2.2. Mary Prince: Black Slavery’s Injustices
The same could be said about Jacobs’ Caribbean counterpart, Mary Prince, whose The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself also depicts African racial identity in terms of degradation to the level of chattel and the immense injustice originating in the suppression of any rights over themselves. The narrator disagrees openly with the stereotypes connected to the lower status of slaves when she exclaims: “Oh the Buckra people who keep slaves think that black people are like cattle, without natural affection. But my heart tells me is far otherwise” (Prince 9). The depreciation of blacks by the white ruling class is displayed when Prince tells about the atrocious castigations by her mistress whom she defines as “a fearful woman and a savage mistress to her slaves” (6). The cruelness of the punishments carried out on slaves is repeatedly described and forms an important theme in Prince’s writing: “To strip me naked--to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence” (7) in order to maintain power and to contain slaves from rebelling against their masters. There is no person from the slave community that would escape the castigation, including children, pregnant women, and old people. Prince depicts slavery as having no respect for the people of African origin, given the belief that they were closer to animals than human beings.
The same as Jacobs, Prince also touches upon the phenomenon of people of mixed race when she speaks negatively about a mulatto woman that is hired by her master: “She was such a fine lady she wanted to be mistress over me. I thought it very hard for a colored woman to have rule over me because I was a slave and she was free” (14). Compared to Jacobs, Prince also finds the injustice in the free versus slave dichotomy. Prince does not agree with the mulatto woman, who proves mischievous and aggressive towards the slaves, considering herself to be superior to a black person. Prince does not regard a mulatto person as standing higher on the social scale just because she is of mixed ancestry and considers her colored regardless. The color of one’s skin works as the basis for the enslavement and race is identified with class for both Jacobs and Prince. Skin color relates to the position of a person in the society and suggests the lack of freedom.
2.3. Toni Morrison: Advocating Black Beauty
Set in the 1930s, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye portrays the situation of working-class urban black family of Breedloves and the predominant racist attitudes regarding the African-American community. The novel narrates Pecola Breedlove’s struggle for the reversal of her desperate situation of a black female child who, in her desire to be loved, wants to posses blue eyes. Written after the 1960s’ reassurance of black concept of the beautiful in terms of self-esteem, equality and respect, the book accentuates the issues of the subordination of African-Americans that were still present in the first half of the twentieth century. In Morrison’s novel, people of color are attributed a certain social status in the minds of others and their own. The prejudiced lack of consideration towards human beings of other than the white race becomes an important topic here, as well as internalized racism. According to the color of one’s skin, people are split up into two categories of beautiful and ugly. Pecola’s childhood and growing-up is marked, according to Abdellatif Khayafi, by the frustration resulting from not conforming to the models of happy childhood represented by Dick and Jane, the white happy children characters from a school primer. Being the most innocent (child) together with the most vulnerable part of the society (woman), a female child proves strongly impacted by such models and very vulnerable to the injustices and miseries the adults may already take for granted (Mellage). Being brought up in such environment and culture, a black girl’s self-hatred is a natural reaction to the system of beliefs she acquires. Contrasted with the idyllic lives of Dick and Jane, Pecola ceases to see herself as who she is. What else could be so important in the eyes of a black girl, growing up in the poverty-stricken industrialized north, than that the people start to value her and love her the same way the whole world loves Shirley Temple and her sweet blond classmate?
Pecola’s desire to change her appearance in order to not be despised by others makes the reader to reflect on her ugliness as the source of her misery and on her blackness as the origin of other people’s aversion: “The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes” (Morrison 37). Not only do other adults show their lack of interest in Pecola, it is striking that her own mother finds her ugly and there seems to be a more caring relationship between her and a white girl child from the household she is helping at. Pecola, in her weakness and vulnerability, represents an easy victim for her schoolmates’ bullying: “It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn” (Morrison 50). But what is the thing that really makes Pecola so low on the scale of others’ concern?
