The Controversy of Normativity Passing

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

In a society where the definition of normativity is defined by the hegemonic society, passing becomes the ultimate form of escape.  In literary works – such as: Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Krik! Krak? by Edwidge Danticat, Space Between Us by Thrity N. Umrigar, and Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa – various forms of passing are demonstrated. Passing in this sense, is escaping from one’s true identity to mold into the identity of what society deems as dominant and “normal.” While most people associate passing with race, passing is really just one individual trying to identify as what society deems as “normal.” In other words, passing for normativity – which is a white, heterosexual hegemonic society.

Before Western influence, cultures thrived in acceptance. In Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes, addresses how Western influence makes other cultures ignorant to their own traditions. “Esi was thinking that the whole thing sounded so absolutely lunatic and so ‘contemporary African’ that she would save her sanity by not trying to understand it. The only choice left to her was to try and enter into the spirit of it” (Aidoo 91), Ali had proposed to Esi, though he had a first wife. Esi understanding traditional African culture was confused as to why she had to wear an engagement ring. She was accustom to the traditional African way of life and aware of men taking on multiple spouses. Due to Ali being reconstructed into this Western way of thinking, he is coming in and trying to impose a Western version of marriage on a traditional African way of life. Cultures, to some degree, cast more judgement now. Disabilities have always been unaccepted in many societies, but Western influence only further enhances this ignorance. People are born the way they are and they cannot help the way in which they are born.

The education system has been taken over. In Cracking India Lenny is being nurtured from her home. She had been withdrawn from school due to her condition of being diagnosed with polio. It appears as though her disability defines her, when she has not yet been given the chance to explore the realm of education. As the novel progresses, it is clear that Lenny is smarter than she looks. She has an awareness to the world she lives in and the people around her.

Society forces people to attempt to pass as someone who does not have a cognitive learning disorder. This results from the ignorant gazes of those who do not care to understand and just want to box people who are different from them. Instances in the media and literature display how people try to further handicap people who already have a disability:

Wagging his finger over my head into Ayah’s alarmed face, he tut-tuts: “Let her walk. Shame, shame! Such a big girl in a pram! She’s at least four!” … But back he bounces, bobbing up and down. “So what?’ he says, resurrecting his smile. ‘Get up and walk! Walk! You need the exercise more than other children! How will she become strong, sprawled out like that in her pram? …” (Sidhwa 12).

In Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Crack India, Lenny is a young girl who was diagnosed with polio. As a result of having polio, she was pulled out of school and under the watchful care of a nanny. She is misunderstood, like so many other children like her who have been labeled disabled. The scene above represents an advocate like my mother trying to promote the advancement of Lenny as she grows older. The gentleman recognizes that she is being hindered and reprimands Aayah for continuing to hamper Lenny.

A crack in the foundation is all society looks at. But who’s to judge where the crack comes from? Why is it that these innocent children who suffer from a disability in learning, but are in all essence happy, deemed as a source for this faltered foundation? Is not those who judge whom create such a rift? Judgement is the source of violence. The Ku Klux Klan judged skin color and used that as their motive to terrorize the African American community.

Power, control, and blending in are reasons as to why people pass – whether by force or by choice. “History teaches us that, in certain circumstances, it is very easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people” (Cabral 53), looking at the words of Amilcar Cabral, the system of society becomes the foreigner imposing on the young, innocent minds of individuals. Society creates the curriculum that adults must instill in their children. Over the years, the curriculum has transformed into a system surrounding testing. Youth today are required to attend school in order to memorize the materials to pass tests rather than actually learn valuable skills and lessons that they can then use in their everyday lives. As a result, people who have a cognitive learning disability are punished. Unless they can perform at a level of average or above average learning capacity, people are destined to fail. Cabral goes on to state that “In fact , to take up arms to dominate a people is, above all, to take up arms to destroy , or at least to neutralize, to paralyze, its cultural life” (Cabral 53). In some ways, the systems within society are destroying a group people who are different from its definition of normal. Destroying, although it is a powerful word, accurately portrays some of the effects that society has on some people. In society, adults are still living a thin line between passing and living their life in their truth. Racialized passing is still occurring due to the injustices that negatively impact the African American community.

The experience of colonial domination shows that, in the effort to perpetuate exploitation, the colonizer not only creates a system to repress the cultural life of the colonized people; he also provokes and develops the cultural alienation of a part of the population, either by so-called assimilation of indigenous people, or by creating a social gap between the indigenous elites and the popular masses (Cabral 57).

By segregating people who are the designated “other” from people who are not, the systems within society are propagating the notion of division in society.

Society is built upon division. Races, cultures, or disabilities construct who has the upper hand in society. This divide reminisces to a phrase within Cracking India: “There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warris Road? How will I ever get to Godmother’s then?” (Sidhwa 101). With all the divisions being created within society, there is going to be a break. People who are disabled in some form of fashion are not a disease to the country. Society needs to stop creating this invisible barrier and portraying people who are mentally slow or disabled as being outcasts. They are human beings just like everyone else, and deserve the same amount of respect if not more. While the rest of society continuously judges one another, the children within this classroom see no differences. Everyone is the same to them.

Love is so vital to the survival of being an “other” in the United States. Children who are born with a mental and/or physical disability become vulnerable to the world. It becomes clear to see how easily someone could take advantage of any of the children. Where Lenny holds some intelligence, she is naïve. She is willing and open to conversing with people whom she does not know and is intrigued by some of the men that Aayah brings around. Similar to Lenny was this one child, who continued to reference women as being his mom. It showed that he was capable of going home with stranger. Other children are aware of different people, but accept what they are told. The love and compassion these young children have are similar to a particular line within Krik? Krak!: “It’s so easy to love somebody, I tell you, when there’s nothing else around” (Danticat 96). Marie says this after retelling her life story. It is clear that she longs to be loved and to love. She has lost everything and has nothing. Love, in Haiti, is essential to surviving. Lenny yearns to be affected because she is an outcast. Marie simply just wants to blend in to society and feel safe. The old president of Haiti is like society within the United States. He instilled fear of safety within the people. Society, today, just is not safe anymore. People have more ways to shield their true demeanor. In addition, in schools such as this one, the children are divided and made to appear as outsiders. All over the world, people must fight to survive for whatever reason. Those who must fight the hardest, are the people who suffer the greatest disparities. The way Aayah loves Lenny and the way some of these other characters receive love from people who look past their flaws is similar to the love Sethe has for children in Toni Morison’s Beloved. Sethe kills one of her children in order to save her child from the hands of slavery. While these families can’t bare the disability that their child has, they are attentive and understanding. Some of the children have parents that don’t care enough about their well-being and look at them as problems because they can’t take care of themselves.

Like Lenny, many of these children are underestimated. Some are skilled in the art of drawing, while others are extremely personable. Each child is unique and possesses his/her own way of learning to survive within society. While the more impaired children need extra help and attention, there is still a unique attribute in which they can contribute to society that is also useful. Some children grow up to be examples of people whom we should pay more attention to.

The most common form of passing in a school system can be seen between children who have a mental – cognitive – disability and those who do not. In Ms. Christine Fiorello’s class, she teaches children who are cognitively disabled that range in age from five years old to ten years old. The dynamic of how the school system categorizes children is fascinating. There seems to be a disconnect. The school board has no sympathy to those who are considered “others.” Nowadays, schools are designed for testing and not necessarily providing skills that are essential for surviving in the real world. As a result, children who are enrolled in special education due to a cognitive disorder, are suffering.

Runny nose. Loud rambunctious child-like voices. Pounding footsteps. These are the noises one can hear when they enter the Harrington Elementary School located in Lynn, Massachusetts. For those who are unfamiliar with the city of Lynn, it is a city dominated by immigrants and impoverished, working class people. The Harrington Elementary School is a public elementary school that caters to children who function as standardized, cognitive learning children and to those who suffer some sort of mental disability in grade levels preschool through fifth grade. A school is the perfect place to locate various identities and how society forces people into compromising situations.

