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Pride’s Transcendence to Hope: A Reflection on “I, Too”

December 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Pride is often portrayed as a burr on the pristine coat of society. It is spoken down upon and condemned as the root cause of so many problems that come about in our culture. The Bible speaks of pride in much the same way. Proverbs 16:18 states, “Pride comes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” This human characteristic has long been seen as an eyesore within the human condition, but is there a time when pride can lead one out of destruction? Perhaps lead an entire race from the “kitchen to the table?” Upon reading “I, Too,” the reader is confronted with a strong statement of pride. This pride, however, is not based in arrogance; instead, it extends from the very core of what it means to be a human being and to be valuable and worthy.

Hughes begins his acclaimed poem by stating, “I, too, sing American” (1). Although subtle in its proclamation, this line of verse sets the strong and defiant tone of racial pride that the remainder of the piece accentuates. This is a direct affront to the societal norm of the white dominated social and political atmosphere of the time period. The first concept that the reader confronts is Hughes’ idealization of the brotherhood of all Americans that is transcendent of skin tone. One of Hughes’ personal purposes for writing was to implore the American nation to look beyond the obvious color of a person’s skin and into the character of the person inside. He wanted black Americans to be seen in an empowered standing, so the central theme of his writings always painted black Americans in a positive light, directing the attention of his writing specifically to what the black community had to offer the American people at the time.

Although Hughes’ writing was directed to cast a positive light onto the plight and the accomplishments of black Americans, he was not shy about stating his personal feelings about his idealization of the black race. He used his writing to enflame a generation to a level of racial pride that was previously unknown to the “darker brother.” “Tomorrow, /I’ll be at the table when company comes. /Nobody’ll dare /say to me, /‘Eat in the kitchen.’ /Then./ Besides, /they’ll see how beautiful I am /and be ashamed− /I, too, am American” (8-18). This passage screams of racial pride and calls for the utter decimation of racial prejudice in America. Hughes, along with writers such as W.E.B Dubois and Claude McKay, used their extreme affinity toward their own race, displayed in their writings, as a catalyst to begin to collect the tinder that would help to ignite the sweltering bonfire that engulfed an entire nation in the movement for the proper civil rights of black Americans that dominated the social and political landscape of the 1960s. Without such amazing writers, who unashamedly spoke so boldly and defiantly in the face of the racist attitude that had dominated the United States dating back to its inception, such a movement from obscurity to equality could never have occurred.

“I, too” is a keynote piece within the initial rumblings of the fight for equal civil rights, but it is also more than that. This poem, originally penned to bring to light the hope for racial equality, transcends the theme for which it was written. The hope of the lyric is perhaps more salient than even the evident racial pride that Hughes expresses within the verse. The inspirational transformation that happens from the beginning of the poem where Hughes states “I, too, sing American” (1) to the end where Hughes exclaims with a quiet finality “I, too, am American” (18) has a farther reaching prognosis encompassing much more than racial equality. This poem is a beacon to the downtrodden. It is a lifeline to those who feel like they are in their darkest hour. It is a call for the reader to look beyond the abysmal outlook of his or her current circumstance to the shining light that is the possible future that waits just beyond the horizon. It encompasses the ideal that one can move beyond his or her current circumstances to finally realize the dreams and goals that each has set to accomplish within the small sliver of time that is granted to all the members of the human race to leave a lasting impact on future of humanity.

Pride based in an arrogant attitude leads to destruction. This destructive pride is not the the attitude that Hughes expresses within “I, Too.”  Instead, the racial pride within this poem is a call to the American people to transcend prejudice  based solely upon the color of an individual’s skin. Racial pride is the root of this amazing piece, but the fruit of its branch is hope. Hope that one day equality would be more than a dream. Hope that a person’s life would not be pre-determined simply by the color of the individual’s skin. Instead, the hope of this poem is that the merit and achievement of an individual would be given more weight than something that is determined prior to birth and cannot change. This is a piece of empowerment to the weak and weary to look forward and to not lose the belief that circumstances do change when the individual is willing to put forth the effort to ensure that the change occurs regardless of naysayers. Hughes’ captivating writing was the voice of a generation. A voice that would not be silenced and continues to speak today in the whispers of the broken when they realize that hope is real, tangible, and attainable. “I, too, am American” (18).

Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. “I, too.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Nina

                Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2266.

Zondervan NIV Bible.  Fully rev. ed.  Kenneth L. Barker, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. 

                Print.

