Some people looking at society today tend to think that the racial prejudice of the past has nearly been done away with. Others, however, those who are still the recipients of racial prejudice in their every day lives see our society very differently. Those who think that racial prejudice is getting better may only be fooling themselves or–perhaps more likely– in some way are trying to deny the prejudice they themselves carry.
Prejudice against blacks is still very much a part of our society. White society still denies many Negroes equal opportunities for a decent standard of living, for education, for personal advancement, and for self-expression. In John Howard Griffins Black Like Me we see examples of this type of prejudice and oppression. Although the book was published over 30 years ago, the examples of the prejudice that Griffin encountered are still relevant and worthy of further evaluation today.
Another book worthy of our consideration is Toni Morrison’s, Beloved , which gives us an idea of the life that the slaves led in America before their emancipation, and the price some where willing to pay to make sure neither they nor their children ever had to experience it again.
In this paper I will use the theory of institutional discrimination to critically evaluate Griffin’s, Black Like Me. The theory of institutional discrimination states that discrimination is rooted in the institutions that run our society. I will also evaluate Morrison’s, Beloved using the theories of gendered racism and ideology and oppositional culture. Gendered racism is discrimination based on sex and gender. Ideologies are created by the dominant group to further and legitimatize its actions. Oppositional culture is what the people of color, or others suffering from discrimination do to survive the ideologies of the dominant group.
Griffin’s, Black Like Me takes the reader into the Deep South before the Civil Rights Movement and shows what it was like to be black in the South. In the Preface, Griffin states, “I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any ‘inferior’ group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same.”
The first example of Institutional discrimination that I will evaluate is when Griffin is at the YMCA coffee shop talking to a small group of men. The elderly man who runs the coffee shop tells him about how the white people are trying to divide the black race. They do this by singling out the lighter skinned, better looking, and more stylishly dressed Negroes, and try and instill in them a condescending attitude toward the darker “Uncle Tom” Negroes. This is a good example of institutional discrimination.
The whites are trying to make the lighter skinned Negroes think they are accepting them more, but in actuality are trying to get the lighter skinned Negroes to help further discriminate against there own racial color. We see later in the book that this has worked. There is the example of Christophe a nicely dressed black man addressing the blacks on the bus as ” punk niggers” (Pg.56) and then speaking in German and telling them how stupid they are. Institutional discrimination has put it in the mind of Christophe that he is some how better than these other blacks because he is more white in looks and learning.
Another example of institutional discrimination occurs on page 46. Griffin is walking down a street in New Orleans:
… I walked toward Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ famed restaurants . . . I stopped to study the menu . . . realizing that a few days earlier I could have gone in an ordered anything on the menu. But now, though I was the same person with the same appetite . . . appreciation . . . and wallet, no power on earth could get me inside this place for a meal. I recalled hearing some Negro say, ‘You can live here all your life, but you’ll never get inside one of the great restaurants except as a kitchen boy.’
The above passage represents just one of many instances where he was barred from entering an establishment solely based on his pigmentation. As stated before, Negroes were not permitted to enter many restaurants, but libraries, museums, concert halls, and other culturally enhancing places were also barred to him even though by that time there was no formal law against them entering. This is institutional discrimination. These museums, concert halls, etc. are perpetuating the discrimination of blacks.
The many stereotypes of blacks being intellectually inferior made it easier to deny them access because they did not have the mental capacities to appreciate what was being inflicted on them. It became apparent to Griffin that because the black population was widely undereducated, they would never be able to successfully compete in life with whites.
One of the things inhibiting their education was the inferior quality of their “separate but equal” schools and the inability to enter cultural establishments such as libraries and museums. The whites used these culturally inflicted deficiencies to their advantage to keep the black population subordinate–thus perpetuating institutional discrimination.
There is the example of Griffin as a black hitch hiking. He encounters all kinds of stereotypes for blacks, stereotypes that are perpetuated through institutional discrimination. Griffin started getting picked up once it got dark and had this to say on page 87:
A man will reveal himself in the dark, which gives an illusion of anonymity, more than he will in the bright light. Some were shamelessly open, some shamelessly subtle. All showed morbid curiosity about the sexual life of the Negro, and all had, at base, the same stereotyped image of the Negro as an inexhaustible sex-machine with oversized genitals, and a vast store of experiences, immensely varied. They appeared to think that the Negro has done all of those “special” things they themselves have never dared to do. They carried the conversation into the depths of depravity. I note these things because it is harrowing to see decent-looking men and boys assume that because a man is black they need show him none of the reticences they would, out of respect, show the most derelict white man.
These are but a few examples of institutional discrimination Griffin encountered. Black Like Me is full of instances were Griffin is called names, threatened by men on the street, receives hate stares and is subject to questions about his “black” sex life. The details Griffen relates in Black Like Me is of hatred and racism directed toward him and others like him on account of their color of skin. The account he related showed America and the world that race relations in the South were not the pretty pictures they were often painted to be. Instead, he showed the daily struggle of the blacks to survive within the institutional discrimination that was and still is so prevalent in our society.
