Misconceptions Of African American Life


Misconceptions Of African American Life Essay, Research Paper

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

This quote, spoken true by a prominent African American scholar of the 20th century, Carson Woodson, is aimed at shedding light on the inherent miseducation of African Americans. His beliefs that controlling one’s thinking with such a powerful grasp that allows little or no movement will lead to that individual behaving as he is expected is a very justifiable point. If time and time again, one is told to do certain things or believe certain things as “right”, then with constant repetition and enforcement, widespread belief and acceptance of this idea or practice will become the norm. A people that is consistently taught or treated a certain way may at some point begin to accept it “right.” However, in many cases what may be deemed “right” by some is not necessarily the “right” thing to do. This theory can not be any more prominent than in the case of African Americans, who have long endured hundreds of years of discriminatory practices based solely upon their race and origins. Dating back to the days of slavery, these are a people that out of prejudice, out of expectations, out of fear, have often come to view the white man’s way as the “right” way either by choice or by having no other choice. In the process, however, their very own culture, beauty, beliefs, traditions, etc., often get trampled upon or even forgotten as they either struggle to keep up or struggle to stay up. More then not, though, this “brainwashing” of sorts results in a “miseducation” of the African-American people that often leads to widespread misunderstandings about them. These misunderstandings can then lead to various forms of stereotypes aimed against African-Americans by whites or other non African Americans picked up along the way due to incomplete knowledge about their history which inherently also hurt those making these false assumptions. Times are changing, however, and with these evolutionary years comes a greater sense of struggle to understand. This struggle comes both from within the African-American community to find out more about themselves sans Caucasian undertones, and also from groups such as whites to attempt to designate stereotypes from truths. The vast majority of aids in this process, however, come from African American scholars, writers, poets, film-makers, etc., who have set out to expose the “miseducation of the Negro” into believing and acting upon forced actions or opinions and to learn the truths behind their actual heritage. Four works that susinctly bring the “miseducation” about African American history into the spotlight of the national public are Claude McKay’s “The Lynching”, Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of A Slavegirl”, Gordon Park’s “Washington D.C. Charwoman”, and Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” All four works illustrate a common thread of the misconception of African-American life by blacks themselves, as well as Caucasians around them, that has been carried intact through many a generations in the history of the United States.

The earliest example that I would like to call attention to is Claude McKay’s poem entitled “The Lynching.” In my opinion, this poem addresses the commonly held misconceptions of both blacks and whites against African Americans during the period of slavery in the U.S. In terms of the miseducation of African Americans, the author uses the line of “The awful sin remained still unforgiven” to insinuate that being born black was considered by him and other African Americans at that time to be a sin or something to be ashamed of. He blames this African American man’s death on “Fate’s wild whim” and never once blames the racist white males who most likely lynched him for no good reason, nor does he seem to express anger towards them. This poem shows the “miseducation of the Negro” in that it has the author writing about what he witnessed as virtually an everyday occurrence that is accepted in the natural cycle of life and death. It shows that the author may very well believe these to be truths, and illustrates the absolute brainwashing of African American slaves into viewing this man’s lynching death as somewhat normal or even expected. On the other hand, it also shows the ignorance and the miseducation of the white race towards African Americans. The line reading, “The women thronged to look, but never a one showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue.”, clearly shows how white women view this occurrence as “normal” as well, and show no remorse for an obviously brutal crime. They accept this as what’s “right” and view the hanging corpse as if it was an obstacle put on stage for their pure amusement. In addition, the “little lads, lynchers that were to be” that dance “ round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee” in Claude McKay’s poem show how this miseducation of whites against blacks is instilled in an early age. The fact that young children would be exposed to a hanging corpse is preposterous in itself, but the fact that they see this black man’s lynching death as funny or good creates adults down the line that continue with the same form of brutish and miseducated behavior.

Also in line with this same slavery-ridden period in American history is Harriet Jacob’s autobiographical story of “Incidents in the Life of A Slavegirl.” This work shows yet again the miseducation of both the white masses into thinking that slavery driven force and treatment was justifiable and the miseducation of the African Americans at that time who didn’t know any better than to accept that lifestyle as the norm. This chronicle in the life of a slave girl with the pen name of “Linda” takes the reader on a fascinating, yet horrifying, journey of someone trapped into believing that she must live her life as a slave and run away from being “owned” by another human being. However, Ms. Jacob’s rebels and escapes a life of direct servitude to the ferocious Dr. Flynt and to a life not much better, living in a garage roof for over 7 years. The African-Americans she encounters along the way show their brainwashed “miseducation” in the way they implore her not to run away and stay with the Flynts because it will just be easier and better for her. They adopt the white man’s view that this is the black girl’s place, and what she must live with. They have no choice, however, because they live in constant fear of even the littlest form of self-defense or indignation.

In addition, the whites in Ms. Jacob’s story are miseducated as well into thinking that Linda’s only place in life is with them as a servant to the family. They are completely ignorant of the girls actual needs or feelings, and cannot understand how she could ever actually desire or expect to live on her own with her own family. They show little sincere compassion, and offer no compassion towards Linda that wasn’t calculated or planned for their personal benefit in some form or another. The children did as they saw their elder relatives did, and Linda’s search got passed down from generation to generation as the miseducation of the white race against the innocence and actual humanity of the African American race.

Moving ahead into a time period still fresh in the minds of most Americans – the depression ridden early 1940s – an African American gentleman named Gordon Parks set out to use his camera as a way to expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, “by showing the people who suffered most under it.”

