Author, Alice Walker’s, Elethia, is a story of young Elethia who struggles to overcome a legacy of passivity, marginalization, inferiority, and misrepresentation of the Negro. To define her own identity she must break free and simultaneously hold on to the central figure that causes her to doubt her identity. Uncle Albert is a symbol of racism and the blindness that oftentimes presents itself within the Negro culture. There is a quote given by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “there are many Negros who will never fight for freedom, but will gladly accept it when it comes!” Dr. King’s remarks are favored by me in the fight against racism and I understand it to mean this. That while segregation, impartiality, brutality and blatant disrespect are present, there will always be a certain percentage of people, belonging to an oppressed culture, who will idly sit by and accept the countless improprieties set before them while others continuously fight to break down the walls of bigotry.
In the town in which Elethia made her home, Uncle Albert had been a fixture in the window of the Old Uncle Albert’s restaurant for good length of time. So long that some of the old-timers, who had known Uncle Albert before his murder, were victims of fading memories, “perhaps both memory and eyesight were wrong (Brown p.307).” As a humanist, I am annoyed that the story is absent, perhaps accidentally or possibly on purpose, that not one member of the African American community protested or took any actions to give Uncle Albert’s likeness a release. I understand fear. The fear of retribution and death at the hands of white supremacists, however years, an entire generation in fact, had passed and Uncle Albert’s remains still stood smiling in the white-only eatery. Since slavery religious instruction was aimed “to inculcate meekness and docility (Aptheker 122).”
What about after the doors of the church were closed? Throughout the short story, there is no mention of a revolutionary plot or rebellion by any one person or persons of the community. Elethia, young and still not sure of who she was, made the horrific discovery that Uncle Albert was stuffed as if he were and animal. At that moment, she along with her friends made the conscious decision that smiling Uncle Albert had to be excluded as a fixture in a plated glass window in order to give dignity to the Negro culture. I am a firm believer in non-violence but only when you are dealing with people who share the same view of non-violence. The story does not give the reader any hint that there was a rumble from the community of Negro people at a time when a loud noise should have sounded off. At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy, the passiveness of the entire African American community of the small southern town gave credence to the myth of the docile Negro.
Throughout American history, any person or persons of the American society, whom skin is deemed to be colored has been marginalized since he has placed his foot on American soil. The Negros place in society has been viewed as less important than those of his white brethrens. In Elethia, a young black boy’s privates were left nailed to a post for the town’s people, which included blacks and whites to see. I will take this crude act and look at in two ways to support my theory of marginalization: the first angle will be taken from a white societal viewpoint in that a young Negro boy is not looked upon as a human being. He is simply a person of color who is absent of pathos, and intellect. His status in the general public is placed the lowest echelon on the societal chain, therefore he does not warrant the right to be buried properly in a grave. The act of inhumanity can secondly be viewed by the African American community as an act of intimidation by the oppressor to further propel the theory of marginalization and minimize their self worth as citizens of a so called pluralist society.
This marginalization theory leads to societal exclusion, the act of leaving one social class at a disadvantage while elevating another social class to point where there becomes a false sense of superiority. This false sense of superiority can and will result in inferiority, a mental prison. The bedrock of inferiority, that is the views that white America or Americans have toward their opposites, who are black Americans derived from the words set forth by one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, in his Letters to the State of Virginia. In its fourteenth query he describes what he perceives the Negro to be: “The negro differences which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?
Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious (1) experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep.
A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move.
I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch (2). Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar ;oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet (Jefferson).”
Mr. Jefferson claims that the Negro is less beautiful than whites and that Negro man desires the free flowing long hair of the white woman over that of the Negro women. He says the Negro lacks intelligence, so much so that he doesn’t know when to lie down when his body calls for rest. The Negro is quite capable of imagining, but lacks the skill to produce works of art. The Negro has a foul odor. The Negro has a different pulmonary apparatus than that of the Anglo- man. Thomas Jefferson’s query is the foundation in which biased racial views were built upon and the home in which inferiority breeds. In the context of Elethia, she was not allowed to eat in the white-only establishment, however, she was permitted to take a menial position as the kitchen help. This added to her as well as the other Negro worker’s persistent feelings of inadequacy. “Not good enough to eat here but good enough to clean your slop jar (Anderson, 323)!” She was able to look but not touch.
In Walker’s, Elethia, Uncle Albert not only was he angry when he and his family learned that slavery had ended a decade prior to his knowledge. He felt inferior because due to the oppression of his owner he became an paradigm of Thomas Jefferson’s statement “the Negro lacks intelligence (Jefferson query XIV).” Uncle Albert did not possess the skill or intellect that kept him ignorant to the laws and abolishment of slavery. His lack of knowledge perpetuated the feelings of inferiority. Another example of inadequacy came to pass when Elethia learned the truth of Uncle Albert’s remains. She saw this as a mockery and another disregard for a Negro life. She viewed Uncle Albert’s standing in the window as a shadow of racism. The plate glass window holding Uncle Albert’s smiling remains is a misrepresentation of the African American Community. He was placed there like a caricature advertisement to entice patrons to dine at the all white facility where they will be handled with the utmost care by our friendly waiter, Uncle Albert.
