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Within Native and African American literature and narratives, the role of an individual’s society dictates much of their personal characteristics, beliefs, and motifs. For cultural minorities, this rings especially true. The combined forces of their overall society’s culture and the ethnical subculture to which they belong often leads to a sense of isolation from America’s primary culture and a sense of belonging solely to one’s ethnic society. Within African American literature, the narrator generally belongs to a fairly well established ethnical subculture which offers a home even amongst a society which does not welcome the African American race.
In Native American literature, the sense of isolation is more prominent due to the near obliteration of the Native American race and, for survivors of this genocide, their forced assimilation into mainstream American culture.
In both cases however, separation from the common American culture is practically guaranteed, be it on the behalf of the individual or society. Johnson, the morally inconsistent anti-hero of Ann Petry’s short story Like a Winding Sheet, has a complex relationship with a society whose principles he detests but eventually conforms to.
His insistence on perpetrating his society’s ideal of masculinity leads him to defy his own morals and become a pawn for a system which approves of violence towards women. Set in the early 1940’s while World War II was still in full swing, Johnson’s world is one in which many American men, black and white, left their jobs to the women while they went off to fight overseas.
While this certainly challenged traditional gender roles, it did not eradicate them. For many women, this shift was empowering, bringing about the cultural icon Rosie the Riveter who encouraged women to set their aprons aside and enter the male dominated workforce. However many men had a very different outlook on the matter. This rings especially true for those, like Johnson, who stayed in the states to work alongside and often beneath women in factories, shipyards, and manufacturing plants. So, while women were beginning to gain recognition as useful members of society, men such as Johnson felt as though their masculinity was being challenged. They were not accustomed to obeying women, and felt entitled to the power and control that many women held over them. In Johnson’s case, this frustration announced itself through violence. Petry’s text is littered with examples of Johnson’s pent up aggression building until he reaches his tipping point. Interestingly enough, there are almost equally as many examples of his own morals barring the way for this aggression to erupt into the outside world.
On page 143 of Like a Winding Sheet, Petry writes, “He had to talk persuasively, urging her gently and it took time. But he couldn’t bring himself to talk to her roughly or threaten to strike her like a lot of men might have done. He wasn’t made that way.” The use of obligatory language like “had” and “couldn’t implies that Johnson was unsatisfied or very possibly unhappy with the nature of his relationship, and though he knew it was wrong, wished he could be more stern with his wife. He may not have been “made that way” but it seems as if a part of him wished that he was more like those men who were willing to raise a hand to their wife. It is as if he viewed his wife’s emotional burnouts as more of an inconvenience than a concern, and longed for the power to simply give the word and immediately silence her.
Another instance of Johnson’s contorted vision of male versus female power dynamics occurred when his supervisor, Mrs. Scott, scolded him for his tardiness. He lost his temper when Scott used a racial slur to refer to him, and intimidated her by balling his fists and visibly displaying the effort that it took to restrain his aggression. He does not swing, however. As Petry writes, “The only trouble was he couldn’t hit a woman. A woman couldn’t hit back the same way a man did,” (Petry 145). On the outside, his morals seem to center around peaceful ideals, however sexism is the true foundation of Johnson’s supposed inability to hit a woman. It may not be a hate-bred discrimination, but the belief that women are somehow unable to defend themselves is a form of discrimination nonetheless.
Of course, a man who struggled so much to contain such violence was bound to break at some point. It is no surprise then, that Johnson’s wife was the victim of his pent up fury. “She was standing close to him and that funny tingling started in his fingertips, went fast up his arms and sent his fist shooting straight for her face… He kept striking her and he thought with horror that something inside him was holding him, binding him to this act…” (Petry 148-149). Even as his own fists rained down upon the woman he loved, Johnson refused to accept responsibility.
