American Literature and Identity: Clarke and Hughes on Racial Representation

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Your identity is the sum of who you are. This means that there are many different components that make up the whole, which is you. Many wish for everyone and anyone to accept them for who they are. For many African American people this process becomes very challenging. It is hard for them to deal with this exact problem while staying true to who they are, because all they ever wanted was to be accepted. African Americans have to cope with being judged or being made to feel as if their worth is less than others.

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Both John Henrik and Langston Hughes explore this idea of identity, racial discrimination, stereotypes and the struggles between them in their stories “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” and “One Friday Morning”

In the short story, “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black,” by John Henrik Clarke, a talented 8 year old African American boy creates a beautiful painting that leads to a debate by many around him. The painting was created around the time racial discrimination was at its highest and it truly opened up the dialogue as to whether or not whether African Americans are strong enough to stand up for who they are and for what they believe. The painting described in the short story, was a picture of Jesus and his skin color was black. It is believed that the young boy’s interpretation stood as a symbol for painting your own identity, instead of allowing others do it for you. The principal in the story stated, “The artist of all other races have painted whatsoever God they worship to resemble themselves. I see no reason why we should be immune to that privilege.”(Clarke 3). Clarke found that it was unfair that people misinterpreted and criticized the boy’s painting of Jesus. Jesus has been painted from different perspectives. However, an African American Jesus had not been painted or displayed. Why did the young boy’s depiction spark contention? Why is painting an African American Jesus the exception? John Henrik Clarke specifically used the word “privilege” when the principal defended the young boy. The principal felt as though painting an important figure in one’s own perspective was a special right. The principal took responsibility for teaching the boy and even others that they were kings and queens and that they should explore and stand up for what they believe in and he did not have any regrets for his teachings and direction. “I have been teaching them that their race has produced great kings and queens as well as slaves and serfs,” the principal said. (Clarke 3) “The time is long overdue when we should let the world know that we erected and enjoyed the benefits of a splendid civilization long before the people of Europe had a written language.” (Clarke 3)While the principal believed that the boy did nothing wrong when painting the artwork, his supervisor, on the other hand, had other ideas. In the text he stated “You are not being paid to teach such things in this school, and I am demanding your resignation for overstepping your limit as principal”. The supervisor tried to prove his point that Jesus was not black and he was noticeably angry that anyone would have the audacity to change what he thought Jesus looked like. He did not want things like the painting putting thoughts he did not agree with in the minds of others. This philosophy affected the boy, as he was often criticized for painting something that he did find any fault in painting. He wanted to believe in something different and something that related to him, in in terms of the color of his skin. The supervisor’s outcry and his views also affected the principal. Ultimately, the principal lost his job because he too believed that Christ could have been black and he was not going to let anyone change that, not even his supervisor.

Langston Hughes once said, “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go if you really want to go.” Hughes developed a story with this very idea of getting somewhere based solely on your determination, while ignoring what others may have to say or their opinions. In “One Friday Morning,” an African American girl named Nancy painted a picture that her teacher entered in a scholarship contest. Nancy was later informed that she had won the contest and began to prepare a speech for the acceptance ceremony. On the day of the ceremony, the scholarship committee decides to change their minds, once they found out that the person who painted the wonderful painting, was a person of color. Although Nancy Lee was denied her honour for the Artist Club Scholarship, she told her teacher that one day she would make a change so that opportunities such as this, do not ever exclude or overlook people of color. “There will be other awards…There’re schools in other cities. This won’t keep me down. But when I’m a woman, I’ll fight to see that these things don’t happen to other girls as this has happened to me. And men and women like Miss O’Shay will help me.” Nancy’s experience deter her or stop her from fighting for what she believed in. In fact, it made her want to make a change in the way the world viewed certain people, during her time.

African Americans are subjected to false accusations and stereotypes before anyone takes the chance to see who they really are or to get to know them. In “One Friday Morning,” Nancy Lee was not only pushed away after she had already won the contest, but she was also stereotyped. In the text it stated “And especially in this case since the student chosen happens to be colored, a circumstance which unfortunately had we known, might have prevented this embarrassment. But there have never been any negro students in the local art school, and the presence of one there might create difficulties for all concerned.” The school used her skin color as an excuse to claim that problems may follow Nancy if she was allowed to accept the honour and attend the ceremony. An African American had never attended their school and the school immediately began to think that having someone with Nancy’s talent and skin color, would ultimately become a distraction to everyone else at the school. The notion that African Americans were distractions and instigators, was planted like a seed in the minds of many, even when the notion was baseless.

In both short stories, everyone’s true self was put to the test. Nancy Lee and the young boy, despite their amazing talents were discriminated against because of their skin color. However, they did not change their ideas, beliefs and sense of self, just because others did not agree. Nancy had hopes to make a difference in the world so that others would not have to experience what she experienced. She wanted people to know that no matter their skin color, they can be just as great or even better. Both the boy who painted the African American Christ and his principal, continued to be who they were and went where they were accepted. They did not allow what happened to them at the school, stop them from being great and achieving great things. In both of the stories, the characters could have remained quiet or conformed to the opinions of others, but they chose not to. They had the choice to either stay true to their beliefs and how they viewed their lives or abandon their beliefs based on the idea of others. The boy did not really care if his view on whether or not Jesus was black was accepted by others and neither did the principal. It was his view and he stuck by it. Their approaches and choices symbolized creating your own person instead of letting others create it or sway it. Nancy did not let others’ view on life make her feel less than what she was. Nobody in this world is perfect or is better than another and the color of one’s skin and their beliefs, should not determine anyone’s future. We are all humans and deserve and have the right to be treated as equals.”

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American Literature and Identity: Clarke and Hughes on Racial Representation. (2021, Feb 19). Retrieved from