“…two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
— W.E.B. Du Bois
Tear. Rift. Fissure. These words are apt for the growing polarization of our country along political and social lines. However, what Du Bois addresses is a crisis of individual identity. The history of inequality in this nation has created a schism between the white American and the African-American, but also within the black community. Faced with forced assimilation into a society that acknowledges but does not understand the existence of the African-American, the Other is stripped down to the core.
In his debate with William F. Buckley in 1965, James Baldwin stated, “It comes as a great shock…to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance…has not pledged allegiance to you.” He describes the psyche of the black child’s discovery that he is not white, despite what he sees in his environment. In his short story “Sonny’s Blues”, Baldwin explores the same internalization of the stigma surrounding blackness that haunts the protagonist into his adulthood. Rooted in childhood, this perception of cultural inferiority manifests itself in anger towards himself and the African-American community. As an educated black man, the narrator believes he has escaped Harlem through education, citing “after all, [he] was a school teacher.” In truth, the narrator says of a childhood acquaintance turned junkie: “But now, abruptly, I hated him. I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child. I wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing in the school courtyard.”
It is the eponymous Sonny, however, who the narrator struggles to accept the most. In regard to his brother’s interest in jazz, the narrator says, “I simply couldn’t see why on earth he’d want to spend his time hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor.” Yet, jazz is a part of their culture.
There should not be a need to actively reject a parent’s culture in order to assimilate into a society to which one already belongs. The case of the African-American, which can be extended to second-generation immigrants of color, is that these groups are American by birth. This issue has its roots in slavery, which led to the creation of a second-class citizenry during segregation.
The impact of slavery goes far beyond its 89 years as a part of the American nation. Though it is difficult to pinpoint the exact advent of slavery in colonial America, an account by John Rolfe given in 1619 tells of the first 20 slaves setting foot in Jamestown, although ownership of slaves was not legalized until 1641. That is centuries of abject poverty and illiteracy festered among the Other, while the white American profited. After the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was a massive influx of former slaves with no wealth and little education into a society predicated on capitalism. A pillar of the American economy had been crippled with the abolition of slavery. To preserve the status quo, Jim Crow laws were enacted and continued to deny blacks the opportunity for social mobility and integration into American society, ultimately allowing white supremacist ideology to prevail.
We are only about 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act. This has had a major effect on the capabilities of the Other to accumulate wealth and education. What is understated is the effect that centuries of oppression has had on the psyche of the American Other.
Writers like Baldwin and Du Bois bring attention to this effect throughout their work. They reflect upon the struggles of the marginalized experience. While navigating through the webs of collective memory and shared pain can bridge the bisected spirit, this pain must too be understood by those who caused it. Songs of sorrow and songs of joy rise up from the same depths of spirit, but if this remains unknown to the majority of white Americans, then the song falls on deaf ears — and the doors to equality remain closed.
“Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.”
— Excerpt from “Sonny’s Blues”
By Miguel Machado
Cover Art by Kai-Cong Fam and Sandy Huang