Perry writes of his anger as something sentient, apart from himself. This aims to justify his actions and create a more relatable character, regardless of the wrong he has done. It seems almost understandable that man in his socioeconomic class, in the late 1940s, broke beneath the stress and unintentionally released that rage upon the one he held dearest. This irrational ability to somehow vindicate such a heinous crime is the product of Johnson’s society. In his world, in his eyes, his outburst was the result of Mae’s pestering and Scott’s badgering. He is shown as the poor victim who was pushed a little too far, rather than seen for what he truly is: a temperamental child with too much of an ego to accept a woman as his equal.
Author of I Could Be a Conjure Doctor, Lorenzo Ezell was an involved member of a hive mind society whose dangerous groupthink closely resembles the mental symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Much like victims of abusive relationships, Ezell and the other 13 slaves owned by Ned Lipscomb lingered under the impression that because “Old Ned Lipscomb was one de best massa in de whole county,” the oppression his slaves faced was somehow less objectionable than the oppression suffered by slaves of other white men (Ezell 26). When compared to the violent, bloody circumstances experienced by less fortunate slaves, it seemed to Lorenzo and his peers that they had a pretty good run at life. The oppressed were utterly blind to the brainwashing that their masters had subjected them to by granting them such small luxuries as edible food and their own garden patches.
These luxuries served to create a false sense of appreciation, and in many cases affection for their masters. Lorenzo Ezell was an extreme case of this mislead affection, going so far as to declare at one point, “I say I be happy iffen I could kill me just one Yankee. I hated dem ’cause dey hurt my white people,” (Ezell 29). Victims of Stockholm Syndrome exhibit practically identical behaviors, characterized by their tendency to sympathize and display compassion for their captors. In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned free detailed his grey status in a society which saw only in black and white.
Too educated and physically weak to be considered an average slave, and too dark skinned to be deemed equal to a white man, Frederick Douglass was an outlier in his divided nation. His educated language alone, when compared to the speech patterns and writings of other slaves in African American literature and narratives, proves his remarkable literacy in a time when education was by no means afforded to people of color. One particular theme that Douglass’ narrative shares with, say, Lorenzo Ezell’s I Could Be a Conjure Doctor is the subject of Hoodoo, an African American folk religion amounted from the combined beliefs of African Voodoo and Christianity.
When discussing the matter of Hoodoo, Ezell uses more colorful vernacular such as, “I could be a conjure doctor and make plenty money, but dat ain’t good. In slavery time dey’s men like dat regarded as bein’ dangerous. They make charms and put bad mouth on you,” (Ezell 31). As stated before, Ezell was a self educated man which led to his unique dialect, and it more closely mirrored that of the average slave than Frederick Douglass’. When speaking on the same matter of Hoodoo, Douglass says, “I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it… To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side,” (Douglass 24). Comparatively, the divide between Douglass and Ezell’s language likely reflects that difference which Douglass shared with the majority of his African American colleagues, particularly during his time as a slave.
Douglass also possessed a certain air of confidence which trumped that of all the other slaves in his plantation. He was well aware that he possessed a great deal of intelligence and, towards the end, a whole lot of spine. As the other slaves sat back and stared in awe, feeble Douglass physically retaliated against both his master and a farmhand. As Douglass describes the altercation, “The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had no blood from me, but I had from him,” (Douglass 25).
For this, even amongst his own African American culture, Douglass stood apart. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday detailed a unique relationship with his Kiowa and Cherokee cultures; one which focuses less on man’s connections with one another, and more on mankind’s connections with the natural world. Momaday’s journey to Rainy Mountain was taken unaccompanied, yet throughout his expedition he was never quite alone. Guided by a strong sense of solidarity with those who, like Momaday, refuse to embrace the colonist idea of claiming dominion over land, he traveled through a communally appreciated world in which man belonged to nature, not the other way around.