After visiting the classes at the Harrington Elementary School, one realizes how ostracized children who have a disability really are. A greater love is made for these children. They have an innocence that radiates and seems everlasting. A no judgment zone that can teach people today how we should treat one another.  One would most likely prefer to be in a classroom full of students who are mentally disabled. They don’t judge based on someone’s skin color or style of hair, and that in fact would feel quite refreshing. Getting a hands on experience working with children who are cognitively disabled and seeing what makes them so different, enables people to get a better understanding of who these children are and what type of education they really need and deserve. The major difference is the simple fact that the majority of them do not discriminate. Yes they learn at a much slower rate than the average student and many of them also have behavioral issues, but for the most part, they are friendly and misunderstood.

Students who have a cognitive learning disability with have three disparities against them. Just looking at the basics, class and race. Many of these students come from poor or working class families. Some students are immigrant children whom may or may not be illegal and English is not their first language. This segues into race. The majority of the students are minority races and mixed cultures. Now, add to the fact that they have a mental disability. Life is hard for them, and is forced me to reflect on my own outlook on life. In Ama Ata Aidoo’s book Changes, Opokkuya addresses the issue of life being hard: “But Opokuya wasn’t having any of her self-pity. So she countered rather heavily. ‘Why is life so hard on the non-professional African woman? Eh? Esi, isn’t life even harder for the poor rural and urban African woman?’” (Aidoo 50-51). These children will most likely grow up to have non-professional jobs, and be forced to try to make a living for themselves.

The education system is trying to prepare them in a path that they are creating for students who are capable of achieving in the college system and taking tests to have professional careers. Rather than understanding that these particular students need to be taught in a different manner that enables them to be self-ready for the world that they are going to have to live and survive in. The paperwork that coincides with children with disabilities, does not allow for an accurate detail of where the student is at. Instead, it is too standardized and structured for the students who are capable of excelling in the academic world. The children whom are in Ms. Fiorello’s classroom, don’t learn at the average pace of children their ages, nor do their behaviors match their ages. Most of them are in pre-school learning, when their peers are in kindergarten to second grade. There is a disconnect in the education system because the board members don’t understand, and quite frankly, don’t care enough to try to build a curriculum that empowers the levels of learning that these children are at or find ways to document each child accurately.

Ms. Fiorello is an advocate for children who have a disability. She tries to incorporate life situations into their lesson plans so that they can get some experience dealing with the real world. She always goes to meetings and attempts to create changes in the lesson plans that are more adapting to children who suffer from some type of cognitive disability. While so far her attempts have gone unanswered, she does not stop. Yet, being a teacher, she only has so much control. At the beginning of her school year, a female student was placed in her class. Yet, after a few weeks, the school decided that her learning ability was “passable” to be moved into a regular functioning kindergarten class. Ms. Fiorello did not decide, the school decided. The young girl is now forced into a classroom that may be uncomfortable for her because she must act like the other boys and girls who do not have a learning disability. On the other hand, a male student was placed into Ms. Fiorello’s classroom halfway into the school’s first semester. This student had a behavioral issue that had got him kicked out of regular kindergarten. Ms. Fiorello’s classroom caters to students who have cognitive learning disabilities, not behavioral issues. The school deemed him as abnormal because his behavior was not up to par with other students his age. Since he was no longer “normal” the school decided that he must be special needs, regardless of the fact that he could learn at an average learning level.

In the situations that occurred with the students that Ms. Fiorello dealt with, an issue of passing is portrayed. There is a misunderstanding both by the school and the parents of the children. If nothing else, the parents have an excuse. Many of these immigrant families come from cultures where having a disability of any kind was shunned upon. In the news, some countries appear where they are kidnapping people who are regarded as abnormal because they don’t compare to what that society or culture constitutes as “normal.” In this case, some of the parents of these children try to persuade their children to “act normal.” In doing so, society is creating an identity crisis. Passing deals with identity because it is concealing one’s true identity; trying to appeal to society’s normativity ideal. Studies have been done that show why forcing an individual to subdue his/her “abnormality,” actually inhibits his/her ability to function at a level that allows them to advance both mentally and physically.

Thirty Umrigar in his novel The Space Between Us uses is a descriptive phrase that genuinely sums up the atmosphere that one engages in as he/she works alongside these children who are mentally, and some physically, impaired: “You felt a deep sorrow, the kind of melancholy you feel when you’re in a beautiful place and the sun is going down” (Umrigar). The parents of some of the children are accepting. It is clear to see that they want to be involved in the education of their children and do anything they can for them. The school that Ms. Fiorello works in, consists of minority families who are underprivileged. These families come from countries where special needs persons were shunned. It was almost like a sin. People cannot always help how their children are born, but in the eyes of some countries it is an ailment. However, just as Ali struggled to integrate his two worlds, people today struggle to do the same. People are accustomed to how they were raised and some of these families cannot ignore what they were taught growing up. Cultures where it was a sin to be disabled is hard to run away from even if one moves to another country. Danticat demonstrates this struggle to escape in her novel, as well.

Aside from just the educational aspect, is the social aspect. There seems to be segregation. Students who are mentally retarded are kept away from the children who are “normal” as if they have some contagious disease. There is a social construct surrounding the idea of what is “normal” and that which is not “normal”. Lenny is physically disabled, but is kept away from the other children. Lenny being withdrawn from school because she has polio, makes it appear as though she has some type of contagious disease. The colonialism within the education system is so black and white. It is very clear who runs the education policies within the city. Parents of children who are cognitively impaired try to push their children to pass just to succeed in the education system. Despite the fact that the city is majority comprised of minorities and immigrants, the education board consists of mainly white men and women. These are the people who are in charge in structuring the way the classrooms are run and how children will be educated.

Essentially, society has constructed a standardized assessment of normativity. As result, societies, and/or cultures, are enabling parents to dictate how they should instruct their children to act. Does a parent allow to be a child to be his/herself despite the fact that he/she is cognitively impaired, or does the parent try to get their child to “pass”? Either way, there is no true win. The education system inhibits children who are disabled from advancing in the society that they live in. At the same time, passing inhibits the children from be their true, genuine self. At the end of the day, there is a colonization within the education system and these children need help to overcome forced passing and a system set up to destroy them.

Passing is a notion of survival amongst the victims. The novels aforementioned demonstrate examples of passing within their contexts due to the fact that the characters were victims of colonialism. Colonialism is what causes people to lose their true identities in order to feel safe and attain the economic status in society. Sethe chooses to be an outcast in both why and black society for the decision she made, which she set her child free. Lenny is unable to pass because society is depriving her and ignoring her potential as an intelligent young girl. Esi submits to the culture of Ali who is trying to merge his traditional African culture with his Western knowledge. Unfortunately, neither one is able to pass with fluidity amongst one another’s lives without one suffering. In this case, Esi is forced to “pass” into Ali’s distorted lens of a relationship, tricked by Ali’s persistence and attempts to “pass” into the world of Esi. The list goes on and on; however, the notions of passing within the textual literary works are supported by the current issues of passing. Disabled students, not the type like Lenny, but the students who are cognitively disabled, are encouraged to pass, but in doing so, they are further hindering their ability to interact safely in society. Passing is a continuing problem that’s needs to be dealt with a global level. The novels only further advocate the need to create change.

Class Division and Gender Roles: Violence and Rape Culture

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Serabai (Sera) Dubash and Bhima are the two central, female characters focused upon in Thrity Umrigar’s novel, The Space Between Us. The novel delves into the issue of both gender and class, and acknowledges the ways in which both men and women play an integral role in the violence that occurs as a result of those differences. One could argue that the way a person is raised effects the mindset of an individual to lash out violently, while another person might suggest the genetic code for being violent. Nonetheless, analyzing the society in which both of these women live and notating the reality of the situation, allows for a better understanding of violence or inequities experienced by women in post-colonial India.

