In my essay I would like to provide a few notions about how the identity of black people is perceived and how it differs from white (culture and perception). I would like to focus on its development concerning black writers and thinkers. My primary concern will be interplay between black growth of identity and obstacles created by whites but also by blacks themselves and which factors shaped perception of identity of black and white people. This essay has two parts- first is about black literary authors Alice Walker and James Baldwin. and in the other I will elaborate on ideas of W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington.
Alice Walker´s novel You can´t keep a good Woman down is in my opinion a very helpful tool to understand the way black people perceive themselves. Walker claims that blacks do not intend to write about being people, they want to write about being black. This was a milestone of difference between white and black people in the age when Walker wrote her books. Theirs was a culture which was subdued by white culture and what black felt to need to do was to find their own culture and identity. Establishing (or finding) my own identity under so a strong influence, prejudice and persecution is a pretty hard thing to do. Blacks are conscious of being different and are proud of that, identity is the difference and the difference is their identity, which is the first step on the way of their recognition.
James Baldwin ranks among the most influential black prose and poetry writers. Baldwin examines the causes and consequences of the Harlem Renaissance. He claims that thanks to the suppression of whites the unity among blacks was very strong and the so called city within a city- Harlem grew up. The unity between black artists, intelectuals and others created feeling of power and blacks started to be aware of their abilities and strenght- “To smash something is the ghetto´s chronic need” (Baldwin, Notes of a Native Man 93). Harlem Renaissance was a movement which woke the black society up, gave it unity and showed blacks their African roots which they began to percieve as something to be proud of and. The consequences were that concentration of black intelectuals formed their ideas about their identities and perception of America as their home. Baldwain says that for most blacks America is their home, the country where they were born and grew up. Africa is something very remote, very blurred. “America is black and white, not black under white. World is not white, and will never be white again” (Baldwin, Notes of a Native Man 149). Baldwin remarks as Walker above mentioned that whites simply cannot judge black culture according to their own. Black culture is something completely different, something incomprehensible for whites. I believe that this is the root for understanding the identity and perception of blacks in America. There must be two separate cultures which will not try to assimiliate or merely cooperate but what is most important that they learn one from the other.
Now I would like to compare Booker T. Washington´s ideas about blackness with those of W.E.B. DuBois. William Edward Burghardt DuBois was an American civil rights activist, leader, scholar and historian. DuBois was the primary advocate of the gradualist political strategy and Booker T. Washington (American educator, author and leader of the African American community) supported gradualist economic strategy. Washington claimed that if blacks became skilled workers, they would became indispensable to the prosperity of the South and consequently political and social rights would be granted to them. DuBois was at first enthustiastic about Washington’s proposal but soon found out that Washington’s gradualist philosophy produced little real gain for black people. DuBois did not agree with Washington that blacks should only receive industrial training . DuBois strongly believed that blacks should also be educated in liberal arts and did not like the way of Washington’s approach which drew resources away from black liberal arts colleges. This DuBois´s idea correlates with notions concerning Harlem Renaissance as above mentioned and described by James Baldwin and Alice Walker. The importance of one´s soul, creativity is vital when dealing with intelectual growth of black race. DuBois claims in the Souls of Black Folk.
“Teach workers to work,—a wise saying; wise when applied to German boys and American girls; wiser when said of Negro boys, for they have less knowledge of working and none to teach them. Teach thinkers to think,—a needed knowledge in a day of loose and careless logic; and they whose lot is gravest must have the carefulest training to think aright. If these things are so, how foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men,—nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living,—not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold. The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth; by founding the common school on the university, and the industrial school on the common school; and weaving thus a system, not a distortion, and bringing a birth, not an abortion”.
Washington´s approach was not ineffectual at all but was very narrow in its scope. DuBois believed that Washington should be honored for his advancement but also said that he was a limited misguieded leader. DuBois demanded right to vote for blacks, civic equality and educational according to ability whereas Washington´s program ignored civil and political rights and and devalued the study of the liberal arts and thus showing his narrow view about real needs of black society.
Identity of anyone is living and ever-growing issue. The major thing that creates obstacles when dealing with identity and its growth is bigotry, being blind because of the belief that the vision of my identity is the “best and true one”. I belive that even though Washington wanted the same thing for black people as DuBois did, he was not aware about the importance of not only economic but also emotional, intelectual growth of blacks. Harlem Renaissance showed blacks that their race is something to be proud of, it created in them the sense of belonging and inner value. What DuBois did was to merge economic advancements of black, the ability to work and also the ability to think and thus make progress in both fields.
Baldwin, James. “A Question of Identity”. Notes of a Native Man. Ed. Michael Joseph. London: Transworld P., 1965. 149. Print.
DuBois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folk. “Of the Wings of Atalanta”. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm#chap05. Web 14 Jan. 2013.
Walker, Alice. You can´t keep a good Woman down. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company. 1981. Print