Essay: In what ways is African American identity contested in the stories?
For almost two centuries the short story has been part of the American literary tradition. It is one of the most essential literary genres of American culture. But it has been just as important to African American culture. Richard Wright and James Baldwin are two of the most well-known African American short story authors. They represent African American identity and culture in their short stories from the black point of view. William Faulkner, whose story will be analysed in this essay together with the ones of Wright and Baldwin, represents African American identity from a white author’s point of view. This essay will look at a variety of ways in which African American identity is contested in three short stories by these three authors. The stories the essay will deal with are Wright’s story The Man Who Was Almost a Man, written in 1961, Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues from 1957 and William Faulkner’s That Evening Sun which was published for the first time in 1931, but also appeared in 1950 which is the version this essay relies on. Black writers have often been “neglected or misread because of their ‘race’”, as Byerman argues, therefore it is interesting to take a look at the ways black identity is represented and contested in those stories.1 But is there a difference in the representation of black identity if it is contested by a white writer? The question is if Faulkner’s representation of African American identity as a white author is more influenced by stereotypes than Wright’s or Baldwin’s. Or might some of these stereotypes actually be part of the black identity? This essay will aim at answering those questions and it will compare the different representations of African American identity in the three short stories. But at first one must think about what African American identity, and identity in general, even means.
The concept of identity is difficult to define. Therefore, this essay will not try to find one definition, but it will take a look at the factors which African American identity is composed of, because in the Oxford dictionary, identity can be defined as “the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is”.2 So it is not simply a term but a complex concept. What certainly influences your identity is the culture and the environment you live in. African American identity is influenced by African culture but also by American culture. Since in the times those stories have been written in, blacks were the minority in America, especially in the South and they were being treated badly by the whites, racism and oppression also make up part of the identity because they are part of their environment and the African American past. As Bercovitch argues, “most African Americans in the 1920s and 30s found the economy, or rather their place in it, dictating their way of life”.3 But as becomes obvious if we take a look at the following analysis of the short stories, aspects like music and religion also make up a great part of African American identity as they are an important aspect of their culture.
The first short story contesting African American identity is The Man Who Was Almost a Man by Richard Wright. The story has been published in 1961 and is part of Wright’s collection of stories Eight Men. Wright was born in Mississippi in a rural area which reminds of the setting of the story.4 He is an African American writer who grew up in “extreme poverty” and “violent bigotry of whites”, what certainly shaped his writing.5 In the 1930s many writers like Wright were sent out to document black life and history, interviewing former slaves and rural farmers.6
These experiences and growing up in the rural southern environment himself must have acquainted him with African American identity.
Wright tells the story of a young black American, Dave Saunders, who lives in the rural South and struggles to get respect from the adults around him, especially the whites. Wright “shapes a convincing and moving account of the black experience of growing up in the rural South”.7 At the turn of the twentieth century 90% of American blacks lived in the South of the US. African American Identity in this story appears to be defined mostly by the environment Dave grows up in. At the same time racial differences define his life. “Wright offered naturalistic narratives that revealed the violent effects of racism and poverty. He was willing to risk having his characters associated with racial stereotypes in order to make clear what the nation was doing to its black citizens”.8 This shows that stereotypes are part of the black identity too. It seems impossible to display African American identity in a story without risk proving some stereotypes.
The main character of the story, Dave, is still a child but wants to be accepted as an adult so he is basically still on the way of finding his identity. At the beginning the reader could even assume that Dave is white because he talks about the other blacks as if he is not one of them. “Them niggers can’t understand nothing. One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy”.9 He seems to not understand that he has less privileges because he is black, not because he is not an adult. All he wants is to be a man. “Ahm gittin t be a man like anybody else!”.10 That is the reason why he wants to own a gun so badly. “And if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him”.11 The gun basically works as a symbol for maturity and manhood which he thinks will bring him respect. But the truth is that in those times blacks like him are just treated like this by white people. “Nobody ever gave him anything. All he did was work. They treat me like a mule, n then they beat me”.12 What also makes it difficult for Dave to associate with African American identity is that he has no “adult black males to guide him or even to serve as models” but his “larger social setting is obviously dominated by white men, Joe at the store and especially Jim Hawkins, his employer”.13 The environment is an important aspect of identity, especially in the process of growing up.
