Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Response to Reading Sixteen

Fortunately, I have been able to take several university classes that focus on racial issues in contemporary society. Many of these classes explore racial themes from the 1800s onward. Therein, I have read countless pieces by Frederick Douglass, including the essay in The Rhetorical Tradition. I find the struggles of African Americans, particularly those of Douglass's time to be almost unbearable. The conditions and social moods that these individuals were subject to are outrageous and horrific.

In one particular class, my professor used the phrase "write themselves into existence." To me, this was an absolutely poignant phrase that described how early African American writers had to literally write themselves into existence. In order to have an identity, they had to almost force it upon people. Another concept I have come to understand through these kinds of classes is that of "double consciousness" in which the individual is caught between an identity they want to have and an identity that has been given to them. Those this was a term coined by W.E.B. Dubois, I imagine that Douglass faced a similar struggle. I have learned a great deal in previous classes and reading Douglass's essay for a second time only helped to reaffirm my knowledge on the subject matter.

Nineteenth and twentieth century dominant discourses clung to three main ideas about African American culture. The first was simply that they were inferior to white society purely because their complexion was darker. The second belief was that all great accomplishments came from European ancestry. They saw African Americans as imitators incapable of being educated. Whites also viewed themselves to be the only civilized peoples because blacks, according to them, had no history of arts and sciences. Dominant discourses laid forth harsh judgments of African American society. But counter narratives, like the works of Douglass and so many others, encouraged an enlightenment of sorts. They created a defense against common thoughts of segregation, thus initiating momentous change. But interestingly, these doctrines of hope often shed additional light on the inner turmoil African Americans face while caught between the past and present. African Americans struggled between their heritage and their future, their identity and subjectivity.

African American writers were charged with the uphill battle of writing themselves into existence during the troubled times of nineteenth and twentieth-century America. Dominant discourses shaped white America’s thoughts. They allowed an ignorant, second-class stereotype to become the prevailing identity for African Americans. Unfortunately, it was a majority opinion unchallenged for decades. Sociology describes this as “institutional racism,” in which individuals may, unwillingly, succumb to the social pressures of racist behavior purely to fit in with cultural norms (McIntyre 34). The civil rights movement, often through the use of counter narratives, confronted such social traditions. African American authors showed America a more subjective view of themselves. The goal by writing themselves into existence was to disestablish the predominant standards, creating an identity based upon personal rather than cultural definitions. But in this battle to fight dominant discourses, African Americans were conflicted in a state of double consciousness. W.E.B. Dubois keenly describes this in Of Our Spiritual Strivings, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness…One ever feels his two-ness, --- an American, a Negro” (38). There was a disconnection between identity, cultural interpretations, and subjectivity, personal views of self. African Americans struggled with identification based on what past white Americans perceived and their own future ambitions of self definition.

I cannot begin to imagine the struggles that existed for these early rhetors of color. How brave they were to try to counter dominant trends that had been pervasive and horrific for centuries!

Works Cited
Dubois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: UP John Wilson and Son, 1903. 37-44.
McIntyre, Lisa. The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

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