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Bygone Innocence: A Reflection on “Going to Meet the Man”

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Going to Meet the ManFor many individuals, the relationships that exist between family members are the strongest and most influential human connections that the person will ever experience within his or her lifetime. These bonds, formed in early psychosocial development, have the potential to permanently define how a person views his or her world. Often, children hold fast to the values and social stigmas that sprout from early family interactions and relationships for the remainder of their lives, regardless of whether the values go against the true moral norm or not. However, even within the confines of these tight family bonds, free thinking can be achieved and it is possible for a person to break free from recycled family values. It takes an extremely courageous person to challenge social and societal wrong in any case, but even more so when the moral aberration is the majority opinion within your present societal situation and reinforced within the value system of the intermediate family.

In “Going to Meet the Man,” the reader is presented with one of the most horrific, gut wrenching torture and murder scenes in literary history. This scene casts a pall over the remainder of the story. It is almost so grotesque that the reader misses the most important theme within the story. It is a story of racism, bigotry, hatred, and murder, but the most astonishing and, perhaps, the most amazing element is the eye opening transformation of an innocent young child into a stereotypical Southern bigot. Through this amazing example of storytelling, Baldwin manages to climb inside the brain of a corrupt, racist Southern police officer to relay the story of how this man came to hate.

Jesse hated them. He hated those “black stinking coons.” They were the problem. They caused all this strife. They were his problem now. Why wouldn’t they shut that singing up? Jesse was the law. It was his job to maintain order. Big Jim C barked out the orders and Jesse carried them out. Generally speaking, Jesse did not have too much of an issue keeping them in-line, but things had begun to get out of hand recently. One of the most appalling side effects of this “colored uprising” was the recent influx of all those Northern folks coming in and blemishing the town’s good name. It was time to for Jesse to take matters into his own hands and this colored prisoner would be the one that bore the brunt of Jesse’s frustration.

Jesse put the [cattle] prod to the young man. “‘You make them stop that singing,’ [Jesse] said to [the prisoner], ‘you hear me?’” (2559). Jesse put the prod to him again−once, twice, a third time− but the prisoner would not stop the singing. Over and over, Jesse sent intense jolts of electricity through the young man until he had passed out from shock. As the encounter with the young man went into an interlude, Jesse began to tremble as an intense and peculiar joy washed over him. Something deep from within his memory was resurfacing, but the overall detail of the scene eluded him.

Baldwin uses this particular encounter to show the utter elation that a person can experience when an event occurs that is strangely related to a past pleasurable experience. The particular incident from Jesse’s past within this short story is an extremely graphic and gruesome depiction of a public torture and murder of a black man accused of a “crime” against a white woman. Upon first encountering the grotesque depiction of the scene, the reader is completely overwhelmed by a feeling of intense disgust. The feeling of disgust is so strong that many of the subtle nuances of Baldwin’s tale regarding the loss of a young boy’s innocence are completely consumed in wave after wave of nauseating revolt.

While finding beauty on the surface of this story might be a difficult task, the reader can certainly appreciate the lengths to which Baldwin went in order to show how any person in any situation can become the victim of twisted family values and societal expectations. This story is a stretch into the fantastic as Baldwin exaggerated the particular scene within the story. It is likely that he combined many elements of particularly gruesome, unlawful attacks on black people during the civil rights era and the period of history prior to this. However, this hyperbolic writing is most certainly effective as the experience of the reader goes beyond mere words on a page. The reader actually sees what a young Jesse saw and feels what Jesse felt on that fateful day that forever changed his life and perception.

Jesse had not always been the bigot that he was standing in the cell with that broken and bleeding black man. There was a time when Jesse was just a boy and the other boys his age, regardless of color, were just boys. “He had a black friend, his age, eight, who lived nearby. His name was Otis. They wrestled together in the dirt” (2663). Here, Baldwin highlights the simple fact that Otis and Jesse were friends. Regardless of race, creed, or religion, they were just boys who liked to play together. However, in the very next line, the reader begins to see the first signs of the transformation of young Jesse. “Now the thought of Otis made him sick. He began to shiver” (2563). There was something afoot. Jesse did not quite understand the details of what was happening, but he was sharp enough to understand that an event had happened that had somehow driven the racist wedge deeper, further dividing the perilous crevice between black and white.