What shapes Wright’s way of contesting African American identity the most therefore are the surroundings and the society in which we grow up, including the way Dave is treated by people in his environment.
Baldwin’s short story Sonny’s Blues shows a completely different aspect of African American culture. The story appeared 1957 in Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man. Baldwin is “not naturally a short story writer, though his much anthologized “Sonny’s Blues” is a short story classic”.14 The story focuses on Sonny’s drug abuse and his musical talent and his relationship to his brother. It “mentions the difficulties of […] growing up and maintaining an identity as a young black man in the American city at mid-century”.15 Other than Wright’s The Man Who Was Almost a Man, Baldwin’s story is set in the urban area. The brothers grew up in Harlem, a neighbourhood in New York which in those times was defined by its black inhabitants, poverty and crime.
As the narrator tells us, many who grow up in Harlem can turn “hard or evil or disrespectful”.16 And Sonny has fallen into that trap too.
Baldwin’s stories involve race, but it is not the central aspect of his stories. Music is the central theme of the story and also one of the most important aspects of African American identity. Furthermore, “music, and jazz in particular, was particularly important to Baldwin”.17 In Sonny’s Blues “Baldwin makes use of music from the sacred and secular continuum in the African-American community”.18 Music has always been a way of expressing, especially for African Americans who suffered of oppression and slavery. “Sonny’s relationship to music […] is as melded into his identity and being as his relationship to heroin”.19 His drug abuse is connected to his relationship to music. The voice of a female singer Sonny listens to reminds him “for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes – when it’s in your veins”.20 Here we can see that Baldwin risks stereotypes as well although it is not an exclusively black stereotype.
Sonny’s brother is not a fan of Sonny’s musical talent whereas it seems like Baldwin wanted Sonny to hold on to the African American identity and the southern traditions by playing this kind of music. His brother and the rest of the family probably do not approve of the music as they associate it with crime and his drug abuse. Besides jazz, there is another African American musical tradition evoked in the text: the gospel music.
1 Keith Byerman, ‘African American Fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction after 1945, ed. by John N. Duvall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 85-98 (p. 86).
2 Oxford Dictionary (2018) <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/identity> [2 May 2018].
3 Sacvan Bercovitch (Ed.), ‘Black Modernism’, in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 6: Prose Writing, 1910-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 348-352 (p. 349).
4 Richard Wright, ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’, in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, ed. by Joyce Carol Oates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 365-377 (p. 365).
5 Ibid., p. 365.
6 John Lowe, ‘Writing the American Story, 1945-1952’, in The Cambridge History of African American Literature, ed. by Maryemma Graham and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 341-355 (p. 342).
7 John E. Loftis, ‘Domestic Prey: Richard Wright’s Parody of the Hunt Tradition in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”’, Studies in Short Fiction, 23.4 (1986), pp. 437-442 (p. 442).
8 Byerman, p. 86.
9 Wright, p. 366.
10 Ibid., p. 366.
11 Ibid., p. 371.
12 Wright, p. 376.
13 Loftis, p. 440.
14 James Baldwin, ‘Sonny’s Blues’, in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, ed. by Joyce Carol Oates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 482-513 (p. 482).
15 Eva Kowalska, ‘Troubled reading: ‘Sonny’s blues’ and empathy’, Literator, 36.1 (2015), pp. 1-6 (p. 5).
16 Baldwin, p. 483.
17 Martin Scofield (Ed.), ‘Charles Chesnutt, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and the African American short story to 1965’, in The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 183-194 (p. 191).
18 Steven C. Tracy, ‘Sonny in the Dark: Jazzing the Blues Spirit and the Gospel Truth in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”’, James Baldwin Review, 1 (2015), pp. 165-178 (p. 165).
19 Kowalska, p. 3.
20 Baldwin, p. 505.