By Bella Danisi, Michael Safara, and Brooke Stanford
Have you ever thought about how race and racism have two different meanings? Adl.org provides a definition for race which “Refers to the categories into which society places individuals on the basis of physical characteristics (such as skin color, hair type, facial form and eye shape). Though many believe that race is determined by biology, it is now widely accepted that this classification system was in fact created for social and political reasons. There are actually more genetic and biological differences within the racial groups defined by society than between different groups.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “race” in 1735 was introduced as and understood to be “systems of classification: any of the (putative) major groupings of mankind, usually defined in terms of distinct physical features or shared ethnicity, and sometimes (more controversially) considered to encompass common biological or genetic characteristics”. Throughout the years, race has had many different definitions and understandings but today, it is understood to be a classification of genetic characteristics.
Racism is when someone believes their “race” is superior to others. According to Dictionary.com, racism is “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.” Merriam-Webster.com definition of racism is, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” In addition, oxforddictionaries.com has their own interpretation, “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Racial oppression has been institutionalized into everyday customs. History has presented minorities and groups of different ethnic backgrounds with inferior statuses because of the inequalities that had been established by those with social power. These same discriminations and inequalities exist today. Examples of inequality are present within government organizations, schools, courts of law, etc. This mentality is passed down generations creating an ongoing cycle of judgement. It’s important to have it be apart of literature because it awakens us. It allows us to see how harmful racism is and the impact it has on others lives. Race is an important term and topic when we analyze literary texts. Many books thematize the lived experiences of race.
In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, the Younger family, a poor African American family living in Chicago’s South Side, has a chance to escape poverty with the help of a $10,000 check earned by the late Mr. Younger. It is up to the small, but growing family, to choose what to do with the money, and what will benefit all members of the family. the Younger family faces many racial based problems when they are trying to improve their living situation by moving to a “white” neighborhood. During this period of time, the Younger family is faced with harsh racism and segregation issues and this makes it difficult for them to live and improve their lives.
Throughout the play, the Younger family faces obstacles due to the color of their skin. Hansberry explores how the Youngers’ race influences their lives, creates conflicts, and hinders the characters from completing their goals. For example, when Mama, the head of the household, is searching for new possible homes to move her and her family into, she states “them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses. I did the best I could” (Hansberry, 93). Through this depiction of their struggles to move into a nice home, Hansberry critiques the historical practice of redlining. Hansberry gives the play the setting of “somewhere between World War II and the present,” highlighting the continuous relevance of difficulty for African Americans to move into decently priced homes in safe communities. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the legal definition of redlining is “the illegal practice of refusing to offer credit or insurance in a particular community on a discriminatory basis (as because of the race or ethnicity of its residents)” (Merriam-Webster). In “The Case for Reparations”, Ta-Nehisi Coates shows how serious and drastic redlining was through an interactive map displaying redlining in Chicago in the late 1930’s through the 1960’s. For community members, specifically those of minorities based on racial and ethnic groups, finding a decently priced home in a decently safe neighborhood was nearly impossible to find. Based on the demographics of a certain area, largely the South Side of Chicago, banks were refusing mortgage offers and investments. According to Coates, “In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.”
Hansberry’s play also thematizes the real life violence experienced by African Americans in 1959. Another character, Mrs. Johnson, a neighbor to the Youngers, states “you mean you ain’t read ’bout them colored people that was bombed out their place out there?” (100). It has not and is not uncommon for black people to be discriminated against solely due to the color of their skin, even if it is to the extent of resorting to violence. In the introduction of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s literary executor, Robert Nemiroff, also discusses real life examples of discriminatory violence. Nemiroff writes “we learned of a 1972 City Commissioner of Human Rights Report, citing eleven cases in the last eighteen months in which minority-owned homes had been set afire or vandalized, a church had been bombed, and a school bus had been attacked”-in New York City!)”, which shows attention to the severity of these actions (xii). Hansberry uses Mrs. Johnson to help bring to light the dangers of moving to a new location, especially Clybourne Park, which is home to exclusively white families. According to Coates, “Chicago whites employed every measure, from “restrictive covenants” to bombings, to keep their neighborhoods segregated” (Coates, The Atlantic).