In The Bluest Eye, the type of racism that we encounter is based on prejudiced moral and social principles as well as the color of one’s skin. Black is attributed to vulgarity and moral ugliness, while white is celebrated as the “nobler half of humanity” equaled to good manners, noble beauty, and lack of passion (Yarbrough and Bennett). It is repeated several times in the book that black people are treated with contempt. This is not only true when speaking about white and black relationships, but also as acquired by the colored community itself when mulatto school teacher Geraldine stresses to her son that: “[she] did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (Morrison 67). The concept of colorism as it can be found in this story clearly prioritizes light skin inhabitants to black ones, and thus creates a kind of racism within the community of people of African descent. In the light of colorist ideas, black people form the most disadvantaged segment of the society and have to countervail the prejudiced misunderstanding of the inaccessibility of education with vulgarity, of their poverty with filthiness. We can attribute these ideas to Geraldine, a mulatto woman who dedicated all her life to be “schooled into the white middle-class ethos of ‘respectability’” and who was “molded on the image of the white ‘respectable’ lady whose life is inane” (Khayati). The Bluest Eye is an “indisputably black” (Khayati) novel because interrogates the existence of race in a way that stresses the need for black people’s reassurance and confidence that can make a difference, the necessity of loving blackness, to borrow bell hooks’ words.
2.4. Jamaica Kincaid: Not At Home in Her Own Skin
Published in 1990 as the author’s second novel, following the first autobiographical tale Annie John, Lucy could be read as a second “installment in the imaginatively rearranged story of the author’s life” (Paravisini-Gerbert 16), drawing on Kincaid’s experiences in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jamaica Kincaid’s narrator Lucy challenges and transcends the typical relationships between masters and servants, colonizers and colonized, and refuses to define herself in terms of the dichotomies of race and gender, thus confirming Kincaid’s belief in the uniqueness of identity. When compared to other fictional writings by women of African origin, Kincaid’s understanding of identity is what distinguishes her character Lucy from the other female characters analyzed in my thesis so far. Stigmatized by pertaining to the other gender and other race, Kincaid does not discuss race and gender explicitly though it provides the context for what she mainly accentuates: the concept of freedom and self-assertion as the objective of the main character of her novel Lucy.
As a writer of African-Caribbean origin, Jamaica Kincaid is aware of the position of the other, which people of color assume in the predominantly white society like the United States, being “not at home in [their] own skin” (Kincaid 147). Even though Lucy does not distinguish skin color as a personal characteristic of particular importance, racial pertinence plays a role in the discussion of Lucy’s position within the white middle-class family where she works and within the American society of the 1970s. When traveling with Mariah and the children on a train, Lucy notes the people of the train in terms of two classes: “The other people sitting down to eat dinner all looked like Mariah’s relatives; the people waiting on them all looked like mine” (Kincaid 32). Being aware of racial and class inequality, Lucy “adopts a more explicitly counter-hegemonic stance” to the world that surrounds her (Paravisini-Gebert 141). She comes into terms with the “existing relations between the colonizer and the colonized” that still survive in the postcolonial setting of the world (Ferguson 51).
As far as racial identity is concerned, Lucy is seen as well-balanced in terms of her pertinence to the black race. She does not understand color and race as principal human being characteristic. When she observes Mariah’s claim about her having Indian blood, Lucy’s perception that “she says it as if she were announcing her possession of a trophy” (Kincaid 40) alludes to bell hook’s conception of the exotic ethnicity in the midst of depleted white culture: “ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks, Black Looks 21). The intent of Mariah to highlight her open-mindedness and her acceptance of multiculturality only intensifies the gap between herself and Lucy who does not see the necessity of saying such a thing. While for Mariah acknowledging her Indian blood represents a kind of vindication for the society she is part of, Lucy sees the reality and history of oppression that does not deserve mentioning. With this unfortunate remark, Mariah intends to bridge racial difference and otherness but only confirms it more.
2.5. Alice Walker: African-American Women’s Heritage and Future
Coming from Alice Walker’s first book of short stories, In Love and Trouble, the story “Everyday Use” portrays three different women with their identities and respective ways of understanding themselves in relation to their African American cultural and racial heritage. Set in the 1960s’ Black Power’s revival of the African continent, the story explores the confrontation of the three female characters, a mother and her daughter Maggie who live in modest rural conditions and the older daughter Dee when she comes home for a visit from a city after having accepted the rhetoric of the black awareness movements. The old tensions are renewed and amplified by Dee’s adoption of Black Power views about race and the African American life and traditions.
