Masterpiece Monday: Poems about Racism

So I have a team presentation in my Media Ethics class tomorrow, and it’s about the ethical issues surrounding a radio talk show host who holds very bigoted views, but also makes the station a ton of money. My partner and I essentially take Voltaire’s position of “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Even though we do not respect the Don Imuses and Rush Limbaughs of the world for their hate speech, they still have the freedom of speech.

However, that does not make their comments moral whatsoever. I chose to look at three famous poems that deal with the personal effects of racism. Note: the first poem listed does use a racial slur, but since I don’t advocate artistic censorship, I will include it in its original form. Please understand that I do not mean to offend, but only to preserve the poet’s intent.

“Incident” by Countee Cullen (1925)

Once riding in old Baltimore,   
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,   
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1896)

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
       We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
       We wear the mask!

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes (1926)

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

These three African-American men highlight how racism has affected their lives. Cullen never forgot an instance of discrimination as a child, Dunbar reflects on the emotional struggle African-Americans experience with white society, and Hughes remains optimistic for racial equality.

While the content revolves around the same issue, the poems’ forms differ greatly. Cullen creates a childlike sing-song effect by rhyming every other line. This rhyme scheme enhances the speaker’s youth. Dunbar writes in couplets but repeats the line “We wear the mask” to stress how hiding their true feelings is a constant battle. Lastly, Hughes’s free-form poem emphasizes short, powerful phrases instead of a rhyming structure.

I think that all these poems are beautiful in their own way, and I believe that all high school students should experience them like I did at that age. Too many of my students are under the impression that racism does not exist anymore, that it’s only a thing that we study when discussing the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Although I am grateful that equality has increased legally and socially over time, I am disturbed by this promotion of ‘color-blindness.’ We should celebrate, not ignore, our racial differences, because race is an essential factor to who we are and how we perceive reality.

Right now,  everyone is infuriated over the death of Trayvon Martin (rightfully so, in my opinion), and while I won’t digress into a political debate, I’d like to ask: What do you think these poets would say about this controversial tragedy? How far have we really come since their era?

It saddens me that these events still occur in the 21st century, but we are also capable of inciting sociopolitical change. Going back to the reason I wrote this post, if you find that a media professional (whether he’s on TV, radio, or an internet blog) is spouting off racist opinions, do your part and refute. If enough people post their comments and write their political representatives about fighting racism, then slowly that change will happen.

And when it comes to promoting racial equality, it’s better late than never.

Masterpiece Monday: Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison (Image via Wikipedia)

Rating: 4 out of 5

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought I’d review an African-American novel for Masterpiece Monday. Unfortunately, African-Americans and people of color in general are vastly underrepresented in the literary canon–and in my own blog. I hope to feature more ethnic writers in the future, and I encourage recommendations from you guys! (Well, except Toni Morrison…I still have the bad taste of Beloved in my mouth from high school).

So I chose Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, because it was published right before King’s March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It also has the most easy-to-remember first line ever, which I quoted in my AP Lit essay: “I am an invisible man.”

Indeed, the protagonist is never named, but he secretly lives in New York in the basement of a whites-only apartment building, which is illuminated by 1,369 lights from a power company. The man narrates his story, which includes his time spent at an all-black college, his job at a paint factory known for its white paints, and his shock treatments while recovering from a boiler explosion.

Eventually, he is recruited into the Brotherhood in Harlem, and he must struggle with the various members trying to make a difference in the black community. Although he’s often disillusioned by his fellow African-Americans, he remains determined to incite political change and overcome his metaphorical invisibility.

Even though this novel has scenes that are hard to stomach (especially Trueblood’s incestuous relationship with his daughter), Invisible Man is beautifully written. Ellison’s distinct voice tells what it was like to live in the mid-20th century as an African-American man. He doesn’t sugarcoat the racism in America, but he also doesn’t let one perspective dominate the conversation. Moderate and radical black activists are represented in the story, as well as those who submit to whites to simply get by in life.

Ellison also makes many historical and literary allusions, from everybody to Louis Armstrong, to H.G. Wells, from Marcus Garvey to Homer. But for someone named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, these cultural references seem to run in the family.

What people like Ellison and MLK Jr. demonstrate is that there is no reason to speak for somebody, when they can speak just as eloquently for themselves. I realize that I can never know what life as an African-American is like, whether the year’s 1950 or 2012, but I thank black writers for sharing a piece of them with the world, so we can learn from one another and encourage love for all human beings, no matter the color of their skin.

Favorite Quote: “I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.”

Movie Review: The Help

Still of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone in "The Help" (Image via Moviefone)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Since it’s Labor Day, I thought I would swap Masterpiece Monday for a movie review to celebrate all workers, past and present. I just saw “The Help” with one of my best friends today, and although I haven’t read the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, I really enjoyed the movie.

Both book and film are wrapped in controversy due to their subject matter: Actress Emma Stone plays Skeeter, a young aspiring journalist/novelist in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s. She decides to write a book from the perspective of the African-American maids in her community, in spite of definite alienation and possible imprisonment.

Stockett writes what she knows, since she also lived in Jackson and was raised by a maid instead of a mother. Unfortunately, though she was faced with a lawsuit by her sibling’s former maid Ablene Cooper, who claims the character Aibileen Clark was based off her (the lawsuit has since been dismissed due to Cooper suing after the one-year statute of limitations).

Regardless of Stockett’s legal troubles, “The Help” was a wonderful film which highlighted a group of amazing people under-appreciated by society. Some will find issue with a white woman speaking for black women, or the happily-ever-after portrayal of race issues in America, but I don’t think anyone would claim that racism is not alive and well even today. Instead, we should see the movie as a learning experience, a reminder of both how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go in combating racism.

Story-wise, the dialogue was witty, the characters endearing, and the acting down-to-earth and heartfelt. It’ll make you laugh, cry, and rethink what you believe about more than just race: I also appreciated the movie’s discussion of sexism. A woman’s struggle to be the ‘perfect’ wife and mother (despite miscarriages, social isolation, and the desire for a career) is of course not just a 1960’s phenomenon.

My only issue with this film is its demonization of the irreligious. When Aibileen (played by the exquisite Viola Davis) confronts racist housewife Hilly Holbrook (played by “Twilight’s” Bryce Dallas Howard), she declares, “You are a godless woman!” For someone secular like myself, it’s like a slap in the face. So I’d just like to say that you don’t need faith to be good-hearted, just like religion doesn’t automatically make you a saint. The godless (or god-free as I would rename) are people too, and although America was much more religious back in the ’60s, I would hate atheist discrimination to continue in the 21st century, as much I would hate racism or homophobia.

Overall, it was a great way to celebrate Labor Day. I myself grew up in a family with a maid, since my grandfather employed a Chilean woman until he died, so I can understand how you can love the help like your own family. She was one of the nicest people I ever met, and I just want to tell her and everyone in her profession, regardless of age or race: thank you.