas under other circumstances, she and Sugar would laugh and talk together, representative of comradery, upon exposure to capitalistic economics, they immediately become estranged” (Champion 74). As they leave the store and board the train to home, Sylvia’s comments begin to resonate. “Me and Sugar at the back of the train watchin the tracks whizzing by large then small then getting gobbled up in the dark. I’m thinkin about this tricky toy I saw in the store. Cost $35… Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go to visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too” (150). The train tracks getting gobbled up certainly represents the spirit of capitalism, which zooms by and exploits the less privileged. Sylvia associates the image of the train track with the $35 toy and the connection made to the reader is that blacks who aspire to white middle-class values will never become a part of the privileged class, for they are destined in a racially biased society to get “gobbled up” by racist attitudes. The larger question implied, of course, is why should blacks even desire to become part of a social system that historically has oppressed them? As Hamlet would say, “Ay, there’s the rub.”
“Although Sylvia is unaware of the complicated ramifications of the lesson, readers understand that over a sequence of lessons Miss Moore will eventually teach the students the full capacity of the social problems indicative of capitalism, of which she has thus far provided only a glimpse” (75). Home, Sylvia lets Sugar run ahead of her, rejecting her proposition to race: “She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nothing” (152). Sylvia seems to understand that her and Sugar’s limitations have put them at odds against each other. Tight friends at the story’s beginning, their new awareness of their confines have driven them to naturally compete and become divided, much like the fight in “Horatio Alger,” and has shifted their focus to obtaining symbols of higher class. By buying into the Dream, Sylvia and Sugar are alienated over a battle already lost, only deepening their oppression and confining themselves deeper within their places in society.
II. Prospect We have found through the experiences of the black community a vocabulary to identify how the American Dream has failed, not just for this group, but for all minorities. America’s desire to transcend history, deny the past, invent a new life and deny historical realities of socioeconomic class makes us “never grounded and there is nothing that connects [us] to the land” (Hawkes 23). “America has lived through, and is still suffering from, the consequences of attempting to blend utopian ideals with notions of materialist satisfaction. It still believes in the utopian dream but is seeing this dream through far less innocent eyes. The United States has always used symbols as a way of uniting its ideals” (Hawkes 23). We must not concentrate on the images from stores like F.A.O. Schwartz and on looking the part. Symbols alienate and isolate, like we have seen in “The Lesson,” rather than draw a nation together. Mickey’s internalized acknowledgment of the “wrongs” of his image give us a haunting insight into how well we know we lack. We must not try to distort our own image or the image of the nation, nor must we try to re-write our “wrongs” like “Elethia” has aimed to do.
Yet even still, the American Dream tells us to mimic the upper class, suggesting we create allusions of status, image, and wealth. We are all blinded by the belief in the American dream, because we were founded on rugged individualism and a quest for fulfillment, no matter the cost. We still believe in the self-made man; it is highly an American trait. But still we must ask what the difference is between those who succeed and those who do not. It goes back to images and the avoidance of the limitations society has bestowed on us, and it also ties into the difference between success and greatness. We are a nation of symbols and images that represent success. We are victims of the propaganda of magazines and television telling us if we achieve in procuring those things, we will be successful. Magazines and TV gives us an imagined and fabricated visual of America that enables us to forget our history and our past and deny our confines. But none of those things, if we achieved them, would make us “great,” and these images distort our environment and conceal our limitations, which is the fundamental obstruction. Instead of focusing on success, the American Dream must strive for greatness. We must move from effect to affect, from living to giving, from being divided to being united, not mistaking our prosperity for our identity, and most importantly, not allowing society’s ideals to define us. It is a tall order, one we may never get just right, one that may never break us from our confinement completely. But I hope we learn that what we can gain in heart and in mind we will lose in fear and isolation. I hope we know that we are not our possessions, and I hope we stop allowing others to make our decisions and we stop asking for permission. I hope we realize this soon. I hope for the very, very best.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 2002. 145-152. Print.
Baraka, Amiri & Jones, LeRoi. “The Death of Horatio Alger.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 2002. 153 157. Print.