Race and its implication on the self-esteem play an important role in the story and it could be said that the characters’ excess or lack of self-esteem impersonates different stages of the emancipation of African Americans. The complete lack of self-esteem in case of the younger daughter Maggie, resulting from an unfortunate childhood accident from a house fire, reminds us of black people under slavery. Maggie is the opposite of her sister Dee, who takes pride in her intellectual superiority and refinement and ruthlessly pursues higher goals in her life. Mama, on the other hand, is a good-natured, hard-working black woman who succeeds in making the best of what she has, and, by living a simple but sincere life she manifests respect for her ancestors and traditions. In this story, Walker is struggling to find the true black womanhood in the sense of understanding and preservation of the African American heritage, as the foundation stone of black women’s self-esteem. The story’s main contribution to the topic of black women’s self-esteem as it relates to color is through the maintenance of African American tradition and the understanding of the African-American women’s prospects.
The nuances in skin color, as they were insinuated in The Bluest Eye, become also visible in “Everyday Use” when the character of Dee is considered by her mother and sister as an example of brightness, refinement, and beauty: “Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 47). Lighter skin color becomes one of the traits that privilege Dee’s physical appearance and attribute her with almost higher-class qualities. Another instance of colorism arises when Mama imagines herself on a television and her dream portrays her as thinner and with a lighter complexion, qualities that contrast with her true appearance but in her mind make her a better person than she is, at least in her older daughter’s eyes.
The character of Dee is depicted as “struggling to define [her] personal identities in cultural terms” (White, Defining 1). In her blind adoption of the Black Power lifestyle and beliefs, Dee is portrayed as pretentious, superficial, and egoistic, reminding Mama and Maggie of their vulgarity and intellectual inferiority: “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 47). The fact of accepting an African name while still not able to acknowledge and understand her real family heritage proves Dee’s situation of “double consciousness” that prevents her from being able to approach her own people without looking down on them and judging them. The phenomenon of “double consciousness” was described by W.E.B. DuBois as looking at one’s own race through the eyes of the white Other (Sexton). The topic of racial consciousness becomes a paradox in this story because Dee, in her supposed reclamation of African heritage, looks down on her mother’s and sister’s way of living, much more authentic in their conservation of traditions, which associates her with the very mechanisms of oppression she pretends to deny (Sexton). The story’s internalized racism can be compared to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in the contempt of the more privileged blacks against the poorer and darker-skinned African-Americans who are thought of as low on the scale of culture and morality.
True to her African-American heritage and striving to exalt the beauty of blackness is the main character of Alice Walker’s short story “Coming Apart.” The narrator of the story serves as an example of a woman who resolves to address the hurtful public representations of the black womanhood that are damaging her self-esteem. Her identity and respectability as an African American woman living in the 1980s become undermined by means of pornographic magazines and the negative representations of black women in these. The concept of skin color and racial identity in “Coming Apart” exposes the residuals of racist and sexist assumptions about the black women’s sexuality and identity. The way in which the main character understands her position in the surrounding society in terms of her blackness and feminity becomes affected by the depreciation of these norms. The story’s insertion of black feminist writings dedicated to this topic, which the main character reads, provides her with an affirmation of her struggle and a sense of satisfaction coming from the fact that she can contribute to the universal advancement of black womanhood.