Beloved is another book that sheds light on a past that has led us to be where we are today in race relations. Beloved is an account of flashbacks, memories, and nightmares with a variety of different characters. That character Sethe is presented as a former slave woman who chooses to kill her baby girl rather than allowing her to be exposed to the physically, emotionally, and spiritually oppressive horrors of a life spent in slavery. Beloved is full of ideologies that the dominate white group uses to keep the blacks down. There are also examples of gendered racism and oppositional culture, as these blacks try and survive the ideologies of the whites.
Beloved gives us potent images of the gender racism perpetrated by Schoolteacher, a brutal overseer, and his nephews in their rape of the slave woman Sethe. What was stolen from Sethe was her sense of herself as a woman deserving of protection and respect from men. Sethe’s rape defiles her before both black and white men. Her husband, Halle, watching from a secret place, goes mad from impotent rage.
He’s impotent to do anything about it. This is an example of gendered racism. Sethe is raped at the hands of white men and can do nothing about it. Sethe has no way to seek compensation for what she endured; the men are her “superiors” and know that they can get away with this rape. If Sethe were a white woman this crime would not have blown over so easily. This is not to say that white indentured servants where never raped, but it is because Sethe was black that made here condition so hopeless and without remedy.
The whites had many ideologies that justified the cruel abuse that they put on black slaves. These ideologies obviously make it easier for the slave owners to mistreat their slaves. A good example of a basic ideology that the whites had can be found on page 190 of Beloved. Schoolteacher is accusing Sixo of stealing some shoat, Sixo insists that he didn’t steal it. He admits that he ate it and then gives his explanation for doing so:
Sixo plant rye to give the high piece a better chance. Sixo take and feed the soil, give you more crop. Sixo take and feed Sixo give you more work.
Clever, but Schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers–not the defined.
Sixo tells him that he is just trying to improve Schoolteacher’s property. Schoolteacher has to put him in his place, telling him in a sense, “Don’t think that,” the white man will think and instruct for him. This is an ideology that is seen throughout this time, that the white man will dictate everything that the slaves do, from eating, working, sleeping, family issues and sexual issues.
Another example of the ideologies that where created by the whites is found on page 151. Here you see one way that the whites justified their actions. Sethe has just killed her baby and tried to kill her boys and Denver to keep them from the life Sethe fears at sweet home. Placing her children outside the horror of slavery, even if it meant taking their lives, was in her mind a justified act of love, nothing more. Schoolteacher has just left this disturbing scene, we then read:
All testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred.
Here the whites justify the enslaving of blacks by saying that they are incapable of handling freedom, and need to be taken care of by the white “civilized” people. This is an ideology that puts the blacks below the whites, and even below the level of a human being.
The last example of an ideology that I will site is found on page 237. This is where schoolteacher is teaching the boys. He has asked them to describe one of the slaves. One of the boys is describing Sethe. Schoolteacher tells them to put “human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right.” This is where the ideologies take root in society. Schoolteacher is putting it into the minds of these young white boys that the slaves are animals–or at least less than fully human. This will aid these young boys in their future abuse of blacks. These boys will grow with an ideology that they are superior to all blacks and that you can treat the blacks as animals.
In order to endure the ideologies that the whites had, the blacks would create an oppositional culture that would serve as a shield against the discrimination and abuse that they suffered at the hands of the whites.
An example of oppositional culture can be found on page 88 of Beloved. Here Baby Suggs preaches the gospel of love in the clearing: “a wide open space cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what.”:
In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off, and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!
This beautiful speech given by Baby Suggs tells her people that they need to love, she gets specific using references to the whites not loving them. Her sermon does not advocate a heaven delayed until death, but the promise of a better life on earth, but that life must come from the people themselves.
Another way the blacks would deal with these white ideologies was through song. There is the song that Sethe sings that her mother sang to her about button eyes (pg. 100). There were the songs Paul D would sing that he learned on the chain gang (Pg. 49-50). Song has been a way for the black people to escape, from their oppression up to present day. Song has taken them to another place and let them tell their story.
Black Like Me and Beloved both sing of the oppression that the white people have put on the blacks. From Griffin being talked to as though he was less than human to Sethe being beaten and raped while pregnant. These graphic illustrations of how institutional discrimination and ideologies in the past have enabled and condoned the terrible treatment white society gave this people may be more crude and open than the prejudice that often exists in American society today, but the difference in outward manifestation is one of degree only–the institutional and ideological bases are still there condoning and sanctioning the unequal treatment accorded blacks in our society today. And the resulting harm to black society, children and adult is still there–often just as scarring and harmful as the earlier physical beatings, rapes, and physical separation.
Black songs still today evoke the pain and suffering that institutional discrimination, gender racism, and discriminatory ideology have left on black society in America. Those songs are a force for the black people still today–a way for them to remember and deal with their past and hope for their future. Ben Harper sings:
Exactly how much will have to burn
Before we will look to the past and learn
We walk along this endless path
Which has led us in a circle
So here we are right back
We can’t let our future become our past
If we are to change the world
Won’t you tell me
Tell me please
How many miles must we march
When I was a baby I was not prejudice
Hey how about you
This was something that I learned in school
Something they taught us to do
We can’t let our future become our past
If we are to change the world