Converging Identities and I, the Persona through America’s Restricted Lens
by Kanesha Shields
America is defined as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” a belief which is perceived by some as the nature of its citizens. People all over the world migrate to this country with their own idea of what it means to be American. This begs the question of what true Americans are and how they are defined. The idea of liberty as it relates to America is that every person born into this country is automatically granted constitutional rights and privileges. However, history shows that Americans like me, or African Americans, as we are referred to, suffered tremendously before obtaining these so-called rights that we are born with. One could say that black people endured pain like no other for the sake of obtaining these rights. Because of this, our American identity is always associated with negative implications. It could be said that the immigrants, previously mentioned, soon realized that they would always experience prejudice,, because they were not born in this country. America is the land of the free currently, but it took a lot of loss to make this country what it has become. For example, African Americans were once an enslaved race doomed to serve their Caucasian counterparts. Even after the illustration of the constitution, African Americans were forced to fight for their right to be considered persons. Now, that right is intact, and Americans are all different shades and colors. As an American, I am a strong-willed individual, determined to overcome my obstacles, while using my intellect as well as my physical strength.
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In addition, I as an African American college senior, unwed with a child, am seen by America as a burden. At first glance, society sees a young unwed mother as a person who lives her life depending on government assistance. Taxpayers admonish these ladies, because the overall assumption is that they, the taxpayers are paying for the children these women are creating. Men prejudge these ladies because they presume that they are promiscuous due to the absence of a husband. America sees me as a constant reminder of the lack of morale within the younger generations. Although they do not know every single one of these young mothers, the general idea of a young woman having a child before marriage is still frowned upon in our free country. The right to bear children is seen as an act that should occur after marriage; however in some cases, women have children before nuptials frequently. As seen on my college campus, many students have children with the absence of wedding rings. A beautiful thing such as childbirth is considered shameful because of the circumstances surrounding it. These mothers, as well as myself, are not potential scholars or role models in the eyes of society.
Furthermore, America sees me as a scrounger because I do receive government assistance. As an African American college student, who receives financial aid, I am seen as a freeloader. This can be said because the expectation of society is that a person, who receives this aid, is poor and did not do well enough in school to receive college funding. Black college students who attend historically black colleges and universities are seen as slackers who could not stand intellectually with other races. Even blacks who make the decision to attend more famous universities look down on those who decide to pursue their education at these so-called smaller, but notable colleges. The assumption that these students are just getting by is a very broad one in the academia. This perception applies to me as well as the majority of students at my school. The lack of intellect among some African American students is considered evident to the assumption that all African American students are in college for the sole purpose of monetary gain. Totalizing these students allows society to prejudge those who are in college for the purpose of advancing their education. In doing so, society categorizes me as not only a mendicant, but one who has no intention of pursuing an education. Conversely, Americans see me as a threat, because I am a black woman who will someday aspire to obtain a doctorate in English. This is threatening to some Americans because this will make me a competition where jobs are concerned. Typically, a good number of African Americans do not pursue doctorate degrees. In fact, less than two percent do. Some Americans will be unwaveringly paramount in dissuading me against this opportunity, but I will not yield. The fact that I am a black person is reason enough for certain equal opportunists to say that I should not pursue this degree. This is because they feel that I, as well as other African Americans, am not intelligent enough to acquire such an accomplishment. Though America is based on freedom; racism still rages on, making the prejudices against minorities very clear. Equal opportunity is law, yet it is not obeyed when it comes to racism. Certain people still tend to deny the fact that others are equally people because of the color of their skin, just as America denied that blacks were people. The fact that I am African American allows Americans to consider me different and inane. Alternatively, I see myself as a resilient person determined to work hard to prove society wrong. As a child, I viewed America as this broad land of opportunity as well as a place that I could become anything I aspired to be. I dreamed of growing up in a friendly environment and achieve my goals without restrictions. Similarly, Anzia Yezierska, shares this same belief in her travels from Poland into this country as described in her essay titled “America and I.” America’s reputation for providing freedom to all citizens is tested. The author envisions herself coming to a free America with hopes of becoming more than just a diligent wife. However, she quickly learns that in America, she would always be seen as an outsider. It may be assumed that this assessment of America is derived from Yezierska’s personal experience. This assumption leads readers to question whether America is truly free. After completing “America and I,” a person can conclude that Yezierska believed America to be the land of equal opportunity and felt disappointed that this country falls short in comparison to her expectations.
