African American Literature Term Paper

Pages: 20 (7110 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 20  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Black Studies

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] Describing a naming ritual, Haley has the father walking through a village to his wife. "Moving to his wife's side, he lifted up the infant and, as all watched, whispered three times into his son's ear the name he had chosen for him. It was the first time the name had ever been spoken as this child's name, for Omoro's people felt that each human being should be the first to know who he was" (Haley, p.3). This ritual shows the involvement of both parents in the child's rearing; not only with the selection of name, but also with their involvement in the community. Moreover, it highlights the importance of naming to parents, which brings to mind the fact that so many African-Americans carry surnames that are linked to their former slave owners or to prominent white men, rather than being linked to their African history. This highlights the disconnect that African-Americans have from a broader cultural history that extends into the past beyond the Middle Passage. It also highlights the fact that there is nothing genetic about the absence of fathers in the lives of many African-American children; instead, it is a culturally shaped behavior that continues into the present day.

The ancillary role that fathers play in much of the African-American community is something that is frequently discussed, but what is not discussed as frequently, but is also a cultural hallmark, is the fact that oftentimes the women raising children in the African-American community are not mothers, but grandmothers, aunts, or sisters. Douglass was not raised by his own mother, but was intentionally separated from her by their master. She was able to sneak away at times to see him in the night time, but would have been beaten if she had stayed to see him during the daytime. Moreover, Douglass states, "it is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age…and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor" (Douglass, web). Douglass discusses how this impacted the mother-child relationship, not only blunting the natural affection the mother would have for the child, but also the affection that the child would have for the mother. It also helped establish an extended-family unit in the African-American community that encompassed both maternal and paternal female relatives who would step into caregiving roles for children. In some ways, this removed the stigma that African-American women would have otherwise felt at leaving their children in the care of others in order to pursue work or other opportunities. However, it also put a burden on many older African-American women in the community, who were traditionally not allowed the luxury of any type of retirement, and who now find themselves pressured to raise grandchildren or great-grandchildren if their children are unable or unwilling to do so. This tradition has also contributed to an anti-adoption stigma in much of the African-American community, because of a belief that a family or community member can and will step up to raise a child, without an investigation of the impact of these transient relationships on the children. Therefore, non-nuclear families became, in many ways, normalized within the African-American community, while still stigmatized outside of that community.

In some ways, the fact that behaviors that were normative within the African-American community were viewed as not only nonconformist, but, in many ways, dysfunctional, led to the treatment of the African-American community as a problem. W.E.B. DuBois addresses this issue in The Souls of Black Folk. He begins the book with a discussion of what it feels like to be treated as a problem to be solved, simply by virtue of his race. He openly addresses the issue, "being a problem is a strange experience, - peculiar even for one who has never been anything else" (DuBois, Kindle). He discusses how being treated as a problem, if not individually, then because of one's membership in a race, is isolating and, in many ways, discourages efforts at assimilating into a non-racial society, because it encourages scorn for those who would consider someone a problem. This does not mean that DuBois did not agree that race and race relations were a huge issue that needed to be solved in order for the United States to move forward in a productive manner; he agreed that they were. What he disagreed with was the notion that African-Americans were the problem. Instead, he believed that the historical treatment of African-Americans was the problem and that addressing that treatment and remedying lingering discrimination were crucial to solving the problem. One way he believed that this could occur would be by revealing the humanity and development of culture in the African-American community, thereby stripping away the assumptions that African-Americans were somehow less developed or less capable than their white counterparts. To do this, DuBois outlined the development and celebration of African-American people. His efforts at legitimizing the African-American culture and experience are vital to the evolution and survival of it as it is subjected to discrimination not only from without, but from within as well.

In fact, the post-slavery era depictions of African-American life in the United States provide an interesting portrait of what it means to be a member of a minority group that has, in many ways, internalized the prejudices of a majority society, while still struggling to develop pride and a stand-alone cultural identity. Anne Moody's autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi examines the negative aspects of living in a white dominated society in the 20th century. One of the most telling scenes is when Anne is describing her father's mistress, Florence. Moody says, "Florence was a mulatto, high yellow with straight black hair. She was the envy of all the women on the plantation" (Moody, p.11). This line clearly indicates that the African-American women on the plantation had incorporated white ideals of beauty into their own ideals of femininity and that they were concerned that their men would also prefer the white beauty ideal, which was most closely approximated by Florence, a mulatto woman. Moody even points out how attractive her own mother is, but her mother's looks appear to be inconsequential when compared to the fact that Florence has the pale skin and straight hair that are most associated with being white.

Perhaps, the most powerful novel about the white beauty myth and its impact on African-American culture, particularly how African-American girls and women view themselves, is Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Unlike the works of literature previously discussed, Morrison's novel is a novel; it is not autobiographical, a memoir, or a historical account. However, the fact that it details the lives of fictional characters does not detract from its ability to impact the reader or to help convey certain elements of African-American culture. Morrison's fascination with the blue-eyed standard of beauty had its roots in a conversation she had with her own childhood friend. It blossomed for her in the 60s and 70s, when people were making an effort to reclaim black as beautiful, and Morrison was wondering how black had ever come to be associated with a lack of beauty. This led her to consider the process of internalizing these external ideals and how marginalization contributes to that process. The story of the novel is a horrific one. Pecola Breedlove, who has features traditionally associated with being black, is mocked because of her appearance. However, she is vulnerable to their words because of horror going on in her home; she has been raped by her father and is pregnant with his child. Though the novel does not excuse the father's assault of his young daughter, it does investigate the social conditions that might contribute to an absence of an appropriate father-daughter relationship and make incestuous contact with one's child more possible. This reminds the reader of what Douglass said about his father and the systemic means of separating children from their parents that existed under slavery. Morrison wanted to investigate racial self-loathing. In her own words, she wrote the novel to answer her own questions about her friend's perceived lack of beauty: "Who told her? Who made her feel it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her" (Morrison, Kindle).

Of course, the fictional Pecola Breedlove and was not the only young African-American women to feel as if her real worth and value would only be discovered if she had the trappings of white beauty. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical book of prose mixed with poetry, Maya Angelou engages in her own exploration of the internalization of white… [END OF PREVIEW]

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African American Literature.  (2014, March 18).  Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/african-american-literature/1456179

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"African American Literature."  Essaytown.com.  March 18, 2014.  Accessed December 11, 2018.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/african-american-literature/1456179.