First, the African American old-timers in the text make it clear that Uncle Albert was nobodies Uncle, “and wouldn’t sit still for anyone to call him that either (Brown 308)”. Second he never smiled, in fact the text leads the reader to believe that Uncle Albert was a bit of a surly man, who was filled with a lot of anger and nowhere to extinguish it. If occasionally he managed to open his mouth in the form of a smile, there would be vacancies where teeth had once dwelled. When the old timers, who were members of the African American community, talked about Uncle Albert, they used his name Albert Porter. This momentarily afforded a black man a little slice of dignity, a representation of a man lacking inferiorities. With the removing of the young black boy’s genitals from the post, Uncle Albert gave the boy and his family a slice of the same pie of dignity; a slice that represented that someone showed compassion for another human soul.
In my opinion, the placing of Uncle Albert in the window of the segregated eatery, it says that the Negro will always be less than, enslaved, and subservient in life or in death so he should “grin and act like a nigger (Brown 309).” When in slavery, Uncle Albert was beaten severely because his oppressor wanted him to forget his past. This was a blatant misrepresentation of him and every black person housed between the walls of racism. Uncle Albert refused to forget. His refusal brought him additional pain and suffering. Stubbornness would not allow him to forget and succumb to the smiling happy Negro. In finding ones identity, one oftentimes has to look at others.
Noted scholoar, WEB DuBois explore the Negro culture. In regards to identity he tells us about the double consciousness. “This double consciousness is a psychological sense experienced by the African Americans whereby they possess the national identity, “an American,” within a nation that despises their racial identity and that blacks see themselves only through the eyes of white Americans to measure intelligence beauty, and a sense of self-worth by standards set by others (DuBois 4).”
Young Elethia was coming of age and her inquisitive nature uncovered truths and these truths led to more inquiries. Who am I? Who is Uncle Albert? Am I my community? Am I Uncle Albert? Am I going to let someone who keeps my community in oppression define who WE should be? Between the lines of the text these questions rang out to me. The title of the short story is Elethia, which when you search for names for girls you find that Elethia means healer. Was Elethia taking on the role as healer for the entire African American community? Was she only there to heal the memory of Uncle Albert? In a search for Elethia’s identity, I think that maybe the author, Walker, purposely named her character Elethia as a subtle way to aide her in the restorative process against inequality. The removal of the symbol of pain weaved together with a mythological symbol that helps lessen the pain in order to make a society whole, is nothing short of genius.
It not only helped in the formation of young Elethia it gave a self-esteem booster to the African American community. The absence of Uncle Albert in effect may have unmasked the veil in which W.E.B. DuBois says the black folk live under (14). Uncle Albert’s persona displayed in the window puts me in the mind of Aunt Jemima, a mammy black face figure, with a big smile, whom is overly obedient, and whose primary goal in life is to be happy and subservient to the Anglo community. This is viewed as a negative stereotype in the African American community, not just in the small southern town, but all over America. Due to the veil worn by the African American community, Aunt Jemima was accepted by the African American community before the veil was lifted.
The Aunt Jemima persona was juxtaposed as to what Uncle Albert was in life. With him no longer in the window that element has disappeared and the Negro has the freedom to create his own identity. By removing him from the window and giving him a proper cremation, the ‘young self imposed civil rights activist/reconciliators of the community’ not only released him from the glass plated walls of slavery but they gave him a spiritual release to heal his soul and the souls of the community. Not only was Uncle Albert a remembrance of pain he became a commemoration of healing when Elethia along with her friends decided in an act to resist racism decided to free Uncle Albert it became a cleansing for the African American’s of the town. By keeping his ashes it was a reminder of the past; albeit a past Uncle Albert refused to forget. Uncle Albert was not allowed to be free, to go off to college to be and do better things. He was trapped.
Keeping his ashes was also a symbol of humbleness to not forget where you started from. Elethia saw change that disallowed her and her friends to become trapped. This change allowed members of the African American community everywhere to claim and create who they wanted to be for themselves, as well as their families. In Elethia’s travels in life she had ran into several Uncle Alberts and Aunt Albertas who were not permitted to exist (Brown 309). The African American individuals whom were not permitted to be seen or heard by means of oppression, or their own lack or inability to seek a better life. His ashes are a constant reminder of who she is now in the present, how far she has come, and how much further she needs to maintain the feeling of wholeness.
Although Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, it gave me the definition of identity and I believe it is reasonably accurate. Identity is defined as sameness, or whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable. By transcribing the memory of Uncle Albert it did just that and also Elethia also created a legacy. This legacy that can be retold without censure or wrong misgivings which gives legacy gives the African American Community a place in history; a place that says yes our people do and did exist. In addition a legacy is about the way one lived or is living in hopes that the future outcome will have results greater than the past.
Elethia’s legacy also provides the African American community with history that mirrors the way they look, traditions that existed, the way they speak, and the way they were forced to live. This culmination of factors adds to Elethia as well as the Negro community and adds to each ones identity. I once read somewhere that without a legacy the meaning of life is sometimes lost. Had some of the Uncle Alberts and Aunt Albertas in Elethia path lost their meaning of life and may that loss caused them to be blind? Maybe or maybe not, however one struggle to overcome the products of racism can definitely effect the way ones views himself. In conclusion a legacy can oftentimes become the catalyst that brings about social change and is a definite component of identity.
Anderson, J.D., My Bouquet of Kisses, Esquire Publications, Inc.: 3rd edition
(April 2011). Aptheker, Henry., American Negro Slave Revolts, Publisher: Intl Pub; 5 edition (August 1983). Brown, Wesley & Ling, Amy, Imagining America Stories from the Promised Land: Persea Books, Inc.: 1st edition (2002). DuBois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk, Barnes & Nobles Classics with New Introduction (1903) Republished 2003. Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia, (1781) www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-by-thomas-jefferson-1781-1782-2. www.wikipedia.com Identity. Retrieved August 4, 2012.