Violence against women appears to be a common act in the Middle East and Southern Asia. Rapes occur, but many times, the man is not held accountable for his actions. In an article by scholar Jenny Sharpe, she examines the limits of rape in colonial India. She bases her theory off of the novel A Passage to India, which explores a falsified rape between an Englishwoman and a Muslim man. In this case, rape was a he-said-she-said bias. Due to the racial distinctions, Dr. Aziz, the Muslim man accused of rape, was arrested. Yet, his innocence went unheard until the Englishwoman retracted her claim:

Since the reader is not prove to what happened in the caves, she or he is faced with the contradictory evidence of Adela’s accusation and Aziz’s denial. The accuracy of Adela’s judgement is undermined during the trial when, upon interrogation, she suddenly withdraws the charge (Sharpe 221-222).

Sharpe provides an inside scope at the injustices within the justice system. The classified “other” is perceived as guilty until proven innocent. However, when looking at people of the same “otherness,” class and gender roles enter the picture as to whom is disparaged against and bears the majority of the violence.

“‘Listen, Maya,’ he said softly. ‘I was thinking in the shower. Thinking about what … just happened, about what you did. Yes, that was a bad thing you did, tempting me like that, taking advantage of me while I was in a weak mood’” (Umrigar 279). In Umrigar’s novel, Viraf, Dinaz’s husband puts the blame of having relations with Maya on her. Although he, in essence, raped her, he tried to make her feel guilty for his actions. Then, he goes further to instill a sense of fear:

“…I’ll forgive you for what happened. Provided it never happens again. And provided you never tell anybody about what you did. Because poor Dinaz, if she ever found out, God, it would kill her. She’d never forgive you. You understand? She would see it as the biggest betrayal of her trust in you. And with the pregnancy and all, I can’t risk anything happening to her. Remember, the Dubash family has been nothing but good to you and your grandma. They’ve treated you like their very own, sent you to a good college…You understand what I’m saying?” (Umrigar 279).

The fear of being shamed and the fear of putting her grandma in harm’s way, forces Maya to keep quiet about what she endured. When she falls pregnant, she is looked down upon being that she is unmarried. Her grandmother can’t stand the sight of her and Sera is confused at her “ridiculous” behavior being that she was such a “good girl”. It is not Viraf who is held accountable for his actions, but it is Maya who is punished. Sera, who is not even blood related makes the decision as to what will happen, “‘Of course she will have to have an abortion’” (Umrigar 20). Bhima, who is Maya’s grandmother, is the domestic servant for Sera and her family. The phrase addresses the power dynamic between the women and how there is a manipulative form of violence in the class divisions.

While violence from man to woman plagues the novel, there is a clear difference in class, and how the women treat one another as a result of their class differences. When Viraf makes advances upon Maya, he acknowledges that he is not only a man, but also a man of power. Maya is just a woman in his eyes, and she is a woman who lives in the slum – best described by Bhima:

“As for the slum, that’s why we have you menfolks–to take care of our needs and to talk and debate with the big bosses. I’m just a poor, illiterate woman, only good for chopping onion and using a broom…”…“Still, what with the flies and rats and dirty water in this slum, anything is possible, I suppose: (Umrigar 53-54).

Bhima knows her place in society, but does she know it because she was told or she just assumes? Bhima’s husband left her and her daughter, Pooja, after losing three fingers in a work-related accident and becoming an alcoholic. When he left, he took with him their son Amit. During the accident, Bhima was deceived into signing a document that tricked her husband, Gopal, and his family out of a large sum of money:

“While you were in the hospital, your wife here signed the terms of this settlement. According to this piece of paper, this is all you’re entitled to.”…“Liar…My wife doesn’t know how to read or write. How could she sign anything?”…“Thumb impression” (Umrigar 224).

This is the earliest account, noted where Bhima’s class ignorance betrays her. Her husband is then out of work and becomes an abusive alcoholic. He never seems to have money unless he’s buying alcohol from the bar. Meanwhile, Bhima is guilt ridden and beside herself at what she has done to her family. Later, she is insulted by a doctor at the hospital where her daughter, Pooja, and her son-in-law lay dying:

“You people,” he said. “God knows why the government spends lakhs of rupees trying to educate you about family planning and all. It’s a useless cause…I don’t have time to give you a medical lesson. Have hundreds of other patients to check on. Anyway, I’m a doctor, not a bleddy teacher” (Umrigar 138).

Pooja is not respected, when her husband ends up sleeping around on her and contacts AIDs. He then spreads it onto her, and now they both are sick and dying. She is punished for his infidelity. Bhima has no knowledge as to what AIDs is and wants to understand so she can try to save her daughter. When she learns of it, she becomes angry at Pooja’s husband for doing this to her daughter. They are now leaving Maya, a young child, parentless because of his ignorance.

Pooja’s husband and Viraf may be fictional characters, but their actions are still a reality in many parts of the world. Women fall victims to their husband’s infidelities whether they catch a sexual disease or have to deal with a child he created with another woman. Scholar, Sara Suleri reminds readers of an incident involving a fifteen-year-old woman. The men involved resemble Viraf and Pooja’s husband in the sense that, Viraf is married to Dinaz who regards Maya as family, and Pooja’s husband has no respect for women.

Jahangir cites the example of a fifteen-year-old woman, Jehan Mina, who, after her father’s death, was raped by her aunt’s husband and son. Once her pregnancy was discovered, another relative filed a police report alleging rape. During the trial, however, the accused led no defense, and Mina’s testimony alone was sufficient to get her convicted for fornication and sentenced to one hundred public lashes (Suleri 254).

While in this situation, Mina is punished in every way imaginable, Maya is returned to being just a servant’s daughter when Viraf reminds her to wash the sheets after their encounter. She is already in pain, feeling guilty, and terrified, now he wants to further belittle her. Mina endures the harsh whippings of lashes in public, after she was raped. She is forced into public shame and humiliation. As a woman, in the society in which she lives, she is not allowed to have a voice. The world is against her. Like the women in the novel, what the men in their lives say, goes. Sera is not exempt from cruelty. People of the slums were not the only ones who were exposed to class and gender violence. While rape was more common amongst people of the slums, physical beatings existed. In a flashback, Sera remembers that “Feroz’s fists had not stopped flying after they moved out” (Umrigar 263). After uniting their union, Feroz had changed. Where once before he was sweet, now he was harsh with a bad temper. His father had mentioned to Sera that Feroz’s temper may come from genetics because both his mother and grandmother had/have bad tempers. Then he ponders more. Feroz’s mother endured the cruel temper of her mother-in-law which forces the reader to question inheritance over exposure. There is no clear answer to this. All that is known is that there is much hypocrisy in the lives that these women live. Both women share a unique bond, but yet, Bhima is still not allowed to sit on the furniture or eat or drink using the same plates as the family and must bring her own. While Sera tries to justify her prejudice ways, like the men, there is no excusing blatant ignorance.

In post-colonial India, the women are still victims. Rather than the English being in power and abusing the limitations of the women, the men of India hold the power. Bhima represents women living in the slums, who go through similar struggles and misfortunes. She encountered an abusive alcoholic man, a son-in-law who essentially murdered her daughter, and witness the violent beating that Feroz bestowed upon Sera. In addition, she learned of the rape of her granddaughter, and was seen differently once she chose to speak up about it. The lives of these women, interact with one another, yet neither speak much about the other’s hardships. There is a silence that is understood where one does not talk about the personal injustices of their men. Class division and gender roles are important to recognize in the daily lives of these post-colonial women.

Understanding Divisive Ideologies and Oppressive Institutions in Literature and Life

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions are the basis of all works of literature that center around slavery and segregation. Divisive essentially means causing disagreements or some sort of hostility between people. During slavery and segregation both divisive ideologies are most present; focusing on notions of race, gender, class, nationality, or ethnicity. At the same time, oppressive institutions, such as political, economic, social, or educational spheres, are often correlated with divisive ideologies in the same genres. Politically, the white race dominated society and created the laws that benefitted them. In doing so, this created hostility between the African American community and the white society. Looking specifically at literature, Toni Morrison explains perfectly in her article “Black Matters” that

As a disabling virus within literary discourse, Africanism has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American education tradition favors, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability.

Morrison’s novel Beloved is a prime example to decipher both divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions.