Confronted with images of black and white women as they are represented in pornography, the main character perceives the image of white women as “inviting” while the image of a black woman portrays her “as a human’s turn at man’s feet” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 170). Learning that her husband satisfies himself sexually over a porn magazine depicting white women, the wife “feels invisible. Rejected. Overlooked.” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 170) Being “a brownskin woman with black hair and eyes,” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 170) the fact that white women and their white beauty arouse her husband hurts her feelings and her dignity. She starts to underestimate and devalue herself when she examines her appearance: “She looks in a mirror at her plump brown and black body, crinkly hair and black eyes and decides, foolishly, that she is not beautiful” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 172). But when she thinks about herself becoming her mother in the process of aging, she finds that she actually “considers her mother [...] very sexy” and “[a]t once she feels restored [and] resolves to fight,” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 172) to fight the false and ugly blondness of “hookers trooping down the street” in New York (Walker, “Everyday Use” 171) and the images of “young women – blonde, with elastic waists” that “are not [her]” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 170) in the same way as bell hooks speaks about the necessity for a black woman to “counter the representation of herself, her body, her being as expendable” (hooks, Black Looks 65). Her fight consists in making her husband realize and understand the remnants of the black women’s oppression in his own behavior. His attraction to white women can be explained as some kind of identification with the status of a white man. The complex of inferiority the black man experienced historically, when he could not protect and provide for his wives and daughters, is now transmitted upon his wife and his relationship to white and black women in general. In “Coming Apart,” racial identity is constructed by the complex realities of oppression and emancipation as they have remained imprinted on the psyche of black people.
2.6. Olive Senior: Life Between the Dark and the Light
Olive Senior’s short story “Bright Thursdays” is set in the late 1970s’ or early 1980s’ Caribbean. The story deals with the main character’s coming of age and her search for identity and self-esteem, as characterized by severe self-evaluation in terms of color, beauty, and belonging. Laura, the main character, has been brought up by her mother in rural Jamaica, but all her life she was being prepared for “life at ease and comfort” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 198). Being the result of a “romance” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 197) between her mother and Mr. Bertram, a man from a well-off family, Laura finds herself alienated from the environment she was born in as well as the society her father belongs to. Outcast from both of these settings, we encounter Laura in the period of searching for her real identity and her place in the world. The story explores the problematic relationship of an unclaimed child to herself and her heritage. Given Laura’s lighter skin color, Miss Myrtle, Laura’s mother, “[grooms] her daughter for the role she [feels] she would play in life” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 198), transfers her hope that one day her father will claim her onto her child and thus contributes to Laura’s final disillusionment. To find herself, Laura has to come to the understanding that Laura’s father does not care for her and will not claim her or make her life better all at once, as her mother had made her believe.
The question of color and its tone creates many tensions and concerns in the story. Being an illegitimate child of a man from a higher society, the color of Laura’s skin becomes an important issue in her life. Apart from her hair, eyes, and facial features that also contribute to the acceptability of her looks, color, being the most visible and least changeable of all, becomes a decisive factor. When Laura arrives to her grandmother’s house to be educated and to learn good manners, her grandmother, Miss Christie, feels “gratified that she was so much lighter than the photograph” that Laura’s mother had sent her (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 202). In the higher-class that her grandparents come from, there is a preference for lighter skin color. As a remainder of the enforced colonial system of beliefs, colorism becomes the decisive principle in the social stratification. The fact that “Laura came out with dark skin” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 197) is regretted several times throughout the story. The racist ideas of white supremacy embodied by the Jamaican higher ranks can be observed when Miss Christie talks about lower-rank women who are, according to her understanding, “dying to raise their color” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 199). Colorism, the belief that lighter-skinned people can lead a more meaningful life than those of darker complexion, is linked to the stereotypical idea of black women’s immorality and corruption. It is curious that these views are held by the member of the same race, but a different social class. Miss Christie can also be noted for being rather presumptuous and prejudiced when she says about visitors from the United States that are coming to the Caribbean that “they believe that everybody from Jamaica is a monkey and lives in trees” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 209), reminding us strongly of the prejudices from the early colonial times. Being lighter-skinned and wealthy provides Miss Christie with the idea of racial hierarchy according to which she is in a position to look down on the poor black majority in Jamaica. Just as lighter skin color is attributed to higher-class citizenship, it also plays a crucial role in the portrayal of beauty and self-esteem, as will be observed in one of the following chapters dedicated to the topic.
