African American Perspective

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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“Literature is often utilized to reflect on the issues present in societies. One of the most prevalent issues are prejudices and racism shown by institutions and the individual people. In the 20th century, dark skin resulted in far less freedom and eventually even light-skinned biracial African Americans received discrimination – not because of their skin – but because of their blood. The variety of skin tones, and the amount of biracial people was unavoidable; America is a melting pot, and we have every shade of skin and every mix of blood. Yet, still, a section of our population is put under discrimination, and the most prevalent literature in the mid-1900’s was of African Americans. Literature ranged from creating emotions of anger, fear, confusion, shame, and hope in readers. The vast variety of atmospheres and character portrayals created discussions on how honest the author should be. To battle prejudice, do you portray them just as they are? Humans who have good and bad qualities? Should they include every aspect, the good and the bad, or filter it for the white audience of the time? The reactions of authors differed from one another. Nella Larsen was honest, her short story Passing included ordinary characters with flaws and they weren’t perfect citizens. However, they were human, and that was her point. Sterling Brown’s poem “He Was a Man” was about a poor man in the South who had shot and killed a man, but out of defense. Still, though, he was murdered for it. Then there were poems like “I, Too”, written by Langston Hughes. A hopeful lyric voice, stating that someday, everyone would be ashamed for treating them different – but the same author wrote poetry like, “Freedom”, saying he refused to wait for equality.

Irene Redfield, from Larsen’s story Passing, reflects on meeting an old friend, Clare. They spot each other on the roof of a hotel, a place that was for white people only. Both Irene and Clare are African American women, biracial African American women. They’re “passing” as white due to their light skin tones. This takes place in the North, in Chicago, and racism has evolved into a soft form, less violent, and takes the form of civil inequality. Institutionally, Irene and Clare are disadvantaged, but with light skin are able to pass as white and avoid social prejudice. Before meeting Clare, Irene feels confused and comments that it’s, “’funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it” (Larsen, 567). She feels that by passing as a white person, she’s abandoning her true heritage, if only for a moment. It raises contempt and garners scorn from people, but it’s such a welcome release from the prejudice of society, that it’s protected by those same people. Her confusion affects her personal life as she strives towards a better future for her children and convinces her husband to stay in Chicago – or the North – where there’s less racism.

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Irene, like Clare, can see racism from both sides. Unlike her, her children wouldn’t be able to pass. However, meeting Clare, and finding out Clare had been using her color to pass in all areas of her life – marrying a racist man, and never identifying as black – plunges Irene into the life of a woman who turns her back on her heritage; a life that is miserable and seeping with regret. The double standards and the hypocrisy that Clare goes through heavily affects Irene. Clare lives a life that’s lavish with a man that loves her, but a life that can be ruined the moment she reveals her true self to him. Why can he love her as white, but not black? This relieves Irene of her personal struggles. Any shame she has for her body is cast away and she knows that abandoning herself, is not better.

Same as short stories like Larsen’s, impactful poetry became a way for authors to express their experiences. It retold and reacted to the injustices and heinous crimes committed; the institutional racism and segregation in the North, and the violent lynching’s in the South. Like Passing by Larsen, poems could inspire hope in the readers, perpetuating the idea of social evolution. That eventually, people will see the right way and prejudice will cease to exist as society betters itself. Other poems inspire justice, and frustration. Sterling Brown’s poem “He Was a Man”, is one of the latter. The atmosphere is filled with anger and frustration at the double standards in a racist society. Brown was filled with scorn at any who took part in lynching’s and how normalized it was for areas in the South. In his poem, Brown portrays his character as a poor man, one that “took a life, as a man will do / In a fight to save his own” (Brown 8-9). Much like other African American authors of the time, Brown’s literature is affected by the blatant racism and prejudice that is so prevalent in society. His poem pictures the man as ordinary, doing what any other would do – including his murderers. Brown was pointing out the hypocrisy in the treatment of black people. The double standards, that if a white man defends themselves it’s justice, but if a black man does – it’s a crime. Brown is especially affected by the normality of it, stating they, “didn’t hide themselves, didn’t have no masks / didn’t wear no Klu Klux hoods” (Brown 38-39). The issues discussed in Brown’s poem reflects Larsen’s topic of the hypocrisy in how people treated those who passed. An African American who passes as white may be treated equally, may be brought into segregated hotels and restaurants, and may be given freedom and justice, but as soon as they have African blood – they’re considered less. Racism had now gone deeper than skin, and it was a reason to kill you.

Poetry like Brown’s often held emotions of frustration, anger, and justice. Created to spark change, and push people towards making a better society. Confronting them with what’s wrong, the dirty parts and the raw parts that those unaffected weren’t aware of. Not everyone had experienced the violence in the South or prejudice in the North. Other authors used hope to inspire faith in African Americans, and other oppressed people in America. This was often expressed in the Harlem Renaissance; authors were conflicted on how constricted their characters should be. Should they dare write about an immoral black person? Would that perpetuate any stereotypes or prejudice in their community? The approach was different for each author, some – like Brown’s “He Was a Man” – resorted to inspiring justice, while others resorted to inspiring hope or faith. “I, Too”, by Langston Hughes, has a tremendous overtime of hope. The second stanza focuses on the moment of a black man being sent to the kitchen to eat. Drastically, the third stanza shifts to the future, and states, “they’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed – “(Hughes 16-17), because he’s American, and a citizen just the same (Hughes 18).

However, despite his previous poem, Hughes, much like others, did not agree with the notion of letting the country take its slow course. His poem “I, Too”, said that someday people will see African American beauty, but only with action. His other poems reflect the tone of Brown’s, inspiring justice and narrating the lives of multiple black people throughout time and place. His poem, “Freedom”, introduces what his policies were far more bluntly. The entire third stanza of this poem reflects his feelings, the same feelings that are reflected in Brown’s poetry,

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Larsen, Brown, and Hughes utilized literature in different ways and just as any other authors, their country affected them differently and in effect, their characters and styles are different. Larsen uses prose, Brown and Hughes use poetry or lyric voice. However, they’re all fighting for freedom in the present, not the future.

Tensions rose steadily, as the promises of equality had continuously failed. In the North, segregation was still prevalent, and businesses either banned or mistreated African Americans. Compared to the continuous violence in the South, lynching’s where people didn’t feel the need to cover their faces – the North felt equal. Eventually, as their experiences with business owners and their institutional disadvantages increased, they realized their equality wasn’t real. Patience had run out, and their literature reflected it. Larsen’s Passing highlighted just how unequal they were, that a black woman may pass as white and be treated completely different than before. Brown’s “He Was a Man” highlighted the injustices in the South, that a man defending himself may fear being murdered because his skin was dark. A murderer may be avenged if he is white, and that crowds would gather to see a black man hung. Hughes’s “I, Too” and “Freedom” highlighted the attitude and response, how these cruelties affected every African American. Promises weren’t enough anymore, and tomorrow’s freedom would be too late. Their lives wouldn’t be affected by future generations, it was freedom then and nothing else.”

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African American Perspective. (2021, Apr 05). Retrieved from