Assuming that there is an understanding about the novel, one can quickly denote the haunting of the house and the mysterious spirit of Beloved as the infant that Sethe felt inclined to kill. This murderous act is a divisive ideology.

And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe (Morrison 163).

The quote signifies the importance and simplicity of having to kill her children, but also shows her difficulty in having to lose them. She would rather her children die than force her children to endure the pain and suffering of slavery. This divisive ideology is through race and ethnicity. Because she is of African descent, she is seen as inferior: not just Sethe, but all persons of African descent. As a result, the white man colonized both Africa and the Americas and enslaved people of color. This created both disagreements and hostility between blacks and whites, and forced many African Americans to rebel against white society in ways that often inflicted pain upon themselves. In this case, Sethe lost a child, in order to set her child free. However, viewing slavery in a way of colonizing lands, one can also view post-slavery as a form of internal colonization.

After slavery it was the white business owners whom profited. They employed their white counter parts and continued to underpay the desperate black men and women. Although this was internal colonization because the white man was controlling the wealth produced by the black workers, it can still be compared to the other forms of colonialism.

Colonization involves direct territorial appropriation of another geopolitical entity, combined with forthright exploitation of its resources and labor, and systematic interference in the capacity of the appropriated culture (itself not necessarily a homogenous entity) to organize its dispensations of power. Internal colonization occurs where the dominant part of a country treats a group or region as it might a foreign colony (McClintock 295).

Looking at the universal aspect of slavery, white Europeans conquered the African continent for personal gain. They took resources and people to make a profit. This notion exemplifies oppressive institutions, more so in a political sense. Socially, during the era that Sethe lives in Beloved, the oppressive institution is both educational and social. African Americans are still outcasts and segregated from society. Even more so, Sethe’s act to kill her child and the haunting of her home creates a social barrier that enforces her to be distant from her own peers.

Literature about slavery was often “white-washed”; in other words, it was influenced by Eurocentric ideologies. Morrison’s novel incorporates the oppressive institution of slavery, but formats Beloved in a manner that speaks from the black perspective. While some of her characters disagree with the actions of Sethe, almost glorifying slavery and acknowledging Mr. Garner as a man who was somewhat kind, the majority of the novel speaks to the despicable pain and torture slaves faced and the desperation one woman had to free her children. Willa Cather’s novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl ends up contradicting the entire premise of the novel by promoting Eurocentric views and ideologies of slavery according to Toni Morrison:

Yet even, or especially, here where the novel ends Cather feels obliged to gesture compassionately toward slavery. Through Till’s agency the elevating benevolence of the institution is invoked. Serviceable to the last, this Africanist presence is permitted speech only to reinforce the slaveholder’s ideology, in spite of the fact that it subverts the entire premise of the novel (Morrison 17).

This view point almost hints to a colonization of Eurocentric beliefs on black literature. Why do some writers feel “obliged” to glorify the institution of slavery? It’s a rhetorical question that does require some thought. In this day and age, one would think that black writers can be free to write about the truths of slavery and other colonized nations that suffered from the “victims’” perspective, but somehow, there is still one character that hints to a positive aspect of slavery.

The barrier Sethe has formed by her peers, results from the divisive ideology created by race. Due to the thought process whites had towards blacks and their political oppressive institution of slavery, Sethe was submissive. Sethe was not the only one outcasted by both races. White society had a way of pinning the black community against one another, especially in a gender specific manner. “Halle was more like a brother than a husband. His care suggested a family relationship rather than a man’s laying claim” (Morrison 25). There seems to be some sort disconnect between man and woman here. Sethe is talking about her husband, Halle, and how their encounter with one another is not entirely romantic to the extent that she would like. At the same time, this could be due to the fact that during slavery, families were often ripped apart from one another due to being sold off. Detaching from the one you love, perhaps was a coping mechanism for some. Yet, in this seen, it appears to paint Halle, or black men, as unable to fully love a woman. Even the white man seemed to struggle with gender identity in terms of power. Being a man meant having power during that time. Having power meant owning slaves, whether one condoned slavery or not.

“Y’all got boys,” he told them. “Young boys, old boys, picky boys, stroppin boys. Now at Sweet Home, my niggers is men every one of em. Bought em thataway, raised em thataway. Men every one.”

“Beg to differ, Garner. Ain’t no nigger men.”

“Not if you scared, they ain’t.” Garner’s smile was wide. “But if you a man yourself, you’ll want your niggers to be men too.”

“I wouldn’t have no nigger men round my wife.”

It was the reaction Garner loved and waited for. “Neither would I,” he said. “Neither would I,” and there was always a pause before the neighbor, or stranger, or peddler, or brother-in-law or whoever it was got the meaning. Then a fierce argument, sometimes a fight, and Garner came home bruised and please, having demonstrated one more time what a real Kentuckian was: one tough enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men (Morrison 10-11).

This conversation offers a slight insight into the type of man Mr. Garner is. In society, blacks – niggers – were property. Garner’s reference to his “niggers” as “men” is unheard of during this time, and gives them a more humanistic nature. No longer is the black man seen as barbaric, but instead as human. However, Garner still owns these “men”, so in some ways it is contradicting. Perhaps Garner is a man confused by the logistics of slavery, but is still entrapped by the idea of power. One must remember that “the very representation of ‘national’ power rests on prior constructions of gender power” (McClintock 298). White males have forever created the idea of power and will continue to be fascinated by the essence of power no matter how right or how wrong, and putting a disadvantage against women and black men and women.

After analyzing Beloved and the articles written by Toni Morrison and Anne McClintock, one can testify that divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions are portrayed throughout the novel and can be put into context with other post-colonized settings. Understanding that race is major divisive ideology in Beloved helps to identify other divisive ideologies portrayed, such as male masculinity and how gender creates that hostile environment between both man and man, and then that between man and woman. Oppressive institutions are the most common to pin point. Identifying the areas in society where one is oppressed is still current even in today’s society and is even more so present in the post-colonial countries. Essentially, Beloved acts as an outstanding model for the representation and further understanding of divisive ideologies and oppressive institutions.

A Genealogical Transgression of Quiet

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

His caramel-colored, light-brown skin and six-foot, one-inch frame stood tall as he stood on the steps of the United States Capitol. On the 20 January 2008, Barack Obama stood with his left hand on a bible and his right hand raised as the presidential Oath of Office was administered by Chief Justice John Roberts. Some people might not be aware of the imagery that this symbol portrays. The very day that President Barack Obama took the Oath of Office to signify his coming into presidency, exemplifies the climax to a journey that began over forty-six years ago. At the opposite end of the National Mall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presented his “I Have a Dream” speech about racial equality for the future, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

While the symbolism of President Barack Obama standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is a landmark in history that is a victory for the African American community, it took away from the other “main line succession in African American leadership” (NPR). Certain leaders during the Civil Rights Movement expressed more of an essence of quiet in their fight for more rights for the African American community. Leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, embodied an aesthetic that greatly reflected on the black power movement. With the visualization of the symbolic mirroring portrayals of Martin Luther King as the quintessential front-runner of a movement that fought to end segregation and provide equality for the African American community and Barack Obama as the pivotal peak in achieving the rights that African Americans and their ancestors fought so hard for all those years ago, the presence of quiet in black culture is slightly suppressed. The fact that most people in the United States look to Martin Luther King, Jr. as the sole leader of the Civil Rights movement, says something about the way people define quiet in its role throughout African American history in the United States. This results due to “a consequence of this historical significance of public expressiveness, resistance becomes the dominant idiom for reading and describing black culture” (Quashie 331). The non-violence forms of resistance, over time, became the new defining activism that defined quiet for the African American community.

Analyzing the era of the Civil Rights Movement and reflecting on the variations of expressive quietness will help to understand that the Black Lives Movement currently occurring. The Black Lives Matter movement is lacking in its true essence of black power and its ability to exude quiet. The symbol of black power is so quintessential to the embodiment of quiet.