Champion, Laurie. “’Passing It Along in the Relay’: Struggles for Economic Equality in Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘Raymond’s Run’ and ‘The Lesson.’” Short Story: Fall 2005, Vol. 13 Issue 2, 69-82. Print.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin. 1989. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Good-bye Columbus? Notes of the Culture of Criticism.” American Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter, 1991).Oxford Press. 203-217. Print.
Hawkes, Leslie. “‘And One Fine Morning’: Gatsby, Obama, and the Resurrection of Hope.” Social Alternatives. Vol. 28 No.3, 2009. 20-23. Web.
Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition.” English Department. National U, 4 Oct. 2011. 29 May 2012. Web.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: a user-friendly guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Walker, Alice. “Elethia.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 2002. 307-309. Print.
The Danger of Passiveness in Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”
The latter years of the 19th century brought with them a time of vast change in race relations in the United States. The end of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed brought a slew of rights to the newly freed Southern slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau offered educational opportunities to African Americans and the 14th and 15th amendments had granted them equal rights of citizens and the right to vote (Lemke-Santangelo). Undoubtedly, the decade following the end of the war served as a time of hope and promise for the almost 4 million slaves freed by the 13th amendment (“American”). However, by the turn of the century, major tensions regarding the status of African Americans had already begun to arise. Supreme Court rulings showed time and again that those in power were unwilling to recognize black citizens as truly equal. Southern states had already begun to devise methods such as poll taxes and the Grandfather Clause to circumvent the 15th amendment and prevent blacks from voting (Lemke-Santangelo). Thus, the early 20th century was a time of heated tension between races, and out of this grew much literature that existed as a response to this.
During the early 20th century, many African Americans turned to writing to address the hardships that plagued them. Much of this literature expressed discontent with the widespread inequality facing African Americans in the years following the abolition of slavery, and attempted to push for better conditions and rights. In spite of the hardship and inequality however, one former slave managed to present a view of race relations that was distinctly less negative than nearly all of his contemporaries; Booker T. Washington, who was still a child at the time of slavery’s abolition (“Booker”), writes in “Up from Slavery” about his journey toward success from the toils of plantation life—a journey wrought with both hardship and the demand of hard work. Despite the trials he faced, however, Washington presents a view of his life and of racial issues that not only fails to call for action, but that absolves white Southerners of any guilt in the application of slavery. Washington’s uniquely positive perspective on the issue of slavery and equal rights, although admirable in its optimism, is ultimately problematic in furthering justice for African Americans.
Washington’s piece, “Up from Slavery,” is initially striking in the positive spin that it attempts to put on the issue of slavery. Although Washington is by no means an advocate for the institution of slavery, he pauses to note that, “the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition… than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe” (Washington 1350). Here, Washington is suggesting that there is a benefit, however small or unintentional, of the enslavement of African Americans, an assertion that would today be met with fierce criticism and opposition by the general public. Washington also describes himself as having a connection to his masters, and remarks that he felt sorrow at one of their deaths. Despite the fact that Washington does not praise slavery outright, he certainly adopts a more positive stance than any other former slaves. By painting slavery in anything less than a horrible light, Washington essentially weakens the plight of African Americans during this time, and thus makes less pressing the need for justice.
Beyond attempting to put a less negative, if not explicitly positive spin on the issue of slavery, Washington goes as far as to deflect guilt from white slave owners. About his father, a white plantation owner who presumably raped his mother, Washington says, “I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time” (Washington 1345). This statement is jarring, not only because of Washington’s position as a former slave, but because holds a fundamental implication that white plantation owners were not responsible for the atrocities they committed against other human beings. In using the word “victim,” Washington argues not only a lack of guilt, but an oppression against white slaveholders. Such an assertion, though perhaps honorable to some on Washington’s part, is highly problematic in that it absolves white Southerners of any guilt in the matter of slavery, and allows those in power to ignore responsibility for their own actions. In doing this, Washington’s argument makes very difficult the fight for justice.
This is not to say that Washington was not an advocate for a reversal of this social injustice. He makes clear that, despite his oddly positive view on his life as a slave, he is in no way a supporter of the institution of slavery, and that finding any African American who was would be virtually impossible. Washington asserts, “I have never seen one who did not want to be free, or one who would return to slavery,” and goes on to say that he “pit[ies] from the bottom of [his] heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery” (Washington 1350). Clearly, Washington has a decidedly negative view on slavery as a whole, and he exhibits throughout this piece that he is an avid supporter of upward mobility for African Americans through education. However, Washington’s envisioned mode of achieving equality is passive to the point of inactivity; he urges his fellow African Americans to simply wait until the time for equality reaches them.