Jesse also knew something was about to happen. A rash action was about to take place in the light this new development within the atmosphere of the racial strife that permeated the air of the town in which Jesse lived and he knew it. In his innocence, Jesse questioned his father regarding the recent scarcity of his friend. “‘We didn’t see Otis this morning,’ Jesse said. He did not know why he said this. His voice, in the darkness of the car, sounded small and accusing. ‘You haven’t seen Otis for a couple of mornings,’ his mother said. That was true. But he was only concerned about this morning. ‘No,’ his father said, ‘I reckon Otis’s folks was afraid to let him show himself this morning’” (2563). Jesse’s response to his father’s statement indicates that Jesse was concerned about the well-being of his colored friend. “‘But Otis didn’t do nothing!’ Now his voice sounded questioning. ‘Otis can’t do nothing,’ said his father, ‘he’s too little’… ‘We just want to make sure that Otis don’t do nothing’” (2563). The statement from Jesse’s father leaves the boy with an ominous feeling regarding the event that is about to occur and further colors the boy’s perception in regards to the societal expectation of race relations within Jesse’s small sphere of existence.

Upon waking the next day, Jesse is confronted by a group of people in his front yard dressed as if they were about to head to Sunday service. The crowd was engaging in conversation that revolved around the capture of a black man accused of a “crime” against a white woman. Jesse’s family made quick preparation and headed off after the convoy that had already begun the journey to Harkness−the location of the day’s excitement. “Where are we going? Are we going on a picnic?” (2565). Again, Jesse’s innocence is evidenced by his child-like lack of understanding. “‘That’s right,’ his father said, ‘we’re going on a picnic. You won’t ever forget this picnic−!” (2565). Jesse’s father makes this statement very knowingly. It is as if he is assured that the event that Jesse is about experience will forever solidify his perception and value system.

It is evident from the story and the historical period in which the story takes place that Jesse had grown up in an extremely racist society.  It can be assumed that he experienced elements of racism and prejudice on a daily basis from the attitude that his father expresses toward the black race as a whole throughout the story. Startlingly, however, Jesse is presented in the light of childish innocence prior to the event at the Harkness. Jesse was just another boy, understanding the basic expectation that society held him to as a member of the white race, but eschewing this expectation for childish games and camaraderie with anyone regardless of race, religion, or any other divisive factor. Jesse just wanted to play and enjoy life. His carefree world was about to change forever.

The car ride seemed to stretch on and on. Jesse noted the strange, cruel curve of his father’s lips. Details of his father’s appearance began to materialize dramatically in his perception. “He was terribly aware of his father’s tongue, it was as though he had never seen it before. And his father’s body seemed as big as a mountain” (2565). The car finally stopped. Jesse stepped out of the vehicle to see a mob standing before a spectacle that had them cheering and had raised the level of excitement to an almost tangible level. The tingle in the air was almost too much for Jesse to bear. He couldn’t quite make out what was going on as he was much shorter than the rest of the crowd, but his father quickly remedied this and placed the young boy on his shoulders. He didn’t want Jesse to miss a thing. The first aspect that Jesse noticed about the scene unfolding in front of him was the gleaming chain.

At this point in the story, the scene changes from an innocent gathering to the disgusting picture that becomes burned into the reader’s consciousness. Baldwin now uses extremely strong language to describe both the scene unfolding before young Jesse and the personal awareness of a boy about to be forever changed by one animalistic act against another human being by a bigoted mob. The most intriguing aspect of this scene is not the inhuman act carried out against the captured man. While the crime committed against the man is certainly the most disturbing aspect of this scene, the act itself is not the point. It becomes a vivid punctuation to the cementation of bigotry within young Jesse’s value system.

Jesse witnesses first hand the unjust torture and murder of a man based solely on race and perception. The grotesque scene culminates in a gruesome mutilation followed by the captured man being beaten to death by the unruly mob. While the murder is taking place, a strange excitement arises in Jesse. It is as if this is the pinnacle of Jesse’s existence. Every racist sentiment that he had been taught throughout his life became tangible. Not only was this excitement present deep within Jesse, but it was also evident in the rest of the crowd. Jesse especially notes his mother’s reaction throughout the ordeal. “He watched his mother’s face. Her eyes were very bright, her mouth was open: she was more beautiful than he and ever seen her, and more strange” (2567). What effect did his mother’s reaction have on the young boy? “He began to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watched the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then. One of his father’s friends reached up and in his hands he held a knife: and Jesse wished that he had been that man” (2567).

In a matter of mere minutes, Jesse had gone from an innocent young boy to bigoted white boy. His perceptions regarding the differences between the races that he had developed over the course of his young life came rushing to the forefront of his mind and he was forever changed. Gone was the young boy who rolled in the dirt with Otis, for Otis was no longer the same. He was now a colored boy. Rushing in to take the place of his childish innocence, set aside in the in the brief moments of watching a man be tortured and murdered, was a hatred that would rule the remainder of Jesse’s life.