Like Yezierska, I too was disappointed in America when I grew up and realized the partiality this country has towards its own citizens. Though I am not an immigrant like Yezeirska, I am a black woman who experiences just as much discrimination as she does. It can be said that black women are sometimes associated with negative insinuations such as “promiscuity,” and “benefit users.” The idea that black women are very sexual beings that lack intelligence is derived from slavery. This statement has been associated with me on several occasions when it comes to typical citizens of America. Because of my appearance, and the college I attend, I have to work twice as hard to prove that I deserve to be deemed a respectable member of civilization. Although our country is deemed the land of equal opportunity, Caucasians seem to have an easier life than any other race. A person could say that African American women are all destitute, but this stereotype drives me to succeed because I want to be one of the many black women to rebuff this logic. The fact that black women are frowned upon for these reasons allows me as a black woman to be an inspiration to others.
Additionally the interconnection between Yezierska and I is that we both work hard to accomplish our goals. As Yezierska’s story progresses, she speaks of how the family she works for refuses to pay her because they are real American, and she is not. The idea that Yezierska’s employers are trying to show her is that because she is a refugee, she should not be paid. They feel that she should appreciate being allowed into America as payment. This leads to the assumption that every citizen who migrates to America should allow the inferiority status be thrust onto them. The concept that immigrants should be paid less than Americans, if at all, is not what America is about. My race has suffered more than any race I know of, but instead of dwelling on the chance to use this as an excuse, I chose to pursue my education in spite of it. Through all of the prejudices and biases, I have reached one of the highest points of my life. Yezierska went on to become the writer of published works and I will be graduating college with honors. Though Yezierska wanted to escape the idea of becoming a domestic, family-oriented woman; we are similar because we both did so and still succeeded in progressing ourselves. The idea that we are not American is annihilated. This in turn, displays our strength and makes us more American than most people.
Furthermore, minorities such as African Americans have been frowned upon long before my time. However, the blatant racism is evident in defining me as an American through my culture. An example of this racism is represented in “The Signifying Monkey,” illustrated by Roger D. Abrahams. This story depicts the typical racist view Caucasians have of African Americans. One could say that this story was written to analyze the character of African Americans in a negative light. This story also mocks African American culture and portrays to viewers that African Americans are the menaces of this country. The title, for example, gives the impression that the story will not be a pleasant one, because African Americans have been compared to monkeys in a negative light for a relatively long period of time. At the time this story was written, African Americans were fighting for equality and this story could be considered a warning to them. This story is also used to make it seem as if Caucasians are the saviors of this country and their behavior towards African Americans is justified. However, the need to belittle a culture to make their own race seem more superior illustrates that racist Caucasians are basically the ignorant members of society.
Additionally, the signifying monkey is supposedly a representation of African Americans and their character. The monkey relays false messages to other animals in the jungle, which causes pandemonium amongst them. One could assume that this aspect of the poem is referring to the typecast that African Americans start trouble. In doing so, the monkey is automatically to blame for any negative situations in the jungle. Therefore, the poem is stating that African Americans are the cause of the country’s issues, and they should be treated as if they are not equal. The reality is that African Americans were only speaking out and fighting for the same rights Caucasians were automatically given at birth. Though we do not share the same pigment of skin, African Americans are just as human as Caucasians. This story informs readers with knowledge of how African Americans were viewed and how they are still being viewed. As an African American, I do not wish to be associated with an instigating animal but is what this story does.
Also, the lion in the story represents white America and the supremacy it has on the world. The lion fights the elephant and ultimately gets rid of the signifying monkey. This allows readers to assume that Caucasians are the solution to the problems that are caused by African Americans. The end of the story gives a clear example of this, by describing the monkey’s death on his grave. The description of how the monkey died is similar to how a lot of African American people who were fighting for their rights were lynched. This comparison draws the assumption that the lynching is justified and that the monkey got what he deserved. This could be considered a warning to all of those African Americans who fought for their rights.
