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African-American literature has long reflected some of the racial disparities which have separated this populace from their Caucasian counterparts, and much of this literature has shed light on the ethnic disparity between these demographics and how drastically race relations divided groups over the years. There are many notable examples of authors who highlighted these scenarios, most notably within the Harlem Renaissance as an example; however, some of the most prominent writers, such as Kate Chopin and Langston Hughes, also called attention to concurrent issues such as women’s rights or the dream of freedom for equality.
As such, the “color line” as Ramon Saldivar defines it, exemplifies this form of literature and how it imparts this experience for those who are unfamiliar or unaware of these issues. Saldivar explains this phenomenon by way of a quotation: “W. E. B. DuBois’s momentous pronouncement in 1901, that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” could not have been a more accurate assessment of the fate of race during the twentieth century.
In the early twenty-first century, the color line remains a central problem of American modernity, but one no longer defined exclusively in shades of black or white, nor in the exact manner DuBois imagined”. As such, these authors hold up a mirror to African-American experience and how it permeates or impacts every aspect of the individuals’’ lives as well as those of the community which surrounds them.
Kate Chopin is a primary author who gives voice to these interchanges.
Her short story, “Desiree’s Baby” was based on her environment while she was living in New Orleans, and so she was well aware of racial discrimination and divides within her locale. The character of Desiree, then, is initially an enigma, since she was found abandoned on the doorstep of Madame Valmonde, the woman who adopted her and ending up raising her. However, since Desiree’s origins were not known, this raises the question as to her background and whether she was of “pure” white blood and background as opposed to black or African American descent. Her marriage to Armand was based upon this very premise, and when their son is born, Armand’s coldness towards her seems unprompted and unexplainable until one day Desiree notices that her son and the son of her maid are similar in skin tone, which causes Armand to conclude that “you [Desiree] are not white”.
This leads Desiree to despair, and to message her mother Madame Valmonde as to what they should do, since Armand “no longer loved her” and “He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul. Moreover, he no longer loved her, because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name”. This dialogue reflects the overt racism present even in the shadow of Armand’s love for Desiree; he had literally fallen in love at first sight until he thought that she was perhaps black, and then he was willing to simply discard her and her son as if they were meaningless for him. The ultimate irony, however, comes at the story’s conclusion, after Desiree has sacrificed the lives of herself and their son and Armand is burning their belongings, when Armand discovers a bundle of letters between his parents which reveal that “Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery’.
The fact that Armand is the carrier of “questionable” blood reveals the tragic irony of these actions and how this form of racism played out with deadly consequences. Likewise, Hughes’ work “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ (1926) is a self-reflection of himself as both an individual and an artist; as an African-American writing against the backdrop of an America that has not entirely decided as to their place or their role in society, as does Zora Neale Huston in her work “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”. Each of these works focus on their own heritage, and also seek to find their footing in the world based on their background in a post-Civil War society, in which slaves have been freed, and yet these same individuals are not acknowledged as peers or equals merely due to the nature of who they are as people.
Hughes states that “And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible”. This statement reflects Hughes’ desire to surpass merely being viewed as a “Negro” or as “just another black man” but rather to be viewed instead as an artist, or, even more importantly, as someone who was worthy of being an equal, and therefore treated as other artists were (who were not of African-American backgrounds).
Hence, Hughes’ longing is a tangible element which is readily recognizable here. Along similar lines, Hurston’s lines demonstrate a similar desire. “I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando. The native whites rode dusty horses,…”. Her initial line of “remembering when she became colored” mirrors the perception that many small children have, in which they do not regard one another from a racial or skin color perspective, but rather as simply another individual just like themselves.
It is not until they become older, and others instill racial divides upon them, that they become aware of being “colored” or otherwise “different” from other people. Although Hurston similarly takes pride in her identity, as does Hughes, there is also an undercurrent of shame for being ostracized for who they are, as well as a wish to be liked for who they are at the same time without judgment. Thus, these works reflect the ”color line” which keeps these individuals on the outside looking inward and hoping for acceptance and validation from those who surround them.
Frances E.W. Harper’s poems “Learning to Read” and “The Slave Mother” demonstrate and give voice to freed slaves from these time periods. These individuals were often forbidden to learn to read or write, or to own property, or to have many of the rights that most of us take for granted; as such, gaining ground in these areas was both an act of rebellion against the past wrongs which helped to keep these groups oppressed along with preventing them from gaining independence and learning who they were in their own identities. Harper’s words help to illustrate these scenarios and bring them into context for audiences for whom this may not be a familiar subject. For example, in “Learning to Read”, Harper states that “Very soon the Yankee teachers/Came down and set up school.
But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,—/It was agin’ their rule”. These lines directly create the image of how freed slaves were set up for schooling after the conclusion of the Civil War, despite the protests of other groups (such as the “rebs” or the Rebellion, the former slave owners) who disliked such advances because it was “against the rules” (and could potentially place the former slaves and slave owners on equal footing). Hence, these kinds of interactions were forbidden as much as possible, and in fact, black and white schoolchildren were often kept separated and segregated for years to come in an attempt to sustain the inequality between the groups. Harper goes on to state that “Our masters always tried to hide/Book learning from our eyes;/Knowledge did’nt agree with slavery ’Twould make us all too wise.”
Harper conveys the knowledge that she realizes and knows, that an educated population will not succumb to slavery and therefore that form of education is not permitted by those in favor of this practice. The poem “The Slave Mother” helps to graphically illustrate some of the fallout which occurs from these deeds, particularly when families are torn apart and children are literally torn away from their parents to be sold: “He is not hers, for cruel hands/May rudely tear apart/The only wreath of household love/That binds her breaking heart”. These lines help to drive home the brutality, heartbreak, and devastation which directly accompanied slavery and demonstrate why the practice.
Needed to end and why those who were able to move forward from it should have been given every possible chance to live free and happily as equal human beings to all others in their societies. While the specter of racism and the colored line is one which still, unfortunately, persists even unto the present day, these authors and poets were able to create enduring works that graphically depicted their dreams, their hopes, their desire for equality, their heritage, and their identities. By recalling where they had been, and the circumstances which they as humans and as a race had been able to overcome and triumph, these writers helped to secure their place in literary history while clearly defining the uprising of African Americans moving forward into their new life roles.
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