Ralph Ellison began his 1952 novel with the sentence; “I am an invisible man. ” (Ellison 3) These five words summed up the way in which the majority of Black Americans felt about their place in society at the time. The Civil Rights Movement was still years away, and the caste of American society had placed the Black American near the bottom. The self-awareness of the Black American was limited to only what the white establishment would allow – and in the majority of the country, that was very little. However, the essence for the change that would occur had already been born.
The awakening, in the late 1950s, of the Black American would take place in religion, politics, self-awareness and literature. This would become exemplified by the manner in which women in the black communities were treated. The rise of domestic violence was an issue, even in 1950s America – and in both the homes of blacks and whites. There would be, though, differences in which this awakening would manifest itself. For some, like those who would march with Martin Luther King, non-violence and pacifism would be the dominate tool to their awakening.
For others, the awakening would come in the form of a religious rebirth, and strong assertion of their place in society. Those who would come to admire Malcolm X would see him as a visionary, a warrior, and a martyr to the cause of equality. Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. His early life would be marred with violence at the hand of racist attacks on his family. One such event, as Malcolm himself would chronicle in his autobiography took place when he was four years old. Two white men set fire to his home in the dead of night.
“Our home was burning around us”; he recounted. (X 3) His father, a minister, would give chase and shoot at the two men, but they would escape. The investigation into the incident would see more attention placed on the gun which his father used to defend his family, than on the two attackers who nearly killed them. While his father was a large and strong man, Malcolm recounted that it was his mother who enforced the discipline in the family. “I’ve said that my mother was the one who whipped me”, Malcolm X wrote.
(7) This early distinction about the roles of authority would affect his adulthood. The next important female influence would come in his teenage years. As a numbers runner for a local book maker, Malcolm would the former secretary to famed mafia man, Dutch Schultz. The wife of his boss, along with her associate Gladys Hampton, as Malcolm would tell, “were the only two women I ever met in Harlem whose business ability I really respected”. (117) There would be a vast change in the life of Malcolm X in his early adulthood.
Just before he was to turn twenty-one, Malcolm would be sent to prison for grand theft. His time in prison would see him lose all faith in God, and be called Satan by his fellow inmates. (154) His last years of prison life would be spent, at the direction of Elijah Muhammad, reading and educating himself about history, culture and the ways of the world. This education into the history of the Black Culture, and the ways in which it had been subdued by the dominant white traders, would prepare him for his eventual induction into the Muslim faith.
The changes that over took Malcolm X would manifest themselves in a way the enabled him the confidence, drive and self-worth to become a minister for the Nation of Islam. The importance of removing the damage done to the Black man, by the white establishment was paramount to the rebirth of Black culture and the rise of Islamic traditions in the United States. The problems that plagued the Black population, according to the views of Islam were the fact that “the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus!
” (222) This brainwashing came to create the rift between the black members of society, and between the man and women of that culture. “The black man needs to start today to shelter and protect and respect his black women! ” (223) This quote from one of X’s early sermons illustrated to important issues in the black culture. Firstly, that there was a responsibility being neglected in the role of the black male to uphold his place of caregiver to his wife and family – as well as to the community as a whole. This was an important issue to realize, as the teachings of Islam would tell.
“The white man wants black men to stay immoral, unclean, an ignorant”. (223) This would lead the strict code of conduct that was as the heart of daily life in the Nation of Islam. However the second issue that this concept created was the hierarchy within the Nation of Islam. As with the white Christian faith, the men of the faith were formally of a higher order than that of the women. While the faith would preach protection of women to men, it would not teach the women to stand for their rights as strongly.
Though the Nation of Islam would not teach the subjugation of the women of the nation, they would not be inspired to achieve the levels of strength or power as the men were. The other side of the awakening is illustrated from the point of view of Maya Angelou. From early in her childhood, as she would recount in I know why the caged bird sings, there were vast differences in the ways that girls and boys were seen – even within the black culture. One early example of this came when she and her brother were moved to their grandmother’s home in Stamps, Arkansas.
“When I was described by our playmates as shit color [her brother Bailey] was lauded for his velvet-black skin. ” (Angelou 23) The differences that the young Angelou would see in both her skin color and her gender would affect her greatly throughout her childhood. She would recount how her grandmother, who she would grow to call mamma and her grandfather, would be ordered around their small grocery store by the local whites. They called my uncle by his first name and ordered him around the store.
