James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of Ex-colored man Nella Larsen’s Quicksand both addresses the question of race and the predicament of black people. The analogy that one finds in these novels is that its major characters are relentlessly travelling to find their identities. The very purpose of their globetrotting is largely due to their inner anxieties compelling them to observe and bear witness to race relations in different part of the world.
The narrator in the novel is the ex-colored man who does not divulge his name. At the beginning of the novel he says he will reveal this secret of not making his actual identity public. The secret, as the title of the novel suggests is passing of the black man as white. This is to say, that his skin tone is lighter enough to make people believe that he is white. Though, he himself did not learn that his father was white and mother colored. At the end of the novel, he marries a white woman and become a father of but ensures that his children does not know that very secret. Nevertheless, he regrets abandoning this heritage saying he has sold “his birthright for a mess of pottage.”
The narrator keeps travelling from one place to another and observes the racial issues in different contexts. At school in Connecticut he finds that black and white children get along well with each other. However, being a graduate at high school in the south, he discovers that there exists a lot racial tension and discrimination. At this point in time, the realization that he will have no future prospects in terms of education, career, and social status as being a black man engulfs him. Then, he moves to New York where he comes to know that music the binding force between white and colored people. In Europe, he observes the racial divide is almost non-existent.
The narrator judges the African American people he meets on the basis of their education, dialect and manners. The higher classes of any race attract him while the downtrodden and poor and rural African American class repels him.
He never knows his father’s name. At the beginning of the book, when the boy and his mother are still living in Georgia, the father is just “a tall man with a small, dark moustache” who visits their small house a few evenings each week. He wears a gold watch and chain and has shiny black shoes. Normally, he gives the boy a coin but, on his last visit, gives him a ten-dollar gold piece to wear around his neck and hugs him. The next day, the boy and his mother move to Connecticut. When the boy is nine, he learns for the first time that his father is white and that his mother is not, but he does not yet know his father’s identity. Three years later, when the man comes to visit in Connecticut, he learns that the tall man is his father.
The focal theme of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and the foremost obsession of its characters is the question of race in the United States at the turn of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel pays particular attention to the relationship between the white and black majority without any significant mention of other racial groups. . The narrator’s birth takes place soon after the Civil War, which ended in 1865, while the country has just begun to decide and ascertain the roles of African American---recently freed of slavery. As a man who lives part of his life in the white world and part of it in the “coloured,” and one who lives in the North, in the South, and in Europe, the narrator is exclusively competent to observe the issues from an array of perspectives.
Many a times, the narrator gives up his narrative to wander off a few pages on the issue of of race. In these moralistic passages the narrator recognizes that “it is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a coloured man really thinks …” “I believe it to be a fact,” he writes, “that the coloured people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” Hence, the narrator, a colored man who has grown up among whites, sets out to study his people and share his valuable understanding with his readers.
Nella Larsen's novel narrates the story of Helga Crane, a fictional character loosely founded on Larsen's own early life. Crane is the gorgeous and sophisticated daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian black father who abandons Helga and her mother soon after her birth. Not finding comfort with her white-skinned relatives, Helga lives in various places in America and visits Denmark in search of people among whom she feels at home.
Quicksand narrates the exploits of an erudite mixed-race woman, who gropes for self-definition, social recognition, and sexual expression. Her movement through evocative contemporary settings in the rural South and urban North, as well as in cosmopolitan Denmark, indicates her concentrated effort to achieve a space within which all part of her identity could coexist. The intermittent construction serves to reflect Helga's psychological and emotional states and to demonstrate the manifold subjective spaces precluded in marking identity only within stiff categories. Helga fails in her quest for control over her own identity and body; her failure is symbolized in terms of reproduction as a part of a psychic and physical quandary, threatening to wipe out a woman's autonomy and agency.
Racial identity differences during the 1900s were possibly the most influential social patterns to affect people of that age. Labeling a specific group of people with a racial tag can lead to their following a specific political point of view, and affect their social relationships. People often follow racial identity patterns due to three reasons in their psyche, firstly the concept of categorical identification (identifying oneself or being identified by others as being a member of a certain category), self-understanding (one’s sense of who one is and what action or behavior this entails), and connectedness (the relational ties that link people).