The struggle of a female child character to find her identity while growing up in between two opposing worlds – one that celebrates blackness and traditional values, the other rather materialistic and resembling the white society as the ideal – can be observed in Senior’s short story “The Two Grandmothers”. Set in the 1980s, the story describes a young girl’s struggle to understand her self in terms of cultural and racial identity, and to define her self by choosing one of the two completely different worldviews. It is a story about taking sides and finding one’s self-esteem. The two contrasting worlds and lifestyles, one reclaiming the African heritage and tradition and the other resembling European and American culture, competing to overrule the middle-class Caribbean in the 1980s are represented by the main character’s two grandmothers. Grandma Del, a typical black rural granny figure contrasts with Towser, the prototype of an Americanized light-skinned grandmother who dwells on her young appearance and money. While Grandma Del maintains the values of Christian morality and black pride, Towser accepts wealth and white looks as the only desirable way of improvement for people of color.
The idea of race and color plays a crucial role in the main character’s growing up and forming of her self. It is only through the contrasting opinions about race and skin color that surround and influence her that she becomes alert to the differences in people’s color and aware of this distinctive feature and its often negative associations. By telling her granddaughter that “[her] skin is beautiful like honey and all in all [she is] a fine brown lady and must make sure to grow as beautiful inside as [she is] outside,” 1 Grandma Del wishes to awake a sense of black pride in her granddaughter and appeals to her inner beauty rather than superficial attractiveness. On the other hand, the second grandmother, Towser, does not hide the fact she “is sorry [her granddaughter] came out dark because she is almost a white lady.” In Towser’s attitude towards skin color we can observe her refusal to accept her racial and cultural identity. At the beginning, the main character does not understand what is wrong with being dark-skin but through a series of comments by others she soon comes to the conclusion that being dark is associated with dirt, lack of culture, poverty, and “having babies without being married.”
Similar contrasting assertions are made by her grandmothers about the main character’s hair and overall visage. Grandma Del praises the thickness and length of her hair and rubs it with castor oil to make it soft and thicker, while Towser claims that something needs to be done about her hair and recommends to cut it off to “get some of the kinks out.” Under the obvious though not acknowledged influence of Towser the main character wants to undergo a chemical procedure in order to have her “hair relaxed as soon as [she is] twelve.” Growing up comes along with uncertainties about one’s self and comparison with other people to realize one’s own particularities is a natural reaction. The main character of the story is comparing herself to others on the basis of color and hair. Placed in the middle of two contradicting standards of beauty, she has to find her own way and opinion. In “The Two Grandmothers” we can observe a development of the main character from innocence to experience. In the beginning the girl is excited about the tradition her Grandma Dell is trying to introduce her to. But after being confronted with negative attitudes towards her blackness when she is called a “nigger” by a girl of the same age, she wishes her skin was not “so dark” and her hair “so coarse” and negates her blackness. She perceives rural Jamaica in terms of boredom, illiteracy, and ignorance, and gradually becomes a full member of the urban middle-class. She fails in reconciling and claiming her African origin and her ideas of appearance and self-esteem are subjected to the mainstream, self-denying attitudes of this class.
As bell hooks puts it in Black Looks: Race and Representation, this kind of negation of one’s blackness that we can observe in Senior’s short story originates from the opinion that equality can be pursued by means of material prosperity and the resemblance to white culture:
As long as black folks are taught that the only way we can gain any degree of economic self-sufficiency or be materially privileged is by first rejecting blackness, our history and culture, then there will always be a crisis in black identity. Internalized racism will continue to erode collective struggle for self-determination. Masses of black children will continue to suffer from low self-esteem. (hooks, Black Looks 18)
This is the situation in which the main character of a young girl finds herself and which mirrors the changing system of beliefs and values in Jamaica. On the one hand there is the rural environment where people are observed by the main character as being shameful, dirty, and uneducated; on the other hand she sees the mainstream prosperous society, represented by her sophisticated, wealthy, and young-looking Grandma Towser, where black people behave as whites and where black women “must resemble white women to be considered really beautiful” (hooks, Black Looks 73). In “The Two Grandmothers,” racial identity and beauty are mutually influencing and can not be separated as two isolated concepts. Senior’s story pretends to highlight the importance of ascribing self-consciousness and positive characteristics to the African race.