This seems to indicate a greater historical and lexical flexibility in the meaning of quiet, and to suggest the relative limitation of quietude. Furthermore, “quiet” appeals to me because it is more colloquial. In choosing a word to engage as a metaphor for the expressiveness of the interior, I wanted a term that was accessible and that had enough connotative flexibility to take on one more meaning. (Quashie 330)

Kevin Quashie, an educational scholar, is known for his definitive stance on the true meaning of quiet and its position within black culture. The movement of today’s society can learn a lot from the movement of the twentieth century. Prominent people – such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X – are prime examples that are commonly known to demonstrate the interlude of quiet and contrast with the lack of quiet in today’s African American community. There is a legacy to behold in the way that quiet evolves and quiet has been placed on the back burner to the stereotypical passive resistance of some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s much more intentional proceedings. Taking the words straight from Quashie, quiet can be understand with a sense of clarity:

Quiet, then, is the expressiveness of this interior, an inexpressible expressiveness that can appear publicly, have and affect social and political meaning, and challenge or counter social discourse, though none of this is its aim or essence. That is, since the interior is not essentially resistant, then quiet is an expressiveness that is not consumed with intentionality. It is in this regard that the distinction between quiet and silence is more clear: silence, in a purely denotative sense, implies something that is suppressed or repressed, an interiority that is about withholding, something hidden or absent; quiet, more simply, is presence. (One can, for example, describe a sound or prose as quiet.) It is true that silence can be expressive, but its expression is often based on refusal or protest, not the abundance of the interior described above. The expressiveness of silence is often aware of an audience, a watcher or listener whose presence is the reason for the withholding. This is a key difference between the two terms because in its inwardness, the aesthetic of quiet watcher-less. Finally, quiet is not necessarily or essentially stillness; in fact quiet, as the expressiveness of inner life, can encompass and represent wild motion. (Quashie 334)

With a clear understanding of quiet, the interrogative lens to reevaluate quiet in a modernized context can be explored. One important key factor to remember is the connection that people within the African American community embrace. During the era of the Civil Rights Movement, people were close. There was a sense of unity that bonded people together. Skin color didn’t matter because all were discriminated against and disrespected. Today, people are more distant from one another. There is an internal violence within the African American community. Black on black crime is a problematic issue that must be dealt with in order to seek change in the way other races treat people who are racially black.

The imbalance of power between the two groups meant that their understanding and interpretation of each other’s motivations were often vastly different. So, while an owner might see a slave’s suicide as a form of revenge, the slave saw it as an honourable way of escaping unendurable suffering. Abortion and infanticide were not murder but a gesture of mercy, a way of sparing a beloved child from the horrors to come. Running away was also seen through a very different lens. (Stuart 217-218)

Trying to escape a life of enslavement through death is a graphic illustration of quiet. There is a more personal and inward understanding that death was equivalent to the desired notion of freedom. Following the Civil War when slaves finally garnered their freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the African American community continued to experience a life of cruelty that forced them into an atmosphere of silence. Silence because there was still an instilled fear. Yet, the African American community did not allow fear to hold them back from embracing their pride in their skin complexions, cultures, and heritage. There was unison throughout to hold them together to quietly speak to one another that they were strong, determined, and united. After the Civil Rights Movement, so much had drastically changed for the fate of the African American population. From being enslaved, to achieving, what seemed like, full equality, people began to break away. There was no longer this united front to push further. A break in the generational advancement of quiet has disrupted, not only the legacy of quiet, but also the true meaning of quiet in black culture.

Teeth showing in a smile so wide it almost distorts her face, Michelle Obama embodies the elegant and eloquent essence of black womanhood in America as she stands as First Lady of the White House. Her presence is not appropriately conversed as an embodiment of quiet. Without realizing or speaking on it, Michelle Obama represents a strong, loyal, intelligent African American woman who can stand independently while also having a complete family. The Obama family, indirectly, acts as a model of African Americanism for white America. While Michelle Obama is not a direct advocate for the Black Lives Matter campaign her position of power resembles that of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Virginia Durr was struck by Mrs. Parks’s appearance as she walked out of the jail, “‘It was terrible to see her coming down through the bars, because…she was an exceedingly fine-looking woman and very neatly dressed and such a lady in every way – so genteel and so extremely well-mannered and quiet. It was just awful to see her being led down by a matron’” (Theoharis 75). Mrs. Parks did not purposely decide to get arrested when she refused to move for a white man on a bus. No, she was simply standing her ground for her own, personal, self. She was tired. Tired in a double entendre type of manner: tired after a long hard day of work and tired of consistently having to battle the oppression of the white man. Mrs. Parks interiorly embraces quiet. Mrs. Parks always kept herself together despite what others may have thought. Not knowing that on that day she would be asked to move for a white man, nor knowing she would refuse and get arrested, Mrs. Parks was just simply being Mrs. Parks – a black woman. She was dressed in her usual, mundane attire than represented who she was. When she was seen leaving the jail, the public chose to idolize her, but she had not asked to be idolized. In order to garner respect from her male and female peers, she deliberately respected herself. Being aware that hair could turn into a sexuality problem, she chose to wear her hair under a hat and pulled back by a hair pin. Her she did this for own self. She valued and respected herself, and realized that there was only one way in which others could do the same. She wanted to maintain a sense of privacy being “aware of the racial politics of hair and appearance, Parks kept her hair long in an act of love and affection (even after Raymond died) but tucked away in a series of braids and buns–maintaining a clear division between her public presentation and her private person” (Theoharis 14). Michelle Obama, for her own personal reasons, chooses to relax her hair in a way that complements the European normativity of hair styles. However, her presence, like that of Rosa Parks, consumes a quiet quality. There is no doubt that Michelle Obama embraces her African Americanness; though she does not publicly announce it, it was clear when she took the stage in April 2015 to deliver a supremely inspiring speech at the Black Girls Rock Awards. Quietly, she not only demonstrated the need to look at black women, but to also better integrate black women into society.

When asked what gave her the strength and commitment to refuse segregation, (Rosa) Parks credited her mother and grandfather “for giving me the spirit of freedom… that I should not feel because of my race or color, inferior to any person. That I should do my very best to be a respectable person, to respect myself, to expect respect from others, and to learn what I possibly could for self improvement.” (Theoharis 1)

Her reason for her strength and commitment to refuse segregation is devoted to her mother and grandfather. This is a personal and internal motive. Today, people are more selfish and do not applicate credit where credit is due. Appreciation appears to be of little importance to a lot of people, and perhaps that is society’s fault. Nonetheless, a part of the reason why the essence of quiet has been void in the current status of black civil rights is because people have lost touch with their inner passions and motivations.

Store owners look out to see who all has made an appearance for the big sales. Flabbergasted, they look out to see a much smaller crowd than ever before. Meanwhile, many of African American families are at home, protesting Black Friday. Surprisingly, those who chose to stand as a united front and not shop at these white-owned businesses engage in a motion of quiet. They are demonstrating their pride for the African American community and the importance of supporting not white-owned businesses, but instead black-owned businesses. With all the chaos going on in the world, the first step towards continuing the historical legacy of quiet within the African American community has gone unnoticed. Michelle Obama demonstrated a more personal and individual expression of quiet in speaking and appearing at the Black Girls Rock Awards. Boycotting Black Friday, demonstrates an internal hunger for black pride. Not recognizing when quiet is being expressed is clearly explained by Quashie:

Part of what hinders our capacity to see this quality in their gestures is a general concept of blackness that privileges public expressiveness and resistance. More specifically, black culture is mostly overidentified with an idea of expressiveness that is geared toward a social audience and that has political aim; such expressiveness is the essence of black resistance. In fact the idea that black culture is both expressive and resistant is now so common that neither seems insightful nor requires justification. Of course, central to this thinking is the assumption that all expressiveness is necessarily public. (Quashie 329-330)

By staying at home and boycotting the rambunctious crowds of people at stores trying to score deals, African Americans were quietly supporting black businesses. No public display was demonstrated. Instead families sat home, spending valuable time with their families or attempting to purchase items from black businesses. Due to the fact that quiet is misunderstood in African American culture, it is not hard to conceptualize why people today are ignoring the vital signs of quiet. Quiet is not dependent upon generating societal changes or addressing to a greater audience at large. Noting the one event organized by the Black Lives Matter movement, one can assume that there is hope for further progression of quiet. Bringing an awareness to the principle of quiet will possibly help the African American community come together and show more empathy for the treatment of themselves and others in white hegemonic society.