Such an approach is incredibly telling of Washington’s beliefs about society and human nature. Expressed throughout the piece is a sense of positivity and thankfulness toward the people around him. For example, he repeatedly uses the word “privilege” in regards to his experience with General Armstrong, a man who worked at the Hampton Institute during Washington’s time there, and he later asserts that “the part that the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after the war will make one of the most thrilling parts of the history of this country” (Washington 1359). Remarks such as this illustrate Washington’s inherent tendency toward gratefulness and appreciation of the people with whom he interacts. It is made clear throughout the piece that Washington views his fellow human beings, regardless of race, in a distinctly positive light.
This ability to see and believe the best in people is, in itself, an admirable one; however, the way in which it informs his idea of race relations is deeply misguided. Out of his deep sense of positivity stems Washington’s belief that people are fundamentally good, and that—beyond this—they possess an innate ability to recognize the good in others. Not only does Washington believe that people “lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others” (Washington 1362), he believes firmly that the people around him—specifically, white people in power—will eventually come to this realization without any external pressure to do so. Believing the good in people is of course, in itself, not a flaw, but when applied to the issue of racial oppression, it poses an enormous problem to the advancement for equality. His belief in people’s inherent goodness informs Washington’s passive approach to racism, which he expresses in his Atlanta Exposition Address and which essentially states that African American people ought to wait patiently until justice becomes a reality. “Say what we will,” Washington says, “there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and reward the merit in another, regardless of color or race” (Washington 1371).
This statement is both powerful and deeply persuasive. Yet in arguing this, Washington is inadvertently working to slow the advancement of the people of his own race. His assertion that people need wait found support primarily with whites; even peaceful African American activists found his view hugely problematic. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” argues precisely the opposite, exclaiming, that “when you are haunted day and night by the fact that you are a Negro… plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King 97). Despite the fact that Martin Luther King’s statement is aimed at white clergymen, it seems his argument applies just as clearly to Washington’s assertion. “This ‘wait’” Martin Luther King says, “has almost always meant ‘never’” (King 97). Thus, by King’s logic, Washington instructing his fellow citizens to wait for justice was effectively a request to ask them to ignore the need for justice.
Washington’s decidedly passivity was also criticized heavily by African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, who, in The Souls of Black Folk, accuses Booker T. Washington of serving as a catalyst in the disenfranchisement and institutional inferiority of blacks in the U.S. through his “old attitude of adjustment and submission,” and his desire to serve as “a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro” (Du Bois 1385). These assertions are far from inaccurate; Washington’s passive approach appealed largely to white audiences and helped to bridge the gap between justice-seeking African Americans and white citizens who were reluctant at best to extend rights of citizenship to blacks. His position as a former slave who had worked his way up in society led many other members of his race to follow in his example, and thus worked to quiet the collective voice that called out for justice.
Washington’s piece as a whole advocates for the submission of African Americans to the injustices of society on the grounds that, in time, white men will come to recognize the innate value in their fellow citizens regardless of race. He also works to absolve white citizens of their guilt, for he does not simply refer to them as without fault, but as victims—likening their suffering to his as a slave and proposing the belief that slavery is not a product of individual wrongs, but a wrong institution that has forced itself on the Nation as a whole. Overall, his optimistic yet wholly unrealistic perception of society, coupled with his attempts to present white plantation owners as victims of the institution of slavery, ultimately serves to undermine the plight of African Americans during the early 20th century, and serves as an excuse for white citizens to ignore the pressing need for justice in America.
“American Civil War Census Data.” American Civil War Census Data. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
”Booker T. Washington.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Critical Strategies and Great Questions. Saint Mary’s College of California, 2013. 97. Print.
Lemke-Santangelo, G. (2015, November 30). Radical or Congressional Reconstruction 1867-77. Lecture presented at Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga.
Washington, Booker T. “Up From Slavery” Health Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014. 1344-372. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk” Health Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014. 1374-397. Print.
