The Many Faces of Prejudice
If I walk in to a bookstore or browse online I will find hundreds, in fact thousands, of essays, books, articles, and speeches about prejudice. Obviously, most of them are predictably against prejudice. Begin reading any of them at random and chances are good that they will contain the phrases ‘don’t have prejudice towards people’ or ‘prejudice is a bad thing,’ but what puzzles my mind is whether phrases like ‘don’t have prejudice against people’ are enough to end prejudice. Does it convince people not to judge others and to treat everyone equally? I think not. In order to understand what prejudice is, does a person have to experience racially-, ethnically-, religiously-, or class-based unfairness and maltreatment first hand? Among the thousands of literary works that attempt to convince readers that prejudice is a bad thing there are a minority seemingly capable of convincing readers on a deeper level that prejudice is wrong. Brent Staples’ “Just Walk On By,” Maya Angelou’s “Graduation” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “On Seeing England For The First Time” are a few essays that defy the norm, by taking readers on a journey into what it feels like to be the object of prejudice, a journey many readers would otherwise be incapable of taking (DiYanni and Hoy *** insert page numbers here for the listed essays ****).
The word choices that Staples makes, throughout his essay, are crucial (DiYanni and Hoy ***** insert first page number of essay in book ****). He uses three words several times, ‘black,’ ‘night,’ and ‘woman.’ All of these words are connected to each other and represent an important point that Staples is trying to make. When someone thinks about ‘night’ the first image that comes to mind is a black sky, dark streets, and the potential for danger; however, Staples adds an additional element of danger — himself as a black male. Staples wants the reader to connect these words, possibly with the intent of triggering memories of when the reader has made the same connection in their own life. The reader becomes aware that their internal biases have not gone unnoticed and even though the generalizations based on skin color seem to make sense given that African-American males have preyed upon the public in the past, the essay provides the unique perspective that everyone becomes a victim in a racially-charged atmosphere of fear made worse by the absence of the sun.
Avoiding racially-charged words can also be an effective technique to draw readers into a world they have never visited before. Maya Angelou’s essay “Graduation” spends a great deal of effort painting the ebbs and flows of a Southern community about to help their children make the end of the school year transition (DiYanni and Hoy ***** insert first page number of essay in book ****). The reader has to pay attention to the details, at least for the first few pages, to understand that this is a Southern African-American Community largely insulated from the racist outside world. The children, at least through the eyes of the author, are full of dreams for a future filled will personal success. We the readers are drawn into this optimistic, rosy world like sheep to the slaughter, because Angelou is about to reveal what happens to the heart and mind of a child graduating from the eighth grade when the community is invaded by a White racist bureaucrat by the name of Donleavy.
The children and parents attending the graduation ceremony are reminded by this bureaucrat that their fates are limited by the color of their skin (DiYanni and Hoy *******). This transpires during a ceremony intended to launch these children with a healthy dose of optimism into the next phase of their lives. Their hearts are broken by what occurs and the full burden of their skin color is suddenly felt en masse. The girls can only look forward to a future as housewife, nurse, or maid, while the boys can hope for nothing more than to be carpenters, field hands, and mechanics unless they find fame through sports. Becoming a doctor, lawyer, or a national political leader was simply unrealistic in 1940s America, according to Donleavy. The reader’s heart breaks along with the children and parents attending the graduation ceremony. The innocent reader, through this literary trick, begins to grasp why prejudice is so ugly and tragic.
Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “On Seeing England for the First Time” stands in stark contrast the literary approach taken by Staples and Angelou, because it is a long rant about hating England and everything it stands for (DiYanni and Hoy *******). A native of Antigua, a colony of the English crown, Kincaid gives the reader only a few paragraphs of pleasant reading before the hatred begins to seep through. The vitriol is so thick and acidic by the middle of the essay that the reader can’t help but read further to better understand why this woman should feel this way. What begins to happen with each successive passage is a growing awareness of what it feels like to be subjugated by a colonial power, not just now, but for generations going back several centuries. Any sense of identity is lost to the dominant culture as it tries to become rooted where, according to Kincaid, it never belonged in the first place.
Kincaid’s rant then transitions to a visit to England proper (DiYanni and Hoy *******). She travels around the countryside visiting places she was familiar with only by virtue of her island schooling, but one of the more striking insights is the realization that her White English travel buddy, who was somebody in Antigua by virtue of her English birth and white skin, became nobody special in England. Kincaid’s essay describes a colonial power that relies on heritage, wealth, and skin color to determine a person’s worth in society, and is therefore riddled with prejudice. Readers are made intimately aware of what it is like to be invaded by a colonial power generations in the past and to grow up under an imposed culture. Kincaid’s rant helps readers to ‘taste’ the hatred that such a system fosters in a subjugated people. If the reader is a just person then Kincaid’s essay will help them to understand on an emotional level why subjugation of indigenous peoples should never occur.