In this new coming of age world, people are finally beginning to stop living in the past. While it is important to take notes from the past, one should not dwell or be satisfied with what others have done to help advance the community. Observing the ways of the present, one becomes conscious that:

“…we have not been content to live merely on past accomplishments. He who lives only in the past has a doubtful present and an unattainable future.” Laziness resonates throughout the black community. A lazy quietness. While today’s generation is about waiting for a leader, “we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (King)

Sadly, and still today, the African American community is being oppressed by white society. The disconnect between members of the African American community and the failure to remain loyal to the ancestors that fought for the current liberty and freedoms, is what has led to the current disastrous situation. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foresaw the state of Black America. His sermons and speeches were not only relevant for the time period he breathed in, but also to all time periods following after his untimely death. Now, people in the black communities within the United States are beginning to take action against the increasingly in your face prejudices of white society. However, people are naïve as to the hard work it takes to not only embrace both inner and outer quiet. Author Jeanne Theoharis alludes to the realness of the naivety of modernized African Americans, “Most Americans now look back in the glow of that new truth, assuming they too would have remained seated, written letters to the local paper, risked their jobs to print thirty-five thousand leaflets, or spoken out in favor of boycotting the buses” (126). It is next to impossible imagining how one would respond when asked to give up a seat to a white person, or risk losing their jobs to print flyer promoting their cause, or speak out in favor of boycotting necessary means of transportation. People are always willing to fight for a cause until it disrupts the natural order of their personal lives. In order to engage in protest as a united front with the community, they must first incorporate respect for their African American heritage and a desire to seek change in their own lives and the lives of their children.

Strategy is key during any movement. Mrs. Rosa Parks was not deliberately selected to sit on the bus and refuse to move for a white man and then jailed and casted as the female matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement. She was simply in right place at the right time, and Black America took it upon themselves to cast her as their heroine. Yet, what is not widely known is the fact that Mrs. Parks and her family were suffering and living in poverty. Mrs. Parks put aside the ailments affecting her family in order to help the greater good. While Mrs. Parks, herself, needed help, she was willing to sacrifice her own well-being and be generous with her time and the little money she owned to further the black community because she saw potential benefits for the future of Black America. Mrs. Parks encompassed the epitome of quiet in being selfless. She put aside her own necessities because she truly supported the black community and its future beyond herself:

While the physical violence the boycotters and leaders endured is an integral part of civils rights history, this economic catastrophe–the sacrifice Rosa’s bus stand entailed for her family and, more broadly, the economic retaliation against civils rights activists–is not as widely recognized. Indeed Parks’s sacrifice–the toll her bus stand took on her and her family–barely gathers a mention in the triumphal story of her journey from Montgomery to the Capitol rotunda. Learning to live with such economic insecurity was excruciating, particularly the paradox for Parks of being “famous” and yet having no money. Additionally, the phone rang constantly with hateful messages…Sometimes she was verbally accosted on the street. The fear of white violence was ever present. (Theoharis 116)

Mrs. Parks is a woman to be idolized for her selflessness. Not many people are willing to devote everything they have, including their well-being, to help others. Nowadays, people are more apprehensive to donating money to people in need. With that being noted, the fate of the black community is at risk if people are not will to donate money to supporting their community in and need, knowing that it could possibly benefit the future of their children and grandchildren.

Quiet is not imperative to African American culture today as it once was. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about the coming together in unison as the future for America, “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” African Americans in past centuries were able to make improvements in their place in society because they were determined to give their black youth a better future. They did what they could for the greater good of the black community. Now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, African Americans must realize that “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” (King). While Dr. Martin Luther King made this comment in a speech he delivered referring to black men and women and white men and women, here this same comment applies to the relationship between the black body. In expressing inner quiet, the black community must stop fighting one another, and focus on what matters to them as individuals. Change cannot happen if the individual does not love his/her own self. It is imperative that the black body is respected and valued by the black community above all else and that this underlying action of quiet is expressed in a matter that is found meaning, not to the public, but to the individual and the community by which that individual is a member of. Quiet, has digressed over the years, but with people alluding to its original foundation, like the way Kevin Quashie does in his work, quiet can reestablish as an expressive method of black love and black power in modern day society.

Black Identity in Hurricane Katrina

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

The dam broke, and a rush of water flooded the city. Those who could escape did, but many couldn’t. Homes. Lives. Friends. Families. Identities. Much was lost, when the hurricane hit. Yet, the outcome was almost expected. Racism and the disparity against the black community was ever so clear prior to Hurricane Katrina, and even more prevalent after. Reading Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Natasha Trethewey, has given me a new insight and truth into the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and even a perspective of the layout of the land, before Hurricane Katrina. Compared to the book, my own review of Hurricane Katrina was slightly different, and a bit more personal.

August 23rd, 2005, the formation of Hurricane Katrina over the Bahamas became known. New Orleans was hit by August 29th, but had already been experiencing heavy rains. I find that it’s important to know that “during the past century, hurricanes have flooded New Orleans six times: in 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969, and 2005” (History.com). This knowledge may not have instilled fear within some of the occupants in New Orleans. Personally, I know that my three relatives that left New Orleans were not fearful because of their strong faith in God, “God had not given us the spirit of fear. That’s 2 Timothy 1:7,” (Cahee). Two aunts and a cousin evacuated prior to the storm hitting. They stayed with other relatives, and prayed. Fortunately, all three of my relatives could return to their homes after the storm, had they wanted to. Aunt Jean returned to find that her home had little water damaged, that was quickly fixed. Aunt Mat’s home was similar, but she found a better job elsewhere, and decided to move. Cousin Chad’s home was not bad, but “I can’t remember” (Cahee). He chose not to return either, due to his mom. He decided he would live close by to her. A strong sense of family remained within my relatives. No one’s life was lost, and we are fortunate for that. Both aunts had lived in Algiers, but my cousin had lived in the ninth ward. The fact that his home was still livable, is a miracle, but he didn’t go back.

A cleansing. That struck me while reading Beyond Katrina. When I think of my family members that were displaced, it angers me. As previously noted, the black community was plagued by disparities, more than I even was aware of. Before Katrina, Trethewey has a section that briefly explores the Gulfport prior to Hurricane Katrina hitting. Segregation and slave terms were still referenced and “low key” practiced:

The ordinary markers are there – in Gulfport, a neighborhood named the Car Line, so called because it was the last stop for the streetcar, the end of the line. Across the railroad tracks that separate the areas closest to the beach and the center of Gulfport from thee outlying areas is a community called The Quarters, so named, my grandmother tells me, for all the black residents, as if it were a slave quarters (Trethewey 34).

In this particular scene, race plays an important element in who lives where. “Slave quarters” is forcing the black community into a remembrance of when their ancestors once died due to harsh, laborious work for the white man. Again, the black communities’ lives depend on the white man’s society. Even work was sometimes hard to find. Prior to the importation of casinos, the primary income came from the seafood industry. “The coast’s seafood industry, which had been established when the first canning plant opened in the late nineteenth century, didn’t employ blacks” (Trethewey 35). For many blacks native to New Orleans and the Gulfport, poor, working, and low middle became the dominant classes for them. Segregation and lack of work opportunities, forced the black community into poor living conditions. So when people refer to Hurricane Katrina as a cleansing sent by God, I am disgusted.

The media casted a negative portrayal of African Americans. Rather than people out to survive, they became targets for crime and termed refugees. Many people across America, were outraged by such images. It seemed as though America did view Hurricane Katrina as some form of cleansing. A cleansing to return to the early 1900s, when blacks were still seen, heavily, as subordinate to whites.