The Pursuit of Happiness and The Veil
W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neal Hurston, undoubtedly, had two distinct ways of writing, one through an analytical form of storytelling with interwoven fragments of moralistic and ethical themes and one through short fiction that exemplified the distinctiveness of black culture and dialects. Though these styles are diverse, they both harkened on the condition of blackness and each presented poignant narratives that existed to both study and challenge the position of black people as a whole. The Gilded Six-Bits by Zora Neal Hurston and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois both put black culture and black intellectualism into the conversation surrounding political and socioeconomic inequalities. Additionally, these works forced blacks and whites alike to assess and reevaluate ideas surrounding identity and what it means to take ownership of one’s own culture and exist in contentment. Joe, Otis T. Slemmons, and the W.E.B. DuBois’ son all represent the idea that whiteness, through a black cultural lens, is something one puts on and despite attempts to escape The Veil there is an ever present barrier that prevents blacks from reaching the illusion of happiness.
The transformation from contentedness to materialistic desire for wealth and the ideal of happiness nearly ruins Joe and Missie May’s marriage. It is the need for stability and lineage that keeps them together in the end. The opening lines of the narrative creates a sense of a community united by its outlook towards growth. Hurston writes, “It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G and G Fertilizer works for its support” (1033). Joe and Missie May appear happy when they play around and perform their game, but it is the underlying sinful desires that creep through despite their attempted separation from the world around them. Missie May scrubs her dark skin with white soup in bathes and galvanized tub. When Joe enters the house he rids himself of the dirty fertilizer. There is the distinct undertone of uncleanliness that lurks just below the surface just out of the peripheral of the happily married couple that does not truly come to the surface until Otis steps into the picture. Just before Joe walks in on Missie May and Otis’ sexual encounter he contemplates his future with Missie May, he analyzes, “creation obsessed him…a little boy child would be about right” (1037). Like many previous authors, including DuBois, there is an incomprehensible desire for strong paternal lineage; this desire may derive from the separation of families during slavery or a wide range of ancestral bonds, but Joe seems to buy into this philosophy. Similar to how his community depends on the G and G Fertilizer works, Joe puts all his faith into the stability that he thinks he has with his wife and the certainty of an equally stable future.
Despite Joe’s optimistic viewpoint, it is evident that his desire for happiness is different from Missie May’s desire for the same thing. Joe explains after he comes back from work, “You ain’t hongry, sugar…youse jes’ a little empty. Ah could eat up camp meetin’, back off ‘ssociation, and drink Jurdan dry” (1034). Joe likens his hunger to a spiritual desire, he is so hungry he could fill himself with the Jordan River, which has distinctly religious connotations. Joe tells Missie May that she is just empty which means it is necessary to fill herself up but not explicitly in a spiritual manner. Missie May’s emptiness causes her to look for fulfillment in other ways, through her sexual encounter with Otis and her envy for the gilded six-bits. After the brief affair Missie May has with Otis she believes her marriage is over, she even debates leaving Joe forever, but she can’t bring herself to leave. Joe chastises, “Missie May, you cry too much. Don’t look back lak Lot’s wife and turn to salt” (1039). Missie May, similarly to Lot’s wife, struggled with her faith in the future. Her indiscretion and adultery in the past held her hidden desires and view of happiness though, as she would come to find out, she desired nothing but a masquerade. Otis Slemmons introduces something into the lives of Missie May and Joe, and it’s the notion of economic inferiority and material desire and it, regardless of their decision to stay together, destroys their marriage.