Although he had experienced racial discrimination outside the South, it was in the southern city of Washington, D.C., that Parks “found out what prejudice was really like.” In 1942, an opportunity to work for the Farm Security Administration brought Gordon to the United States Capitol on a fellowship for the study of the south deemed ” a fund set up for exceptionally able spooks and white crackers.” by a white “friend”. Nevertheless, he ignored this stereotype and took advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to explore his photographic talents in a city where “discrimination and bigotry were worse there than any place he [I] had yet seen. Upon his arrival in Washington D.C., Mr. Parks was sent around the capital city in order to familiarize himself with the city’s culture and to scout out photo opportunities. He was initially instructed to study the works of photographers who had also used discrimination as their subject, but found fault with the way the subject matter was portrayed and viewed. He felt that what people attribute the suffering of immigrants and minorities in the photographs of the Depression and World War II time period in America is wrong and that they are being vastly miseducated in thinking that the suffering was caused by God and the uncontrollable. Parks pointed out that “the research accompanying these stark photographs accused man himself–especially the lords of the land.” and he set out on a fervent journey in order to “show the rest of the world what the [your] great city of Washington, D.C. is really like.”

Gordon Park’s quest lead him to Ella Watson, a middle aged African-American woman employed by the White House as a cleaning lady. Her chief responsibilities included the cleaning and maintenance of a posh White House office occupied by a white woman of her same age and educational background. Seeing this blatant display of hypocrisy of the United State’s creed of “justice and freedom for all” in the nation’s capitol of all places, Gordon used Ms. Watson as the subject for an intensely moving photographic layout entitled “U.S. Government Charwoman.” One of these such pictures of Ms. Watson standing between two upright brooms in front of an American flag in the White House was shown in class and caught my attention. The reason for my curiosity was the way in which Gordon Parks manipulated the background, props, and Ella herself in order to portray a vividly clear image of the miseducation of the American masses. With the American Flag being hung on a wall backwards behind Ms. Watson, the photograph relays a sense of unintentional, yet intentional wrong-doing. The fact that the flag is backwards and appears blurry as well signifies the fact that African-Americans were being treated as second class citizens in a country where everyone was supposed to be equal. I believe that Parks is attempting to expose the truth behind what many white Americans believe to be “justice.” In his portrayal, it is not meant “for all”, but for a privileged race of Caucasians who have black people to clean up after them. While slavery may be illegal at this time, the actual truth that Gordon was exposing showed just the opposite, but in a different light. Standing between an upright broom and a mop, Watson, like many African-American citizens in the 1940s, was enslaved in a way to a life that left her few options but to be a maid for the upper crust. This was viewed as acceptable by the majority, but Gordon Parks’s work shows the African-American population as virtual slaves, entrapped by their immobility in both the social and career arena. By placing Ms. Watson between the cleaning tools and in front of a blurry backwards flag, Gordon Parks used his camera to shed light on the inherent suffering and second-class citizenship of African-Americans. He touched upon a lifestyle accepted by blacks at that time as all they could do, and by whites at that time as what miseducation taught as “justice for all.”

For my final example about the inherent miseducation of the American masses, I’d like to recollect a scene viewed in class from Spike Lee’s movie “School Daze” which provided a much more recent (1980s) visualization on the influence of white miseducation on African American females. In this dramatically staged scene of dueling groups of young collegiate women arguing over who has “better hair”, I believe that Spike Lee sought out to portray a much deeper point than simple vanity. With the girls with supposedly “good” hair sporting gray sweatshirts with giant “W”’s on them and having long and carefully styled and colored heads of hair, he attempted to show how the white influence has miseducated these girls into thinking that these looks (inherently stemming from the styling used by white females) are to be considered “better” than their counterparts with the “naturally” styled or “kinky” African American hair. This bold statement by these women in turn prompts the other rival group of girls to poke fun at these girls as white “wanna-be’s” who should want to show the natural beauty of their hair without extensions, styling products, or artificial color. The scene basically pits one racial stereotype of “better” or “best” hair and style onto another as these collegiate women sing back and forth “Go on and stare, see if I care, good or bad hair!”, and argue over the separatism of black and white influence on hair on African-American women. While no clear cut “winner” emerges from Spike Lee’s theatrics, the point is made that a white over-influence does indeed exist in the judging of “beauty” in the African American women in this movie. They are to view white style as the “better” style, and that in turn serves as the unnecessary basis for all of their styling comparisons.

All in all, each of these African American artists brilliantly depict that fact that “miseducation” cannot be looked upon as any one race’s problem, nor can it only be one race’s explanation. Rather, the misunderstandings and stereotypical actions by or against African Americans by white Americans must be thoroughly examined from both sides as they are equally deep-rooted among each group. In addition, I personally feel that with more and more of these investigations of the miseducation of the races can lead to a better understanding of each. It is not just the fact of the acknowledging the existence of miseducation that will help people to understand African Americans better and more realistically. It is up to both whites and blacks alike to make conscious efforts to ignore stereotypes and seek only truths in answering questions about the races. If the problem of miseducation is not properly addressed equally by all sides, the problem can never be fully understood or solved. Miseducation benefits no one. It harms all involved by spreading unsubstantiated opinions for norms or forcing actions based upon fear and ill will. Truth is hidden, and innocent people get hurt or mislead in the process. It is up to today’s younger generations of American citizens to wake up, realize the vast racial miseducation that currently exists, and start treating others with the dignity and respect earned automatically in their being born human beings.

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