His cultural perspective instilled the belief that silence and words were not binaries; that they could coexist and may have even greater meaning when in collaboration with each other than they did alone. In these ways, his community guided him towards his journey to Rainy Mountain, and led him to appreciate each step with a holy reverence. When speaking of the plains in which he was raised, Momaday says, “Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun,” (Momaday 60). Later, as he reminisces on his grandmother’s stories of the Kiowa’s travels to a new home, he states, “The sun is at home on the plains. Precisely there does it have the certain character of a god,” (Momaday 61). He saw the divine and beautiful in every aspect of nature, as taught by his Native American culture, so that even when left completely alone in the wilderness, the spiritual solidarity which he shared with his community manifested itself in the natural world.
Gerald Vizenor’s play Ishi and the Wood Ducks tells of the uncommon experiences faced by Ishi, the last remaining Native of the Yana tribe, who had the rare position of being the sole embodiment of his entire culture. With no living members of his tribe to live with and learn from, Ishi lived alone amongst nature, fending for himself until his discovery at around age 50. Upon his discovery, Ishi moved into the University of California, Berkeley to be studied by anthropologists. There he took a drastic leap from alone in the wilderness to constantly surrounded by all sorts of people in the heart of the modern world. Ishi’s unique stance as a Yana man living in modern America meant that his culture and his society did not align.
Whereas he knew and understood only Yana culture, the society he was living in belonged to the American culture, providing a very strange relationship between himself and his society. The modern world viewed Ishi as both wise and ignorant, and accepted him as a teacher, but refused to acknowledge him as an equal. This dynamic is seen most clearly through his relationship with anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Ishi once says about Kroeber, “Big Chiep was lonesome, a museum talker, and he wanted to be like me, with stories out of the mountains,” (Vizenor 303). It seems as though those, like Koreber, who sought Ishi out as a mentor craved raw, authentic culture, the likes of which could be difficult to find in modern America.
Ishi provided rare insight to a culture previously thought to be extinct, and for that he was treated as more of a spectacle than a sentient human. But though he missed his people the Yana, Ishi did not seem to have a problem with being viewed as an outlier in American society. In some cases, he even worked to further isolate himself by refusing to give up certain information about his culture, and fooling others into thinking he was some ignorant savage for his own amusement. Ishi participated in a culture which belonged only to him, while living in a society which belonged to all but him.
The awkward and painful transition from Native American culture to mainstream American culture was best relayed in Wendy Rose’s essay Neon Scars. The autobiographical account tracked her shift into the modern world, and the way she was received into it. She spoke of a society which was unwilling to listen to her, but perfectly happy to talk on her behalf. Of this, she wrote, “I hate it when other people write about my alienation and anger,” (Rose 95). She spoke of a world which is quick to tell the story of her people, but refused to include the violence, the evil, and the strength of those who endured it. When she did speak out about the harsh realities of the discrimination of Native Americans, she was faced with little more than pity.
“There is both a need for and a revulsion from pity. More than pity, I have needed respect,” (Rose 95). Rose required little more than simple acknowledgement that her mere survival was a significant feat, but was faced with little more than disconnected sympathy from a world that still did not accept her as equal. In her frustration to simply assimilate, as the European Americans pressed her people to do all along, Rose inquired, “Is my survival the final proof I have needed that I belong here after all?” (Rose 95). While the rest of the country moved on around her, putting the history of the European American exchange with Native Americans behind them, Rose was not afforded that luxury. She, along with many other Natives who suffered unspeakable cruelty and discrimination were forced to live with the aftermath of it all, while the rest of the world glided happily on by.
Culture and society are major aspects of every person’s life, and when evaluated offer a lot of insight into the most personal of features. In Native and African American literature, society has proven to be the difference between a hermit and a confident man. Society’s influence transformed morally straight men into abusers, slaves into free men, and savages into mentors. Mainstream American culture both isolated and included ethnic minorities, shaping and distorting lives, all at its own convenience. Native and African American literature and narratives provide rare and useful insight as to the sheer extent of society’s impact on a given cultural minority, and shows just how much one man’s discrimination can change another man’s life.
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