In stark contrast to Kincaid’s rant is Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me” (DiYanni and Hoy *******). Hurston begins her essay with a joyful picture of a child’s innocence as she tests and plays inside the insular cocoon of an all-Black Eatonville, Florida. Encounters with White tourists were always brief and rewarding, in terms of sating her curiosity and purse. A sea-change occurred, however, when she was transported to Jacksonville to attend school at the age of 13. In Jacksonville, she came face-to-face with a dominant White culture and what that entails. In contrast to Kincaid, Hurston quickly relieves the reader of any notion that she is about to complain, whether it’s about her skin color or the enslavement of her ancestors. Instead, Hurston’s glass if always half full, if not completely full. She rejoices in the opportunities opened to her by her status in society and makes this clear with her statement that she “â€¦ is too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (******).
Hurston, however, is not so naive that she is color blind (DiYanni and Hoy *******). She describes a few of the situations in which she feels the color of her skin the most, but for Hurston being ‘colored’ is more about cultural differences than actual skin color. The most dramatic example is how differently she and her White friend experienced a jazz tune in a bar. She is transported back to the primal emotions of the jungle, while her friend passively remarks that the music is good here. Hurston seems to say to readers that prejudicial acts are the problem of the person committing them, not the problem of the person the acts are directed against. In the meantime, she is living her life to the fullest and any time spent coping with racism or being a bigot is a complete waste of time.
M. Scott Momaday’s essay “The Way to Rainy Mountain” spends little time on the injustices suffered by Native Americans at the hands of European-Americans as they moved westward and consumed land at a terrible rate (DiYanni and Hoy *******). Momaday paints a stunningly beautiful picture of a lifestyle long gone and of what was lost when Native Americans were forced to live on reservations. The Kiowa identity becomes so rich and detailed through the telling that readers can’t help but share in the loss and grief felt by Momaday, knowing that this culture and way of life can never be recovered. This sense of loss is made greater by the beautiful descriptions of the tribe’s migration out of the mountains to live on the sun-drenched Plains. Reader’s heartstrings are touched by the description of his grandmother’s life and infirmity, especially the prayers in anticipation of death. The sense of loss is so powerful that a humane person cannot help but feel that the worth of humanity has been diminished irrevocably by the loss of the Kiowa culture, language, and lifestyle.
The central theme of this essay is that most anti-prejudice essays, books, and speeches rest upon the argument that prejudice is bad and that this statement alone has little impact on the hearts and minds of readers and listeners. There are, however, a number of essays that avoid this trap and instead relate personal experiences of prejudice to readers. Whether the goal of these literary works was to shed light on racism and other forms of prejudice cannot be determined from these readings. The authors of these essays could just have easily been seeking to vent or connect with others having similar thoughts and experiences. Regardless of the goal, the effect is to create a connection on an emotional level between author and reader so that the humanity of the author is revealed. Once this is accomplished, prejudice becomes an unwelcome intruder and the reader regrets and even grieves what has been lost.
Staples accomplishes this through an almost journalistic telling of his personal experiences as an African-American male who likes to walk the streets of Chicago and New York City at night. The emotions conjured are fear, and a regret for our own contributions to this fear. Prejudice, through the words of Staples, becomes a stain on civilized society. Angelou’s tale is more deliberate about setting the reader up for a shock when she describes with care a child’s anticipation of graduating from the eighth grade and then opens a door to the outside White racist world during the ceremony. The child’s racial innocence is ripped from her in a matter of minutes and the reader is left aghast at what has occurred. Through Angelou’s words, racial prejudice tramples the dreams of children and breaks their hearts. Kincaid’s heart has already been broken by England when readers encounter her through her words. This is evident in her vitriolic rant against English culture and how ill-fitted it is for a Caribbean climate. Through Kincaid’s words, prejudice creates social inefficiencies and fuels hatred.
By contrast, Hurston and Momaday choose to largely ignore the negative effects of racial prejudice by focusing on what has been gained and lost. Hurston’s innocence as a child may have been lost by the move to Jacksonville, but the central core of her character is both beautiful and amazing in its resilience. Through her words, prejudice becomes something other people waste their time with. Momaday’s words seem to carry a similar message, but rather than wasting time with prejudice he describes how an entire culture completely in tune with the natural world can be wiped out. Through the words of these various authors, prejudice and its consequences have many faces; however, changing the way people think about others will depend on how well authors can connect with readers at a personal level.
DiYanni, Robert and Hoy, Pat C. II. Occasions for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay. Independence, KY: Cengage Learning, 2008. Print.
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