Otis T. Slemmons represents, like the snake in the Christian creation myth, the introduction of sin, knowledge, and desire into the lives of Joe and Missie May. Otis’ clothes, girth, and money causes the couple to liken him with robber barons such as Rockefeller and Henry Ford. Without his presence, Joe and Missie May would not have become aware of the economic disparity within the black community. Previously their view on wealth, power, and the performance of masculine superiority only existed as something that was distinctly white and in a far off community. Joe praises, “He got de finest clothes Ah ever seen on a colored man’s back” (1035). The focus on clothes in relation to how Otis presents his material wealth, exemplifies two notions; that economic superiority is solely represented through material ownership and whiteness, from Joe and Missie May’s point of view, is something one puts on. Once Otis infiltrates their home, he has the power to ruin them, before he was only outside of the house. Missie May and Joe only travel to the ice cream parlor to see Otis. The moment Joe and Missie May begin to talk about Otis, desire and jealousy enter their lives and it causes them both to make uncharacteristically flawed choices. Missie May desires the “wealth” that Otis possesses, thinking that it will make her happy. Joe, understanding that he cannot compete with Otis’ economic status, desires to possess women like Otis does. Joe covets, “Sho wish it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im” (1035). There is an immediate gendered gap between the desires of Joe and Missie May, women as a whole become possessions that drive and empower men. The commodification of Missie May and the expression of ownership and power through the possession of the six-bits presents the notion that Missie May’s sexuality becomes something that is traded between the men. By the end of the narrative, Joe tosses fifteen coins on the porch rather than nine, signifying that the desire for economic prosperity rules their marriage and they cannot rid themselves of the sinful desires that Otis introduced into their lives. They are no longer free in their expression of love but rather oppressed by outside forces. The couple can never obtain the contentment that they had or the contentment that they wanted because their present actions limit their opportunities for serenity.
W.E.B. DuBois’ unnamed son tragically dies before he is able to obtain an identity. By dying he escapes the tragedy of The Veil, or the systematic oppression that entraps blacks into a state of inequalities and internalized racism. DuBois describes, “He knew no color-line, poor dear,-and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not darkened half his sun” (741). The baby is innocent and he is not yet black nor white. The Veil is a mere shadow in his world, he has hope and the ability to escape. Blackness was created as an opposition to white, without this dichotomy, whites could not retain their own identity as blackness interferes with the possession of the American identity. The unnamed boy, if he had lived, could take ownership of his identity as a black man and as an American. The Veil, as DuBois defines, limits blacks in their pursuit of a better life because they have little to no opportunity of escaping it. W.E.B. DuBois asserts, “The price of culture is a Lie” (DuBois, 738). Or in other words, in order to take ownership of one’s identity, and of one’s culture, it is imperative that as a collective whole black people have to forget; not forgive. As DuBois argues and demonstrates through the tragic death of his son, this boy was able to live outside of The Veil, but his only true freedom came through death. As a theorist and analyst, the conclusion that death is the only way out is not a viable result, so DuBois challenges black people to seek refuge in their future in order to own their identities and create their own happiness. In relation to Missie May and Joe, the child was innocent and unadulterated by the desires of the world, he did not desire prosperity because he had no concept of what prosperity entailed within the realm of his existence.
What Zora Neal Huston and W.E.B. DuBois present is an insight into the turmoil of the black identity as it relates to overall contentment in life. Most analytics focus primarily on political or social disparities between blacks and whites and how those factors limit economic disparities between the two communities. The Gilded Six-Bits alters that narrative, as it focuses on how economics reshapes sociopolitical as well as moral ideology within the black community that resides in Eatonville and more specifically Joe and Missie May’s lives. W.E.B. DuBois does not specifically comment on happiness as a tangible goal among blacks, but he does force readers to note the freedom that exists just outside of The Veil. DuBois’ son does not have the opportunity to pursue his own happiness, to cultivate his own community, or to define his own identity but he does have the luxury of innocence and the void of a stereotyped existence. Despite DuBois’ theorizing and Hurston’s narrative voice, both authors suggest that happiness can exist within the black community if they resist the temptations of materialism and if they can be empowered on their own without relying on oppositional identities to define themselves. Both these works delve into notions of Pan-African (American) ism, as The Gilded Six-Bits takes place in Eatonville and DuBois’ work attempts to holistically study and describe the condition of black Americans. Through this Pan-African-Americanism these writers dictate how one can foresee the strength of the black community despite the obtrusive nature of white American ideology seeping in. Happiness is not something that W.E.B. DuBois suggests is the end goal for African Americans, his goals are self-sustainability, power through identity, and most importantly freedom. Ultimately freedom is happiness, the simplistic nature of contentedness and desire for familial growth is the most innocent and prosperous form of happiness that there ever can be in DuBois’ ideal world and in Joe and Missie May’s world as well just before Otis, and sin, entered into their life.
DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” The Norton Anthology of African American
Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 692-765. Print.
Hurston, Zora. “The Gilded Six-Bits.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.
Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 1033-1041. Print.