The young waiter serving our table has been listening off and on to the story, and he has his ideas too, wants to share them – even gives me his card so that I won’t forget his name. He’s from Louisiana, and he moved to the coast for restaurant work in the casino. “What’s different now is that the new generation respects the hurricanes, unlike the folks before. It needed to happen.” When I ask him what he means, he replies vaguely: “to teach us something” and “a cleansing, that’s what it was.” When he turns to attend to another table, I feel uncomfortable thinking about what he might have meant, particularly after hearing some people opine about New Orleans and who was turned out: the poorer, working classes – overwhelmingly African Americans – all lumped together with supposed criminals that the city would rather not see return (Trethewey 27).

My family were innocent, human beings; who are loving and caring. Hurricane Katrina is, and was, a natural disaster that devastated numerous people across the country. It was no cleansing that can be correlated to Noah’s Ark. It was simply just, what happened. The continuous prejudice that plagued this horrific event, was only reinforced by the media. “CBS Radio News reports that New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas said people are too afraid of black people to go in and save them. He added that rumors of shootings and riots are making people afraid to take in people who are being portrayed as thugs and thieves” (Alfano). It’s sad to think that many suffered due to the negative portrayal of a certain group of people. What I learned from all of this, is that racism and prejudice played a key role in the outcome and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and yet is downplayed or ignored in the language referenced to Hurricane Katrina.

Interrogating the Black Identity with a Black Queer Analysis

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

For centuries, the black identity has been silence just as the black queers are being in the present day. Identity being a psychological and cultural process by which we freely construct and express our sense of self. During colonialism and slavery, women were even more subjected to the perverse theory of the white world. Dominated by the heterosexual, white hegemony, the black female body suffered from an inability to vocalize their inner pains.

The female body in the West is not a unitary sign. Rather, like a coin, it has an obverse and a reverse: on the one side, it is white; on the other, not-white or, prototypically, black. The two bodies cannot be separated, nor can one body be understood in isolation from the other in the West’s metaphoric construction of “woman” (Hammonds 1).

Essentially “woman” is objective, in the sense that there is no definitive identifiable race. However, the white Western world has customized the meaning of “woman” to mean the white woman. Similarly, the “Cult of Domesticity” defined what “true womanhood” was. “True womanhood” was subjective to the white woman for the simple fact that black woman had no control over their own bodies.

The best example of the black female body being void of a voice is the infamous Hot-Ten-Tot, otherwise known as Sara Baartman. Not until recently, was Baartman allotted the respect to be seen as a human being. Originally from South Africa, the young woman was brought to Europe and used as a statue. She was a representation of blackness and the sexual deviance of the black woman. Sadly, Baartman dies at the young age of twenty-five. Once she passed, her body parts were put on display. Physically – genitals and butt – were used as evidence of mental traits – sexual immorality – and sexual availability. Hegemonic society was trying to create excuses as to why the white man was sexually assaulting and abusing the black woman. During the slavery the black woman was raped, bore children by men whom she may not have wanted, especially by her white master, and was subjected to having her children sold away from her. These left a black woman with no rights to her own body. The white slave owner, who usually also had a white wife, was openly known to having a black mistress. Adultery. He was cheating on his wife. The excuses were to blame the black “woman” and to dehumanize her and all black people. Sara Baartman was the symbol used to uphold the actions of the white man. For years her body has been kept separated from her family. Not until recently, were her remains returned to her family back in South Africa; however, supposedly some remnants were lost. This shows that Baartman was never respected, and perhaps, still is not respected.

Writer and author, Toni Morrison, identifies blackness as a representational trope that signals difference. Morrison questions how blackness is used for white people, non-blacks in general, to explore sexuality, shame, and difference. From an overall view, blackness appears to be fungible and the white imagination is subjectively determined by race. In literary works, as well as in reality, blackness makes possible the formation of the white identity. Morrison critiques the white imagination in ways deeper than just admitting that the black identity makes possible the formation of the white identity. This is true because race is a social construct created by the white race. In addition, blackness creates a fantasy world in which whiteness can safely be explored. White supremacy seems valid when blackness becomes submissive and dehumanized. The first motion picture was Birth of a Nation, which is when American identity is formed against blackness. Playing in the Dark, written by Morrison identifies Africanism and how black characters are made to almost be caricatures. “Black characters in classic American novels, she maintains, have been as marginalized as their real-life counterparts” (Steiner). The black identity stands as a backbone for white identity, but is like a ghost, ignored.

The black identity is deeply rooted throughout history. Ideally, the black identity was created by white hegemonic society. Without whiteness, there is no blackness. Blackness hence was formulated by whiteness. In Africa, European nations came in and colonized the land and formed territories. Already, slavery was established, but then escalated when The New World was found. African people were captured and enslaved and forced to work in the Americas. A stolen identity and culture was robbed from these African-American people. Alas, literature, especially literary works written by white writers, exploits the black identity. In America, blackness has always been associated with “evilness.” Darkness represents all that is bad. Historically, being black was what you didn’t want to be. African Americans who were fair skinned and had features that resembled that of a Caucasian, sometimes chose to racially pass for white in order to live freely. Even within the black community, blackness is discriminated based on the spectrum of blackness. The whole notion of light-skinned versus dark-skinned fundamentally was generated when the slaved master would produce offspring with one of his female slaves. The child would be lighter than the rest and would often be treated better. “House slaves” were often reduced to less laborious tasks and were of the lighter complexion, creating jealousy amongst the other black enslaved persons. Nonetheless, all of these ideologies stem from the white creators. Literature only further propagates these theories.

Not all literary works come forth and distinguish a character as being a particular race. Yet, when described, physically one can denote the race that is being talked about. “I could go further and note that even when race is mentioned it is a limited notion devoid of complexities. Sometimes it is reduced to biology and other times referred to as a social construction” (Hammonds 2). Factual evidence upholds the logistics of the white and black body. There is no question that physically there are differences, and not just in skin complexions. At the same time, with the mixing of races, combinations have been created to create similarities between the modern day black American and the white American. But society doesn’t care. Still color blinds all else and common sense goes out the window.

Returning to the issue of black identity, literary works fail to validate the black identity as a realistic subject matter. Blackness is the root of all life. Supposedly people originate from Africa. America was built on the blood and sweat of enslaved Africans. Without blackness, whiteness cannot and does not exist. Hegemonic society is ignorant to the reality of how it was truly established. Morrison says it best in her critique of white American literature. Literature, we must note, holds some societal fact whether it is nonfiction or fiction. Nonfiction is bias and is written in the perspective of a sole person from his/her point of view and “true” in his/her eyes. Fiction is a fantasy world that the majority wishes were somewhat true. The majority being the hegemonic society, which consists of the white, heterosexual, man.

The black “shadow” has, paradoxically, allowed white culture to face its fear of freedom, Ms. Morrison continues. Though Pilgrim, colonist, immigrant and refugee embraced America for its promise of freedom, they were nevertheless terrified at the prospect of becoming failures and outcasts, engulfed by a boundless, untamable nature. It was not surprising, then, that writers explored American identity in the most anxiety-ridden genre of literature — the romance. There they could fill in the romance’s “power of blackness,” as Melville called it, with the figure of the slave, whose lack of freedom and whose blackness confirmed his contrast to the master. Africanism, the culture’s construction of black slavery, stood, therefore, not only for the “not-free” but also for the “not-me” (Steiner).

The black identity has been sculpted into a lens to make the white identity appear to be valuable. Morrison critiques literature simply because literature has a huge impact on the mindsets of society. Propaganda is often formatted in writing and pictures. Literature creates a bias or false reality that mainstream society finds fascinating. Romanticizing slavery and portraying the black body as being hypersexual creates a barbaric image of the black identity and authenticates the white identity. Morrison reveals a need to take back the voice of the black identity. Personal narratives from the black experience are necessary in reconstructing the black identity for the black body. Reclaiming the right of self-worth is essential in gaining respect.

