The American identity is subjective. It differs for each individual and though it may be similar between people it is not one hundred percent the same for any two people. One of the key factors of someone’s American identity is race. The American identity and life of a white person differs greatly from that of a Black person’s. Historically it has been shown that Black Americans have had to fight systematic oppression and unethical treatment for hundreds of years which lead to their fight for equal rights. To understand the difference of American identities it is important to look at these struggles they had to overcome and how their race and race specific struggles affected their life as Americans and their American identities.
The life of a Black American and the American identity of a Black person are very unique to their race. It is no secret that throughout America’s history Black people have had a disadvantage placed on them at birth. To specify this to the time period of the pieces of work it’s important to focus on the fact that the main legal and social disadvantages Black people have faced. Around the times W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes released their works racism and Jim Crow laws (laws that enforced segregation in schools, railroads, public places and also the outlawing of miscegenation)were the main issues Black Americans had to deal with. While they were free from slavery they were anything but free from the systematic oppression they endured for so long and were not seen as equal until the civil rights movement. It is also important to focus on the effect the memory of slavery also had effects on Black Americans. For those around closer to Du Bois’s younger years a lot of them were slaves or had family that were so for them it was very real and even for those around when he was older it was their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts all who had stories to tell about the pain they had gone through during slavery. The way in which Black Americans lived and continue to do so has been with a double consciousness as written about in The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. He described it as “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. By bringing up this double consciousness and explaining it in the way he does he shows how for Black Americans they were never allowed to just naturally feel American because they were always seen as other. He went on to write it was twoness, an American and a Black man with two souls all trapped into one body. In this same work Du Bois uses the symbolism of a veil which represented the color line which is what determined peopled access to opportunities based on their race. He first brought it up with the line “I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.” This pinpoints the exact moment he felt a division from white people since before this he had never seen himself as different. The veil is a veil that exists only in people’s minds and white people, whether they realize it or not, use it to structure society in a racist way. Du Bois saw it as what stopped white people from seeing Black people as Americans or treating them as equals. This veil in that sense can be seen as the cause of most, if not all, racial tensions in this country because it is what has prevented equality and freedom of Black Americans. He also claims that the veil is always present even though it is not felt at all times. It even takes time to even be realized such as the case of du bois who did not realize it until a classmate treated him differently because of his race. Both these ideas of double consciousness and a veil are what help contribute to the complexity of what an American identity is and how it can be defined and lead to its uniqueness for each individual.
The concept of double consciousness can also be felt in some of the works of Langston Hughes. In Theme for English B Hughes wrote “You are white-, yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That’s America.” This line shows the division felt by making the races of both the author and teacher known so the reader is aware but shows that though there is that difference that both people are a part of America. This is also present in the line “I guess you learn from me-, although you’re older- and white-, and somewhat more free” from the same poem. Again Hughes is showing the divide and difference between him and the teacher but also ties in legal issues of the time by hinting at them with the mention of the teacher being free. The theme of being different but also similar is also present in Hughes’s poem I, Too in the line “They’ll see how beautiful I am, and be ashamed-, I, too, am American” this line follows lines from the perspective of a slave describing always being sent to eat in the kitchen alone but knowing one day he will be invited to the table and shows how even though he is being sent away and treated like an outsider he knows he is an American and feels the connection despite it all and shows a hope that change will come and unity will outweigh the division.
It was these ideas presented in both and sense of hope in the ending of I, Too were what helped push the civil rights movement. Black Americans felt this division but wanted equality so that the division could be lessened because they knew that though they were not treated as such they were also Americans and knew they deserved the same freedom white people already had. Though freedom was give and Black people no longer have to use their own restrooms the feeling of double consciousness and division were not so easily diminished.
These ideas of double consciousness and a veil re still present today in ways such as Black people, men especially, have had to come to the realization that though they are American they are seen as an outsider by many. They have issues such as being killed unarmed and innocent by police officers like how Black Americans in the past had to struggle with Jim Crow laws. It is also extremely dangerous for Black Trans women because their life expectancy is only thirty five. They are also present in the fact many Black parents have to give their kids a special talk about race and how they have to work twice as hard as white people do to even get a foot in the door. That talk ties in to the poem Mother to Son by Langston Hughes because it’s a poem of a mother telling her son that her life has been hard and that she has worked extremely hard to get to where she is and is encouraging him to work hard and not give up and while the poem doesn’t specify whether her race affected her come up it can be assumed it did life wasn’t easy for Black people especially Black women during her time. The idea of the veil is also still present in ways such as black people being fired or kept from getting jobs for having corn rows or locks but so many white people are praised in fashion and online for doing their hair like that despite it having a deep important background to the Black community. It is also seen in many white people having no issue with the police and getting angry or defensive when a Black person voices their opinion about the police force as if they haven’t had to watch their community die innocent at the hands of the police for centuries while they continue to have protest and have activist be vocal and seen despite nothing ever changing or being handled in a way that actually helps them.
In conclusion, race is an important
factor in how people live their lives in America. It has been that way since
the beginning of our country and continues today. Double consciousness causes
people, Black people especially in context to this essay, to be hyper aware of
how they are perceived and judged by society and how to act to avoid danger while
the veil aids oppression. It is an ongoing issue that has continued for
centuries in American culture. These themes have been evident in the works of
Black people for centuries depicting the struggle and fight and they had to
endure in this country from its beginning and still to this day.
BOIS, WEB DU. SOULS OF BLACK FOLK. BLURB, 2019.
Hughes, Langston. “Langston Hughes.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature,
Vol. 2: 1865 to the Present, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 1037–1045.