Social psychologists have discovered much about the general and omnipresent tendency of individuals to form an identity with groups to which they belong and to favor the in-group and discriminate against the out-group. This identification with the group is termed social identity. Specifically, in the definition of social identity is that “the mere perception of belonging to two distinct groups—that is, social categorization per se—is sufficient to trigger intergroup discrimination favoring the in group” . Since social identity forms and has consequences even for these “minimal” groups, these results suggest that social identity may be an extremely important variable when the groups or categories have very meaningful social, economic, and political consequences, such as racial and ethnic groups do in current society.
In practicality, racial identification is based more on particular characteristics of the individual, such as ancestry and skin color, than on the activities that the individual performs. The basic principles of intergroup relations, three assumptions are clear in the identity theory: First assumption is that individuals work to achieve positive self-esteem, which in turn creates a positive self-concept. Second, social groups and their members have positive and negative values that are usually consensual within and across groups. Therefore, social identities can be positive (for a member of a high status group) or negative (for a member of a low status group). The final assumption is that individuals evaluate their group by comparing it with specific other groups with regard to value-laden attributes and characteristics. If the in-group compares positively to the out-group, the result is high prestige for the individual’s social identity; however, if the out-group is judged by society to be more positive than the in group, the individual’s social identity is a low prestige one.
From these assumptions, three theoretical principles are derived, that are basic to social identity theory: First is that individuals attempt to achieve or to maintain a positive social identity, second is that, positive social identity is based on favorable comparisons that can be made between the in-group and some out-groups: the in-group should be considered different from the out-groups, and thirdly, when social identity is unfavorable, individuals will struggle to either leave their existing groups and join some more positively favorable group, or try to make their existing group more positively different.
However, not all groups have the same status. In many societies, groups are in a status hierarchy, some having more power and influence than others. In the United States whites are the high status group and have historically had more power than other racial or ethnic groups. Throughout the country’s history, whites have judged other groups in relation to themselves and formed negative stereotypes of other groups such as African Americans. Although blatant negative stereotypes of blacks may have diminished over the past years and not everyone believes these negative images, almost all individuals are aware that a negative stereotype of African Americans exists in our society and are able to describe it.
For members of groups to which society has attached negative meanings, such as
African Americans, social comparisons may not lead to positive social identity. In such cases, three possible reactions take place due to negative social identity, firstly, an individual in a low status group might try to move into a higher status group, or if this is not possible, then they might psychologically distance or disassociate themselves from the group. This phenomenon is known as individual mobility. The second schemata for low status group members is social creativity, where the group members work to change the results of social comparisons by changing the factors on which groups are compared, or change the values of judgment, or even try to compare the in group to another group of lower status. Thirdly, low status group members might also attempt social competition in which the in groups objective standing in the social structure is improved relative to the out groups location.
The political system has an important influence on racial identities. For example, official racial categories are determined by political entities, such as the Office of Management and the Budget.
Further, politicians have the power to create policies that differentially affect the members of these racial categories. However, members of minority groups also shape the meanings attached to racial identity through social movements.
Ethnic and racial groups might also be influenced by circumstantial factors, including the claims that others make about them, but constituent in the factors that influence them, is also their use of raw material of history, cultural practices and pre-existing identities to fashion their own distinctive notions of who they are. Many scholars argue that these identities are products of both assignment (by others or society in general) and assertion (by the group or individuals within the group). In the case of black Americans, the social context of slavery erased many previously existing ethnic identities and provided blacks with a common language and culture that formed the basis for a black racial identity. However the racial identity “black” is predominantly an assigned identity, African Americans “also have become an ethnic group, a self-conscious population that defines itself in part in terms of common descent (Africa as homeland), a distinctive history (slavery in particular), and a broad set of cultural symbols (from language to expressive culture) that are held to capture much of the essence of their people hood”.
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