This story is just an example of the many struggles African Americans faced over the years. Even though it was not equal to slavery, the inequality African Americans experienced was no better. This story as well as others like it could be considered very hurtful because it is a representative story. It signifies Caucasians as heroes who rid the country of those monkeys, or African Americans. It also signifies the excruciating deaths of so many African Americans who were lynched, by embedding it on the monkey’s grave. Although this story is comical at first, a second reading has made me aware that I should take offense to it. It is written for the sole purpose of scaring African Americans into backing away from their dreams of equality. However this story, and others like it, did not achieve their goal. African Americans fought for equality and eventually got it. As a result, many African Americans have advanced the culture to be better than it has ever been; so much so that the sitting President of the United States of America is an African American man who has served two consecutive terms. Though some Americans still view me, as well as all African Americans in this negative light, we are succeeding and changing into an advanced group of individuals.
In extension, I am very combative when it comes to protecting the reputation of my race. Though I have never been one to physically enter altercations, I defend the African American race to no end astutely. African Americans rising against racism and fighting the oppression thrust upon them is the message that is portrayed in “The Souls of Black Folks,” by W.E.B. Dubois. I agree whole heartedly with the tactics Dubois feels are necessary in evolving the black race. Though most prominent black members of society back then, such as Booker T. Washington promoted non-confrontational approaches to racism, Dubois is a firm believer of what is considered fairness. Other writers, during the time this excerpt was illustrated, felt the opposite; Dubois felt that the African American race should embrace a real education and fight racism. Although this excerpt was written many years ago, circumstances have led me to believe that our race needs assistance now more than ever. In “The Souls of Black Folks,’ Dubois speaks of the time he realized he was different from others and from that moment forward he began to fight back. This realization came to Dubois when he was just a child trying to participate in childhood interactions. This realization came to me as a future graduate determined to get into a respectable graduate institution. DuBois also took the time to address the program of Booker T. Washington and counters his idea of what black culture should become. Though he did not physically fight racism, he was a strong voice in the fight for equality. “The Souls of Black Folks,” is just one of the literary blows DuBois contributed to this fight.
Likewise, I am a very determined American in many ways as it pertains to uplifting the American race. I am also resolute to become an advocate in encouraging future African American youth to attend college. DuBois, further in his excerpt, addresses the issue of African Americans obtaining a meaningful education. This is important to me because I believe that without education, one may slip through the cracks of life due to lack of ambition. Dubois illustrates his concern that the black race is more powerful than the Caucasian race gives it credit for. One could say that DuBois felt that blacks should not relinquish who they are, for the sake of appealing to their Caucasian counterparts. Dubois voices that blacks are capable of improving the world just as whites could with the proper education. I agree to this idea because I feel that given the same opportunities, blacks would potentially excel. However, the lack of opportunities makes the success an even greater feat. Subsequently, keeping blacks ignorant and making us learn how to work is parallel to what slavery is. The idea that African Americans are incapable of working their minds instead of physical labor is preposterous. DuBois felt that black people were above an industrial education and they were capable of becoming so much more. I feel that in society today, young African Americans are quick to settle for mediocre employment rather than receive a suitable education. Like DuBois, I too believe that knowledge is essentially power because it equips us with the intellect of our Caucasian counterparts and projects us into a level of academic competition that will equalize us all. The belief that African Americans should be an industrialized culture could be considered a trigger that inspired Dubois to create one of his most powerful literary pieces. The idea that an entire race should be no more than “Industrial Learners,” caused DuBois to treat the idea in a major way. This piece contributes to the American that I am because DuBois, as well as myself, have the same goals in mind. I plan to teach in order to inspire my students to become the best they aspire to be. I will provide all the knowledge that I possibly can for the future African American youth, so that they will learn to do the same. Though this will not be an easy task, doing so will let me know that I have done my part in advancing my race. Though rare, I am a representation of an American that actually cares about others whether they live by society’s standards or not. Dubois felt that blacks could aspire to be a greater race and I want to prove him right.
Lastly, the notion that America is this wonderful place where dreams come true does not apply to me; neither did it apply to Yezierska. The only way for dreams to come true in my America is hard work and perseverance. Though we are supposedly a “free” and “equal” country, we are also a land of the haves, and have nots. Society now judges people based on what they have and where they come from. Generally, African Americans are still at the bottom of the totem poll as it pertains to the assets we possess. This is because we have to earn each and every cent given to us. Other races are privileged with money that has grown over time, not acknowledging the fact that their ancestors acquired that blood money through slavery.
In all, my identity, Dubios’ identity, Yezierska’s identity, and the Caucasian identity must converge to recreate an all-inclusive America – that America that is indeed the land of the free and the bold.
Thank you for reading!