Corrigan’s Editorial Note: Gabriela M. Gonzalez took my African American Literature course in the spring of 2020, the semester interrupted by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I so appreciated her final reflection about the course and what she learned that I wanted to share.
Reading African American literature can be both gruesome and inspiring. From lynchings to powerful speeches, African American literature talks about it all. Matters of identity, positions in society, racism, slavery, culture, equality, real freedom, and religion are all incorporated while also encompassing so much more. Reading African American literature educates readers on black culture and the language of black people. There are many distinct stories and feelings you get from African American Literature; there is a lot of imagery; there is frustration, and there is happiness that comes with the history of African Americans.
I have chosen three themes for this specific essay assignment. The first theme is family, the second one is “what it means to be black,” and the third is violence. All three topics will correlate to a distinct quote that I have chosen from three various texts in which we have already analyzed throughout this semester. Each book, as well as the class discussions we have had throughout the course, provided a specific feeling and experience that enhanced my views. Some texts gave me entirely new perspectives that I had not thought about and introduced new ideas that I had not acknowledged before.
The main text that drew my attention and helped me grasp a better understanding of the importance of family, especially within black homes, is A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Not only did this play enhance the importance of resilience and the difficult life a working class African American family in Chicago in the 50s had to endure and many others still do to this day, but it acknowledged the importance of family, unity and taking on excellence for the good of the family in the face of racism, conflict, and danger.
Towards the end of the play, the characters demonstrated the true meaning of family. The stresses of life, the frustrations, and disappointments, all impact our decision-making and ability to think rationally. Walter and his wife even considered the option of having an abortion at one point, which shows us the desperate state in which this family was in. I noticed that almost all of the scenes took place in their home and with their family members. This play showed me the importance of communication, forgiveness, love, and faith that needs to be incorporated into a family home. In the final scene of the play, the representative from the white supremacist homeowners association is trying to buy the house back to keep the black family out of the neighborhood. On page 148, when Walter, after almost making the opposite decision, unexpectedly decides to stand up for his family, their new home, and their blackness, was the most inspiring and phenomenal part of this play. Walter goes on to let the white man, Linder, know the following:
We have all thought about your offer—and we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money.
This statement from Walter was risky but bold and beautiful. It was a moment between the family where, after so much conflict, they finally agreed on something and were encouraged to progress forward. Walter stood up and became a man, husband, son, and father in that line. The mistakes Walter made earlier in the play when losing his mother’s money by being careless and giving it to an untrustworthy friend, all of a sudden were forgotten about when he made this important decision for his entire family. Walter was an example of what it is to be aware of racism but also of his own and his family’s worth and importance. Walter and his family deserve to be in that neighborhood just as much as any white person already there. This was a true foundation for leadership, history, and culture to be rooted deeper into the fact that family comes first, and we must stand up for those we have grown up with and have had with us since the very beginning. If we don’t stand up for our own, who will?
The second text I have chosen incorporates the theme of “what it means to be black,” the short story, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker. Throughout the text, Dee, the oldest daughter, has claimed to be “more black” than her mother and sister, Maggie. Dee changes her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo because, according to her, the name “Dee” was oppressive and represented slavery among African Americans. For her mom, the name Dee was a representation of family unity and was significant due to it being a name that was passed down for generations from her most loved ones. The entire story was Wangero (Dee) explaining how her mother and Maggie don’t appreciate or understand black people or their heritage; meanwhile, they were literally living it.
So, what does it mean to be black? For Wangero, being black was more of an idea, while for her mother and Maggie, it was actual people and real life. Towards the end, the quilt issue comes about. Wangero wants one of the family quilts, but her mother promised it for Maggie. Wangero becomes upset and claims that Maggie would never know how to appreciate the quilt. For Maggie, the quilt is a literal blanket; it is a reminder of her family and a remembrance of the unity within the family. For Wangero, the quilt was just a symbol of being black. Something she wanted to hang for others to see so that they knew she was black, proud, and knew everything about her culture. She treated being black as a way of saving artifacts as if it were a museum, while being black, for Maggie and their mother, it’s about love, family, resilience, and overall, about them, who they are and how they live and how others treat them.
The quote that summarizes this whole situation between what it means to be black and what it means to appreciate the black culture is the following:
“You just don’t understand,” she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
“What don’t I understand?” I wanted to know.
“Your heritage,” she said. And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.”
She put on her sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and her chin.
Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared. After we watched the car dust settle I asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.
Dee believes that she is declaring her African legacy by changing her name, her quirks, and her looks, even though her family has remained in the United States for many, many years. Is this what it means to be black? Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that; the way Maggie and her mom’s life was portrayed is a more accurate, pure, sincere, and natural example of what it means, in some areas, to be black. I have learned throughout this course that being black is to be strong, unified, supportive, powerful, and influential in the decisions made and words said.
