Racism in Literature Essay

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Racism is a big social issue today and has been a problem for years now. African Americans are and have always been the main victims of racism and as a result many have been emotionally damaged and scarred for life, determining the way African Americans view other races as well as how other races see African Americans. Racism is a revolving cycle that exists because of stereotypical terms and descriptions placed on individuals based on their race. In the poems “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar and “Incident” by Countee Cullen, both poets share their encounter with racism and the effect it had on them.

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Dunbar was born little after the time of slavery and his poem reflects African Americans after the civil war. Dunbar expresses how his people had to wear a “mask” within the racial climate they lived in after the civil war. In Cullen’s poem he shares a racial interaction he had around the age of eight years old. Even though his encounter happened at such a young age his poem shows that the memory stuck with him for years to come.

In Dunbar’s poem, he expresses his thoughts, isolating himself from the level of hypocrisy that his people indulged in after the civil war. As Dunbar says in the beginning of his poem “We wear the mask that grins and lies”. Dunbar not only admits to wearing the “mask”, but by say “we” this tells that he not only speaks for himself but for all his fellow African Americans that wear the “mask”, covering up their pain and suffering. It is shown the African Americans in Dunbar’s time hid their true feelings from the white people they lived around, as they thought it would make their lives easier.

Dunbar’s poem can be viewed and interpreted in different ways, based on his use of the pronouns “we” and “our”, this can refer to all African Americans. The poem can be represent the racial conditions that most African Americans have lived in over the years. In the poem “Incident”, young Cullen was riding one day in Baltimore (the town he grew up in), after seeing another white boy his age, staring at him, Cullen said “Now I was eight and very small, And he was no whit bigger, And so I smiled, but he poked out His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’”. Being only eight years old, Cullen tried being friendly after noticing the other young boy staring at him, unaware of the racial battle that his race fights every day. Being discriminated at such a young age, the poet later goes on in his poem to say this was his most memorable experience in his home town and it can be seen that the trauma of this experience led him to write this poem.

Racial Discrimination affects every individual differently depending on things like, age, gender, place and when it occurred. These factors may be the difference between a rude encounter and an emotionally scaring memory, changing ones view on a specific race or even all other races. In the poem “We wear the Mask” the “mask” is just Dunbar’s way of using imagery to emphasise on how much living an environment surrounded by white people, after a time of slavery, which many of their parents including Dunbar’s lived in, changed them. Instead of being able to express their pain, they wore the “mask” to hide the pain. From Cullen’s poem the speaker gives readers an idea of how children react to racism. Being as young as he was at the time of the “Incident”, not having much knowledge of his racial background, it can be said that Cullen took the word “Nigger” as just an insult, no different from if he called him a “punk”, or “loser”.

Over the years the levels of racism has developed tremendously, as racist individuals place African Americans under one description. Instead of getting to know them by their personality, they stereotype all African Americans. This mentality is passed down from parent to child and the cycle never ends, therefore racism can be seen as a passed down mentality, or way of thought, shared amongst family, friends and even an entire races. In the poem “Incident”, it is obvious that young white boy that called Cullen a “Nigger” has developed that racial mentality within his home, from his racist parents, a family member or even at school from a friend at school. Being so young that boy would not know the meaning behind the word he used to describe Cullen, but because he has heard other people of the same race discriminate others with similar skin toons as Cullen, he developed the same mind set as them and therefore displayed the same racial attitude towards the young poet.

The whole concept of this thing we call racism is really just hatred passed down from adults to children like a tradition. Based on a stereotypical identity given to a race long before the present. These identities are taught to children at a vulnerable time in their lives where they are too young to input their own opinions or see just how unfair discrimination really is to the victims. No one is born racist

Works Cited

  1. Cullen, Countee. “Incident.” Literature; a portable Anthology, edited by Janet Gardner, et.al,
  2. Fourth edition. Bedford/ St. Martin’s, New York, 2017. 529
  3. Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear the Mask” Literature; a portable Anthology, edited by \ Janet E. Gardner, et.al, fourth edition. Bedford/ St. Martin’s, New York, 2017. 502- 503
  4. https://www.shmoop.com/incident-poem/symbolism-imagery.html
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Racism in Literature Essay. (2021, Jun 16). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/racism-in-literature-essay/