The African American experience is a long and fascinating one. This sample essay highlights the struggles of African Americans in the United States. While this may be a popular topic for literature of all types, it is important to remember that African American society is not monolithic, and that large differences existed in terms of personal experiences.
The so-called “African American Experience”
There is much to be said about the African American experience. The journeys and adventures of African Americans have been explored and examined in an effort to gain a dynamic understanding and poignant perspective on enigmatic and often unfathomable place that the group holds in society. Society itself has often tried to analyze what it is like to be African American in an effort to placate its own assumptions and ignorance’s.
African American writers have frequently exposed the images and symbols that society embraces as truth about the minority with the hope of once and for all ending the characterizations and feigning state of consciousness that other races seek to invent. Two writers that effectively and inherently unmask the ‘what it’s like to be African American’ theories are Patricia Smith and Alice Walker. In the poem “What it’s Like to Be a Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren’t)” by Patricia Smith, Smith seeks to gracefully execute images that are both brash and enlightening to the reader through the eyes of a 9 year old. Alice Walker in her story, ‘The Welcome Table,” unveils a similar context, but utilizes an old woman to strike the often pious mutterings of the African American experience.
Black society in America
The 9 year old girl in Smith’s poem is discovering her place in society but it appears that through this discovery, she has already been informed that there is nothing right about her. This is evident with the stanza, “first of all, it’s being 9 years old and feeling like you’re not finished, like your edges are wild, like there’s something, everything, wrong” (Smith, n.d.). The old woman is seek to discover her place in society in “The Welcome Table” also. Walker writes, “on her face centuries were folded into the circles around one eye, while around the other, etched and mapped as if for print, ages more threatened again to live” (Walker, 2003). The old woman is trying to understand how she fits into society given she has in effect seen it all, while the 9 year old girl has yet to see it all, but is being told how she should be.
While skin color is not necessarily identified by Smith or Walker, the underlying aspect of it in both pieces of literature is inescapable. Both the 9 year old girl and the old woman are defined by their race within the perspective of societal rationale. Coard et al. (2001) diagnosed that skin color plays a striking place within the lives of African Americans. Much of the focus pertained to cognitive awareness of being different or immersed in identity and this immersion is a sequential process noted as pre-encounter, encounter, immersion-emersion, internalization and internalization-commitment.
All of the stages are dependent on the approval of others in reference to skin color and are marked by both the tolerance and respect for similarities and differences (pg.2257, 2259). Thus, skin color and its respective connotations are indoctrinated by others. How African Americans see themselves is the result of how other races view them more so than their own understanding. Smith’s poem stresses this fact by citing the intense feelings that the 9 year old has about being black. “It’s dropping food coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering their burn in silence. It’s popping a bleached white mophead over the kinks of your hair and primping in front of the mirrors that deny your reflection,” writes Smith (Smith, n.d.).
The Christian church’s connection to the black community in America
Walker uses the ethics of The Christian church to diagnose the maladies of race and societal viewpoint.
“They stared at her as they came in and sat down near the front. It was cold, very cold to them too; outside the church it was below freezing and not much above inside” (Walker, 2003).
Here Walker uses metaphoric description to cast light on the attitudes of those coming into the church where the old woman was with the weather. The old woman is simply not welcome because of her skin color. Walker’s treatment of the emotion of fear is expressed in the lines
“the reverend of the church stopped her pleasantly as she stepped into the vestibule. Did he say, as they thought he did, kindly ‘Auntie, you know this is not your church?’ As if one could choose the wrong one” (Walker, 2003).
While is not particularly defined in either the Smith poem or the Walker story, fear of African Americans is quite pervasive in society, which in effect crystallizes many of the assumptions and ignorance’s of the so-called African American experience that many non-African Americans seek to hypothesize. Wohlgemuth (1980) stated that
“in analyzing fear, it is necessary to assess your whole life – from birth to the present. Most of us are not free of our past. We are, in a sense, what our pasts have made us” (pg.4).
Winters (2012) noted that while America
“prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures, how we react to [these cultures] is at odds” (pg.1) with that melting pot.
Thus, the people in the church who are shocked and in awe of the old woman in “The Welcome Table” are basing their disbelief off of fear. In contrast, the 9 year old girl more or less has observed her surroundings. Smith does not inject a setting to delineate the pedigree of fear. Instead, what we read is an internalized surveillance of the prejudices against her. This is perhaps the only difference between the poem and the story with regard to the racial tension between blacks and other races.
The African American experience as outlined by Smith’s 9 year old girl and Walker’s old woman is a tapestry that has been weaved by a widespread dynamic of mind molding. It would seem from both the styles of the writers that a self hating omnipresent undercurrent is at work that continues to be difficult to debunk. African Americans have come to believe that their existence in society is more or less defined by how other races see them, rather than how they view themselves. It is this dominating theme of self-image and false characterizations that Smith’s “What it’s Like to Be a Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren’t)” and Walker’s “The Welcome Table” seek to portray.
Coard, S. I., Breland, A. M., & Raskin, P. (2001). Perceptions of and Preferences for Skin Color, Black Racial Identity, and Self-Esteem Among African Americans.Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 2256-2274.
Smith, P. (n.d.). What it’s Like to Be a Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren’t) [Web log post]. Retrieved from Warning: This Might Be Uncomfortable: http://nunningincircles.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/warning-this-might-be-uncomfortable/
Walker, A. (2003). The Welcome Table. In M. C. Curtis (Ed.), Faith:Stories (pp. 254-258.). Troy, MO: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Winters, J. (2012, June 13). Why We Fear the Unknown. Retrieved September 5, 2013, from Psychology Today website: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200305/why-we-fear-the-unknown
Wohlgemuth, P. F. (1980). The Fears of Race Relations: Confessions of a White Pastor.Southern Changes, 2(6), 4-6.