For the third theme and quote, I chose violence. The text I have selected for this theme on violence is a poem called “The Lynching” by Claude McKay. This sonnet is brutal, and the title itself tells you this. When McKay states in his poem, “The awful sin remained still unforgiven,” that brings a very important question to mind. What is the awful sin? Is McKay talking about the lynching being the awful sin that is unforgivable, or is he talking about white supremacy convincing him that being black is a “sin”? If we were to read it and interpret that McKay is talking about being black as the source for awful “sin” that is unforgivable, we turn to a more depressing approach to this poem than what it already is. This poem talks about lynching; to hang, kill, someone. It makes it so hard to acknowledge that perhaps McKay came to the conclusion that being black was a sin. Why would he come to this conclusion? Most likely because it could have appeared to him that there is no other explanation to the violence. Why else would black people be abused, enslaved, killed, mistreated, and ignored? It was obviously because of the color of their skin, but why? Why was the color of their skin so impactful to the white man? Was it intimidating? Was it “too different”? What?
I imagine that McKay could have just ended up believing that being black must be a sin and that that is why the lynching was taking place. It could have seemed to be a “logical” explanation in the face of such illogical violence. But, if we accept this interpretation of the poem as being one about some black people internalizing white supremacy, that raises further heartbreaking questions: Why did it get to this? Why did the violence make black people believe the shade of their skin was their biggest sin when in reality the minds of the white men and the cruelty and violence that took place are the real sin? Why would black people blame themselves and things like the color of their skin for their mistreatment? Why was violence against black people allowed? What is so “dangerous” about the color black or brown? Why have white men brainwashed amazing black men into believing that they are unworthy of life, because of the color of their skin? Why? I am lamenting. This poem emphasized so much of the violence that has taken place and still takes place today.
The text that challenged me the most was “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass. This speech made me open my eyes and not be ignorant of the fact that what he describes has been a reality for many black people. The injustice, the brutality; the violence; the racism; everything so many have had to go through all because they are “different” than white. This was such a compelling speech, and Douglass’ sarcasm throughout made it ten times better. I needed to read it; I am thankful that I did. It has brought me to new understandings and perspectives. And the audacity that America has to request Douglass to speak on the Fourth of July is impeccable! I never understood or even knew about the feelings and experiences that some African Americans have towards the Fourth of July, all due to my ignorance on the subject. This speech exposed America and its hypocrisy and lies. What a remarkable statement by Douglass; blunt while also stating facts that aren’t ever talked about in America and the reality of racism and white supremacy.
The text that most uplifted me was “homage to my hips” by Lucille Clifton. I was quite shocked at first when reading some of her poems because of how vivid they were; she discussed topics that aren’t ever really talked about. Nevertheless, it gave me a new appreciation for the life of a woman. The poems that Clifton wrote made me feel a bit embarrassed at first, but then I realized that they were vivid because they are real. It’s not embarrassing, it’s empowering. When I got to reading this one, I loved it. As a Hispanic woman, I have hips; I got them from my momma. They were something I was many times ashamed of as a younger girl, and I would resent how I had more hips on my body than the rest of the girls in middle school. It took me a bit to love all of my body and every aspect of it, and that is why reading Clifton’s poem, specifically in the part when she says, “these hips are mighty hips. these hips are magic hips. I have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top!” was my favorite part by far! I was like, “yes!” Because as a young woman who struggled a bit with loving her hips, seeing someone else embrace their hips and love them gives me a better feeling about myself and uplifts my spirit and mind to recognize that all of me is beautiful, every part of me!
This African American Literature course with Professor Corrigan exceeded all of my thoughts and expectations. The way that the class engaged, discussed, and interpreted different texts helped me understand so much more about black experience, culture, and literature. I was happy to have been able to listen and read so many books, plays, comics, and poems on the joy and triumphs of the black community. The way that Professor Corrigan allowed for us to come up with our interpretations and then to engage with us, encouraging us, and challenging us in our thoughts, really stretched the way I approach novels. The readings applied to real life and helped me understand the racism that still exists to this day. Being able to listen to other students’ experiences and input on these readings was also very impactful. I am so thankful that we were able to express ourselves and communicate with one another throughout this semester.
The three most important lessons I will walk away from this course with are that 1. African American History is American History, and it is just as important if not more. 2. Black people have gone through so much injustice and crap and still do. It is essential not to be ignorant or oblivious but to be educated. 3. I have to take part in some form of action towards helping the black community and ending racism. Although it won’t happen in a day, I know that Martin Luther King Jr. did say that, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” and “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I don’t want to be that silent friend, and I don’t want to stay quiet about the crucial things in life and the injustice that takes place every single day. I will speak up.