This “picnic” was the consolidation of all the bigoted values that Jesse had been taught and had seen modeled by his society throughout his life. This brought Jesse to a point in his life where he was susceptible to a life-altering experience which occurred while he was in attendance of this abhorrent event.  Simply, it was a traumatic experience that finally confirmed all of the racist attitudes and beliefs that the boy had been exposed to throughout his life. It was empirical evidence that reinforced the family and societal values in which Jesse had been indoctrinated. Jesse was unsure of how exactly to react to the situation at hand; therefore, he looked to his family in order to learn what was expected of him. First, his father impressed the young boy while driving to the Harkness. “His [father’s] eyes, which were grey-green, looked yellow in the sunlight; or at least there was a light in them which he had never seen before” (2565). Jesse first notes that his father was changed. He somehow was different and more alive than he had ever been before. This established the emotional tone for the encounter that Jesse was preparing to experience. Then, during the awful scene, Jesse notes his mother’s reaction. This also lends to the way in which Jesse processes this experience. The rest of the mob also plays a crucial role in young Jesse’s perception of the murder as he joins in the mob’s blood-curdling, involuntarily scream as the captured man in finally mutilated and murdered.

Could this have been prevented if the societal norm or Jesse’s family values were different? This is the heart of the question that Baldwin is proposing. He actually presents Jesse’s life as the tragedy within the story. Of course, the torture and murder is absolutely appalling; however, the real tragedy of the story occurs when a young boy was forever lost to the plague of racism due to the conformation to societal norm and expected family values no matter how opposite these values are in regards to true morality. The story is a bold statement that transcends the festering sore of racism on the face of American history and cries out for the reader to examine all of the values to which he or she subscribes and to honestly appraise the foundations on which these beliefs have been constructed. Belief systems based on values that are faulted lead to societies that are broken and, ultimately, to individuals that are horridly misshapen by hatred and selfishness. This is the most prevalent downfall of modern society, and, if the problem is not remedied, it will lead to society’s ultimate demise.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Going to Meet the Man.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th

Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2557-2568

To the Bitter (sweet) End: A reflection on “The Wife of His Youth”

November 9, 2009 3 comments

The Wife of His YouthUnwavering loyalty is a characteristic that is seemingly lost in today’s society at large. Marriages fall apart, families are split, and even churches break due to the fact that we are taught from day one to look out solely for ourselves. The rest of the world is to be forgotten in our grind to reach the top if one is to believe what society propagates through news outlets, entertainment media, and governmental policies.  However, in times long passed, loyalty was a characteristic to be admired and was instilled in family life from day one. When I read Charles Chestnutt’s “The Wife of his Youth,” I was literally taken aback by the show of loyalty at the conclusion of the story, because this vividly contrasts societal teachings of today.

Our protagonist, Mr. Ryder, was the leader of the prestigious Blue Vein Society and, because of his position in the affluent society, there existed a certain expectation regarding the way in which he conducted the business of his life. These standards that exist for the affluent are nothing new. In fact, since the dawn of class based social and economic culture, these unspoken standards have been upheld and garnered greater importance as time has moved forward. One such standard for Mr. Ryder involved who he should marry. Mr. Ryder was sought out by many eligible Blue Vein bachelorettes, but none were found suitable until the arrival of a young, well-educated young lady with a light complexion named Molly Dixon. “In the early days of his connection with the Blue Veins he had been regarded as quite a catch, and young ladies and their mothers had maneuvered with much ingenuity to capture him. Not, however, until Mrs. Molly Dixon visited Groveland had any woman ever made him wish to change his condition to that of a married man” (1641). Mr. Ryder had every intention of making this a reality. He had planned a ball in honor of Mrs. Dixon to ask for her hand in marriage, and according to Chestnutt, “He had no special fears about the outcome, but, with a little touch of romance, he wanted the surroundings to be in harmony with his own feelings when he should have received the answer he expected” (1641).

Mrs. Dixon embodied Blue Vein values and epitomized Blue Vein appearance physically and socially. She was the perfect young woman in Mr. Ryder’s eyes: raised in all the right social circles, engrained with the correct social etiquette, educated, and, above all else, she was even whiter than he was. The way that Mr. Ryder feels is summed up when he states, “’I have no race prejudice,’ he would say, ‘but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one who doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.’” This is where the story becomes baffling.