With a false reality that tries to erase, or forget history, and a falsified fantasy, the black identity has been white-washed and forced to endure years of pain and suffering. The black community must salvage the black identity from those trying to destroy it. “To name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves. For some of us this will not be easy. So long unmirrored, we may have forgotten how we look” (Hammonds 8). The black community is ignorant to their own worth. Black on black crime is so ramped that it is causing other races to question our value. Killing one another, in the eyes of the “not-black”, almost justifies them killing and devaluing the black body. Our complexions should not matter in the scope of the prejudices we all receive for being black. Black is black. Black Nationalism is what all black Americans need to reserve. A pride for being part of a community of such leadership. As a unity, black people must unite and see themselves and all that they have achieved. A rich history and characteristics of strength, survival, and faith compose the black identity. Silence is how the black community has been forced to become, but with the changing of times, the black community needs to arise and recognize who they are individually and as a whole. The black identity is important and is worth more value than people give it credit.

Subjective Interpretation on the Black Queer Studies Course

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Since birth, I have grown up in a heteronormative society balanced with white hegemony. Being that I am a women of “color” or African descent, I wanted to venture outside of the world I had grown accustomed to. I was adopted to an Italian American immigrant family, with a single mother and me being an only child. My upbringing was unique – transracial. We weren’t the typical family with parents and children being relatively close to the same skin complexion, instead, we were crossing the boundaries of normativity. Yet, despite the fact that I was adopted, I never once let my adoption hold me back. I was determined to find my biological family, and once I did, I was thrusted on a journey in which I was not aware of.

My time at Spelman College has helped me discover more about myself and my personal interests. As of my late junior year, the theme of identity has become a revolving factor in shaping who I was and who I wanted to become. In another class, my African Diaspora independent study course, I decided that I would research the effects that genealogy had on shaping one’s identity. In doing this, I was open to a whole world of new forms of identity and in part, I found this course quite helpful.

My original intent for enrolling in the course was to fulfill my African Diaspora minor requirement. Yet, after sitting in class, I began to grow a liking to the meaning of the class and found it helpful in contributing to other class and worldly discussions. The Black Queer Studies course not only taught me about the true meaning of “queer”, but also how to look at the gay and lesbian community through a different lens outside of the heteronormativity lens in which I had been taught to encompass. Some terms I was unfamiliar with, I found beneficial in writing my book, and I also enjoyed being schooled on my own ignorance. I say ignorance because I never took the time to try to understand anything beyond a heterosexual lens because that’s how I have, and still do, identify. I do wish we had had more time to discuss the films we watched. Maybe if we watch the films first and then have more time to discuss the film and even incorporate various aspects of the readings and class discussions. At the same time, I am aware that the women’s center works closely with the Spelman Archives. Being that I am a fan of archives and all things genealogy related, I feel like we maybe should have had one more paper that incorporated archival research. Maybe looking at the evolution of Spelman College as an institution and how it has adjusted to the LGBTQ community or even selecting a historical figure within Spelman and how they were affected by the injustice system surrounding the rights of LGBTQ people.

Aside from adding a few more writing plans, I had taken a women’s study course prior and I found that the main reason I was able to understand the readings and lectures was because I had taken a women studies class prior. With that being said, I think for Spelman women, it would be wise if they had an introduction to women’s studies class prior to enrolling in the Black Queer Studies course. As for males who want to participate, I believe that only those who are truly serious about the class and understand what is being asked from them will attempt to enroll, so I personally do not see a problem with allowing men from Morehouse College to cross-register.  I’m not sure about Clark Atlanta University students. I know that if you allow Morehouse men to cross-register you can’t deny Clark students. Although, I would assume that any student trying to take the Black Queer Studies course who is not affiliated with Spelman College, must have a passion and desire for wanting to take a class that explores queerness through a different lens and gain a better, or new, sense of understanding for life beyond the heteronormativity.

While in class, I found the readings interesting. Some of the readings incorporated the themes of identity, while others just simply gave me a better understanding of the definition of “queer” and “queerness.” I realized that even I was implementing a heteronormative lens before when I was trying to understand LGBTQ relationships. I heavily enjoyed reading The Politics of Passion: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora by Gloria Wekker. The book captured my attention because of how it introduced me to a new world outside of America. Identity goes beyond the United States. Sometimes I fall ignorant to that, and forget that the United States, alone, is a nation of immigrants. Outside of the United States is a global community of people with other variations of identity and the way in which they self-identify. The Politics of Passion explores womanhood and queerness in Suriname, which enabled me to think outside the box. This book personally inspired me to want to embark on a new research project that analyzes other cultural aspects. I want to engage in a researchable discussion that illustrates my own personal genealogical Diasporas by comparing and contrasting African Diasporic immigration to the United States and the cultures that were created as a result of it and Sicilian Diasporic immigration to the United States and the cultures that resulted from it. I know historically, both Sicilian Americans and African Americans were looked down upon at an equal playing field and after reading The Politics of Passion, I came to the realization that the Suriname women described within the book, are in some ways, similar to other queer women of the African Diaspora. I enjoyed the various sections in which Wekker had broken down her dialogue and interactions. I also enjoyed how each section stuck to a central theme, but not only explored the concept, but also defined the overall meaning tying each section together.

Apart from the constant theme of identity and understanding other cultures, Politics of Passion discussed the political power of femininity. Towards the end of the book, there was a chapter dedicated towards examining the empowerment of being a woman and how some women viewed sex. Throughout the book, sex between two women was explored, but at the same time, there was some insight on the dynamic of sex between a man and woman. I found it intriguing how it was made to seem as though sex with a man was more for economic achievement. A woman might indulge in a relationship with a man if the man could provide her with financial stability or social and economic status. Yet, at the same time, there was a similar feat in the way some women interacted with other women. What I found peculiar was the way that domestic abuse was explained. From the way I read it, it appeared as though the domestic abuse was more common in relationships that involved the same sex because it was to establish dominance and power. I am not one who condones violence of any kind, and maybe from a Westernized lens, I found that disturbing. There are other methods in which one can establish control. At the same time, it forced me to try to read the book, in general, from a lens outside of my normal comfort level and understanding. I had to force myself to almost imagine as if I was submerged in that culture myself and not judge. This technique teaches me to incorporate the absence of judgement from trying to learn about and understand other cultures.

While I very much enjoyed one of the readings from the class for both selfish and critical understanding purposes, I didn’t really enjoy Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit written by Marlon M. Bailey. While I found the overall concept fascinating because I had never known of Ballrooms or the culture surrounding ballrooms, I found the book itself, repetitive. I am not a fan of books that make me feel dumb. When I grasp a concept I like to think that the author is aware that he/she made his/her point clear and concise enough to not have to constantly repeat his/herself. When an author excessively repeats his/herself, I begin to question whether or not the author is articulate in his/her area of study. I should be confident in trusting what the author has to say, and not questioning the validity of his/her work. I enjoyed the film that coincided with the book, and felt like it relayed the message without repeating the underlying theme. I truly am fascinated with ballroom culture and would like to go and experience one for myself; however, Butch Queens initially turned me off because I struggled trying to even get through it.

Being that I have an interest in identity, diasporic cultures, and genealogy, the class was both insightful and useful. My own knowledge was sharpened on ways to interrogate other cultures and identities, but I also now have an awareness to an identity and culture that I was never before familiar with. I have a lens that articulates in various perspective. I have the white hegemonic lens, the heteronormative lens, the queer lens, and then a lens from my own personal experiences. I value the queer lens because it challenges the “normal” way of thinking. While I personally am a heterosexual female, I often view things beyond the way society would typically attempt to categorize it. In this sense, I understand that queer assimilates to anything outside societal normativity. While personal enjoyment of identity is clear, I would have liked to further discuss queer identity beyond the United States some more. I enjoyed each reading and the books, but I would have liked to have analyzed other African Diasporic cultures and how queer ideology/identity is incorporated into those cultures. Realizing that the language used and the skills I learned from the course is refreshing. Knowledge is power. Even though I do not personal identify with queer identity, it is a lens that I am now comfortable using and that I feel can better understand people who both identify as queer or part of the LGBTQ community. Compassionate feels like a better fitting word for that. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the time I spent in the course. I am taking a lot with me when I graduate this December, and I greatly appreciate all that I was taught. I hope that I can use this information in a way that intellectually challenges both my writing and those who read my work.