He, to my crying shame, obeyed them in his limping dip-straight-dip fashion. “Here’s sugar, Miz Potter, and here’s baking powder. You didn’t buy soda last month, you’ll be probably needing some. ” (31) The scenes of most stress came to her from the taunting of the white children. While her grandmother was the target of the most name calling and sour events, she was personally affected by the ability of young white girls to offend and taunt an adult with no consequence. Her early exposure to sexual identity came through the machinations of her brother.
He early sexual exploits consisted of luring the “impressed, the curious, the adventurous into the gray shadows […] to play Momma and Poppa. ” (173) In the backyard of their home, Bailey had constructed a tent of sticks and old sheets – where, during these adventures, Maya would play child and stand guard. Though she had recognized the concept of sexual identity with her first crush, it was witnessing her brother’s “pathetic struggles” (173) that finalized her understanding. The importance of religion also played a strong role in her early life.
Many of the values that were passed on to her from her grandmother were those of the Christian church. Many events in her youth were influenced by the religious doctrines of tolerance and chastity. While her brother felt it necessary to explore his carnal pleasures, Maya held herself firm with only notes from her suitor. The punishment for his infidelities, would be illustrated by the musings of his girlfriend’s aunt, after she had run away with a rail-road steward: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”, she told their grandmother.
(179) However, as she would age, the specter of racism would grow again. In her adolescence, she would develop a very bad cavity in one of her teeth. While the usual method of caring for such things was to have her grandmother pull out the offending tooth with a string, this case would need a dentist. “Dentist Lincoln” was the only dentist in town, and a friend of momma. She had lent him some money when his business was not doing well, and Maya’s grandmother felt that he would help them in this time of need.
However, his policy of not treating negroes took precedence over the acts of kindness that had been shown to him: “Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than a nigger’s. ” (225) While the fury that would come from her grandmother would end the business of Dentist Lincoln, she was aware, with no doubt, that there was a strong and definite distinction between whites and blacks from that time on. The next strong instance of racism came during World War II. Her family had moved to Los Angeles, and was then witness to the Japanese internment that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“The Japanese were not whitefolks. Their eyes, language and customs belied the white skin and proved to their dark successors that since they didn’t have to be feared, neither did they have to be considered. ” (250) This stark example of the power and hatred that could be mustered by the white establishment instilled within Maya Angelou a feeling of empowerment and drive. Though she would spend some time educating herself and traveling the country, it was not with out the love of a “boyfriend” that she could fully understand her place in the world.
“What I needed was a boyfriend. A boyfriend would clarify my position to the world, and, even more important, to myself. ” (334) Though seemingly a defeatist point of view, the empowerment that Angelou felt when she realized that she needed to be needed, and defined would work to show her as a strong and feminine persona. The use of a man as a counterpart to her own self-definition was a tool by which she was able to become valid to the world. This union would culminate in the birth of her son – and the definition of her as a woman.
Though there was no marriage, and a sign of disgrace fell on her family, it was the justification of her self as a mother that allowed her to feel the power she held as a person. The lives of these two important historical figures illustrate the need for self-identity within the Black American culture. Without this identity, one is an “invisible man”, as Ellison said. The seeking of personal understanding, be it through the eyes of religious doctrine, the role that accompanies motherhood or some other form of personal vindication, it is a necessary part of becoming human.
The invisibility that Ellison spoke of was not physical but of social ignorance. The lack of identity that the blacks of the United States were allowed to have was caused by the limitations placed on them by the white establishment. People like Malcolm X over came this by creating a persona of power, based on the power of religion. Or, through the self-determination of Maya Angelou, where the power of personal understanding can overcome the limits that are placed on a person by society.
The sexual limitations on members of minority groups also create more struggles for the culture. However, as seen with the success of Maya Angelou and the rise of the Nation of Islam as a powerful and popular organization, these issues are being overcome as well. WORKS CITED Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. Random House Inc. New York. 1952. Angelou, Maya. I Know Why The Caged Birds Sings. Chivers Press. Random House Inc. New York. 1969. Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove Press. Parallax Publishing Co. Vermont. 1965.
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