Mr. Ryder specifically states that self-preservation is the first law of nature. Basically, he is reinforcing the idea of the survival of the fittest or natural selection, and in his estimation, light skinned blacks are better off than those with a darker complexion; therefore, Blue Veins should only associate with Blue Veins and definitely should only marry within the Blue Vein society. He reinforces that idea when he states that it would be a step backward for the Blue Veins to be accepted into “black society” as a whole. This idea of racial prejudice influences every aspect of Mr. Ryder’s life, especially his social interaction. That is, until he is confronted by his past is a most unexpected way.

On the day of his engagement ball, Mr. Ryder, while contemplating an appropriate poem for the occasion, is confronted by a quaint, very old looking, very dark African-American. She is the antithesis of Blue Vein values: uneducated, very dark skinned, and a cook by trade. There could not have been a more appropriate antonym to everything that Mr. Ryder has supported for all his time spent in Groveland. Upon his inquiry, the mystery woman informs Mr. Ryder that she is looking for her husband and has been actively doing so for the last 25 years. Eventually, through the course of conversation, she reveals that she has a photo of her husband. Something about the photo catches Ryder’s attention causing him to, “look long and intently at the portrait” (1645). He politely, but quickly dismisses the woman letting her know that he knows of no mulatto man who goes by the name of Sam and that he has not heard of anyone making an inquiry about a long lost wife.

The question that begs to be answered as Ryder heads up to his room for some time of introspection is why hadn’t he married anyone over the last 25 years? This is where the reader has a chance to make some inference. Upon reflection, it has come to my attention that perhaps Ryder didn’t marry because he had some baggage that he could not deal with. Something in his past that he could not release. Perhaps, after 25 years he finally felt that he could move on without guilt. After all, Mr. Ryder was a different man than he was 25 years prior. He had built a good life for himself. He was the leader of the Blue Veins, the most prestigious colored society around! Yes, the time had come to move on and the perfect person to complete the Blue Vein dynasty had moved to Groveland, but that was before the appearance of the mystery woman.

Why did she have to come? Why now? Why on the eve of the engagement? Similar questions had to have been running through Mr. Ryder’s head as he stood in front of the mirror contemplating the man he had become, the man he had been, and the man he would be. I believe as he stood in front of the mirror, knowing the man of integrity that stared back at him, he made his decision. He was to announce his marriage that night, but the revelation was yet to come to whom he would be marrying.

The guests gathered, the food was served, the band played, the guests danced, and the conversation was light and merry. The time then came for the toasts. Blue Vein elite toasted their affluence to their hearts content and the toast master called the final toaster. Mr. Ryder stood, pensive look in his eyes as he stepped to the forefront of the gathering and began his toast. Ryder relayed the story to his guests that “awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts.” The guests were fascinated by Mr. Ryder’s tale of longing and loss as many of them had heard their fathers or grandfathers tell of the wrongs and sufferings of the past generations.  Then, Ryder drops the bomb on the gathering.

He asks, “What would the man do? I will presume that he was one who loved honor, and tried to deal justly with all men. I will even carry the case further, and suppose that perhaps he had set his heart upon another, whom he had hoped to call his own. What would he do, or rather what ought he to do in such a crisis of a lifetime?” (1645). He punctuates his statement with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man” (1645). Finally, he begs of the audience an answer to the question: Should the man acknowledge the woman? Resoundingly, the audience agrees, and Mr. Ryder excuses himself to the parlor only to emerge a moment later with the visitor from the afternoon, the very antithesis of the Blue Vein ideal and reveals himself as the man in his story and introduces the wife of his youth.

The most striking thing that jumps off the page is the show of loyalty and integrity by Mr. Ryder. He could have continued in his previous plan and proposed to Mrs. Dixon and lived on in Blue Vein prestige, but that would betray the man that he was inside. Above all else, be true to yourself. This principle was the guiding force that allowed Ryder to get to the point where he was at in his life and to abandon it at that moment would have been to betray everything that he was inside and everything that he had become. Ryder had made his decision prior to the dinner on what he was going to do. He used the third person story to explain his motivations behind his action of acknowledging the old woman in order to explain why and to gather sympathy for the decision that went against everything that he had worked so hard to gain as far as his upward strides in Blue Vein society.

Loyalty, integrity, and a sense of great personal responsibility are the values that guided Mr. Ryder to make his decision. The world would be a much stronger place if it would adopt the personal values of Ryder that made him loyal to the bitter (sweet) end.

Works Cited

Chestnutt, Charles. “The Wife of His Youth.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 1640-1648