Marlboro Man Migrant
Prejudice is a common theme in American literature. Centuries of slavery and a race-based political, economic, and social hierarchy has made it necessary to discuss prejudice from as many angles as possible. White privilege has inured many white Americans to acknowledge the ways prejudices continue to manifest in daily life, but people of color know better. Authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Brent Staples, Jamaica Kincaid, and Maya Angelou discuss their personal experiences of prejudice in nuanced ways. Each of these autobiographical essays discusses a specific angle or experience of prejudice. Angelou recalls life growing up in segregated school systems, and how black students were taught that they had no role to play in pursuing the American Dream. Staples discusses an ongoing issue of racial profiling, and Kinkaid frames prejudice in terms of a paradigm that informed cultural imperialism. Hurston describes how whites paint people of color in whatever way they please, in order to suit their own wishes for perpetuated power. Although their genders, generations, and cultural backgrounds differ significantly, all four of these authors of color share common experiences related to prejudice. Zora Neale Hurston, Brent Staples, Jamaica Kincaid, and Maya Angelou all discuss prejudice in terms of institutionalized racism, and each author suggests that self-empowerment is the only method of genuine liberation from prejudice.
In "Just Walk on By," Brent Staples discusses the "language of fear" that permeates American society (1). The language of fear Staples mentions is fear of blackness. Staples noticed that especially in urban centers, a black man is a symbol of fear. Part of the reason for the fear of blackness has been the elevation of black muggings to a level of legend through popular culture and media messages. The American society has been taught to fear black men, especially young black men. Black men are associated with the perpetrators of violence. Staples notes that he can hear the locks in cars "thunk thunk" when the drivers see him coming (1). Because racial profiling remains one of the most serious manifestations of racism in America, Staples discusses an important personal yet collective manifestation of prejudice. Black men are viewed as inherently violent and a potential threat, and are pre-judged accordingly. This makes it difficult for journalists like Staples to work on assignments, as his interview subjects perceive him as a threat. Portraying young black men as being automatic threats in the mainstream media creates and reinforces institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism assumes many different forms, and for Staples, that form is the perpetuation of stereotypes that prevent young black men from participating equally in interpersonal interactions with strangers even on a professional level.
Although Angelou, Hurston, and Kinkaid are all black females and thus not summarily labeled as being criminal threats as Staples is, their experiences as women of color is similar to that of Staples. Thus, there are some gender differences in the experience of prejudice. Males are perceived as being young "thugs," with the "power to intimidate," (Staples 2). Women of color have different experiences; they are not cast as thugs. Instead, they are made invisible by the white patriarchal and prejudicial social systems. As Kinkaid puts it, it seems as if she was "someone on the outside looking in," as English white society was empowered to depict black society in any way it chose and without black input (369). Likewise, women of color are systematically ignored as if they do not exist. Maya Angelou's memory of her graduation ceremony shows how all black children are rendered invisible by institutionalized racism.
In "Graduation," Maya Angelou recalls the time of her high school graduation. She graduated second in her class, and was excited about the event and eager to watch her dreams come true. Angelou describes every detail of the build-up to the ceremony, including the pride that she and her mother took in sewing her pretty yellow dress. The students excitedly listen to their principal, when the ceremony is interrupted with the arrival of two white men. Angelou describes the way one of the white men named Donleavy summarily steals the seat of the principal in a blatant display of his sense of entitlement and authority. The act was disrespectful, and Angelou uses the metaphor of rape to describe the situation as she cleverly mentions the Rape of Lucrece (29). Then, the white man proceeds to insult and denigrate the entire student body. He talks about the improvements made to the white school, including laboratory and chemistry equipment. The black school would receive no such improvements, because the white men believed that the black students would all become athletes. As Angelou puts it, "the white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren't even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises (29).
The author is not trying to insult Jesse Owens or Joe Louis. What Angelou is pointing out is two important things about the way prejudice is manifest in American society. First, there are gender-related prejudices that are highlighted here and which Staples cannot address because Staples is a man and does not understand sexism experiences any more than a white man understands institutionalized racism. The second point Angelou makes is that institutionalized racism begins at the very foundations of society -- in the way children are raised and taught in schools. Her story reveals the roots of institutionalized racism. Prejudice is built into the very fabric of American social institutions. Black schools have fewer resources than white schools, and black students are not expected to amount to much, anyway.
Jamaica Kinkaid perceives the root cause of racism in English imperialism, which is inextricably entwined with the colonization of the Americas and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Kinkaid was raised in the British West Indies, and from her perspective, England was some magical far away land that nevertheless had a strong bearing on her daily life. She sang "God Saves the Queen" in school and was fed a prejudicial system in which her entire country was painted as being categorically inferior to the Motherland. As Kinkaid puts it, "the sun shone with what sometimes seemed to be a deliberate cruelty; we must have done something to deserve that," (369). When Kinkaid finally travels to England to see this far-away magical land up close and personal, she finds that the chasm between imagination and reality are great. She has a personal awakening to what English society is actually like, and how it impacted her collective social identity and her personal identity as a woman of color in a former English colony. Kinkaid notes, "The space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and deep and dark," (370). Her use of the word "dark" is no accident, as it is racial consciousness that Kinkaid is primarily referring to in her diatribe against colonialism. Kinkaid traces personal experiences of prejudice to a racist system of social norms. The racist system of social norms permeates English society in every way, infiltrating its political, economic, and cultural institutions. Thus, racism becomes institutionalized and the people of color come to internalize a sense of inferiority. It took a trip to England to discover that blacks are certainly not inferior to whites. If anything, Kinkaid believes the opposite as she witnesses the gluttony and greed that underwrite English policy towards imperialism and colonial rule.
While both Kinkaid and Angelou trace what they perceive as a root cause of prejudice in their respective societies, Zora Neale Hurston focuses more on the solution to racism: personal empowerment. Before Hurston offers her advice on personal empowerment, though, she describes how she "became" colored in "How It Feels to be Colored Me." In "How it Feels to Be Colored Me," Hurston claims that her being labeled as "colored" is artificial. Whites project notions of blackness on people, and those notions go far beyond the superficialities of skin color. What it means to be black in America is akin to what Staples describes: the projection of stereotyping and prejudicial beliefs. When Hurston arrived in Jacksonville she became, at thirteen years old, "a little colored girl."
The idea of being colored is a peculiar one for Hurston, as it is for all four of these authors. Hurston on the one hand embraces her blackness fully, as does Angelou. Hurston, however, seems ambivalent about being black because she views colored binaries as impediments to universal love and understanding. For Hurston, she wants to return to the time she was just Zora and not a "little colored girl." She states, "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." In other words, only because whiteness is normative does blackness become the Other. If blackness were normative, whiteness would be the Other. Racial identity is all relative, but in American society, there is a pre-existing race-based social hierarchy. Hurston writes as a Southerner and her experiences in Jacksonville…