Through the character Mr. Lindner, Hansberry critiques white supremacy and the ways white families organized to try and keep their neighborhoods white. Mr. Lindner, a white man that is a member of Clybourne Park’s “welcoming committee”, is introduced in the second act of the play. It should be noted, that Hansberry uses the term “welcoming committee” sarcastically, as Mr. Lindner is not there to welcome the family to the neighborhood, rather to try and convince them to not move to Clybourne Park. Upon first meeting Mr. Lindner, the audience may be convinced that he has a kind and welcoming persona, however his true intentions are quickly brought to light. In many instances, Mr. Lindner refers to the white community of Clybourne Park as “our people”, and the Youngers and the rest of the black community as “you people”. For example, Mr. Lindner states “our association is prepared, through the collective effort of our people, to buy the house from you at a financial gain to your family” (118). Mr. Lindner represents the white people, not just of Clybourne Park, a fictional place, but real communities of exclusively white people. Mr. Lindner also states “I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities” (118). Though Mr. Lindner prefaces the statement by saying it has nothing to do with race, it very clearly does, and due to the discriminatory feelings that the members of Clybourne Park have, a conflict has begun before the Youngers have moved in.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine gives us multiple examples of how racist Americans can be. In addition to critiquing blatant forms of racial discrimination like police brutality against African Americans, Rankine highlights how acts of interpersonal racism can often be unintentional. We may say we’re not “racist” but we’ve become brainwashed to stereotypes it can be hard to not hold it against others. Citizen really focuses on how blind we have become to moments of racism; and makes us really think about how our actions affect others. Citizen is an american lyric, a lyric is “(of poetry) having the form and musical quality of a song, and especially the character of a songlike outpouring of the poet’s own thoughts and feelings, as distinguished from epic and dramatic poetry.” (dictionary.com) By writing in this style we are being challenged to think deeper and hear the truth. She is making an obvious point that racism in America is still thriving. According to Rankine, “‘Poetry allows us into the realm of feeling, and it’s the one place where you can say ‘I feel bad,’ she says. In poetry, ‘feeling is as important as perception and description.’’’ (rpi.org) It is important to reflect on our behaviors and how we treat people, which this book allows us to do.
Microaggressions are common within this book. Dr. Derald Wing Sue from Psychology Today explains what a microaggression exactly means, “The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based on marginalized group membership” Rankine gives over a dozen incidents where microaggressions occur due to race. One example of it is, “At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black! I didn’t mean to say that, he then says” (44) The manager was out of line for what he had said. There was no reason for him to point out the color of her complexion. It makes you wonder if he had picked up that she was black on the phone, maybe it would’ve changed how he treated her.
In Rankine’s Citizen, we focus on the racism in tennis with Serena Williams. Tennis is often known as a “white” sport but Serena Williams is pure talent and is constantly proving this statement wrong. The amount of titles she has is unheard of but the amount of racism she has been faced with is questionable and unfair. There have been calls that have bee absurd and wrong because she is of color and if we think, would this happening to a white tennis player with such great talent as Serena William? The answer is no and it is unjust for race to be playing such a big factor in tennis and in America. Race is an issue throughout the world and here in our own backyard. All throughout literature we see race playing many factors and it is an issue we must overcome together in American Culture. Rankine sees Serena Williams as a hero for her commitment to tennis even though she is faced with racism on the court. For the whole of Serena’s career, she has continuously faced bad calls that have taken away wins for her. The first time you realize her fight against the tennis community is described, “In 2004 Alves was excused from officiating any more matches on the final day of the US Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in her quarterfinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati.” (26). Rankine makes it clear that the game is against her because she is black. It’s rare to see someone of color succeed at tennis which is typically a “white” sport. She proves racists wrong over and over again with her talent and resilience. Although she has to struggle through tough situations, she fights back and is willing to risk it all. She is one of the best tennis players to this day but that achievement is denied by some due to the color of her skin.
Reading and writing about race can help readers educate themselves and further understand the injustices that minorities have gone through and continue to go through. Works of literature such as Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Rankine’s Citizen, can both be tools to recognize racial discrimination and how people of different races are treated. Each work display characters who take pride in their race, discriminate against other races, and how each group of people navigate dealing with their own and other races. These books explore racism in America and how detrimental it is to society. After reading these books, people should learn from the mistakes previously made and better ourselves to live accepting and equal lives amongst all people.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 June 2018, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
Frassica, Matt. “Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ Shows What Racism Really Feels Like.” Public Radio International, 17 Aug. 2017, www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-17/claudia-rankine-s-citizen-shows-what-racism-really-feels.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun; Robert Nemiroff, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
“Race.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/race.
“Race.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/race.
“Race.” Oxford English Dictionary , Oxford English Dictionary ,
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American Lyric. Penguin, 2015.
“Redlining Legal Definition.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/legal/redlining.
Glossary of Education Terms. adl.org.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash