Racism refers to discrimination or prejudice founded upon differences in race. On the other hand, Otherness is defined as the state of feeling different in character or appearance from what is generally accepted. Racism has often been termed as a form of otherness as it is birthed from the unwillingness to recognize and accept difference based on color. Nella Larsens literary work Sanctuary and Langston Hughes Theme for English B, both written during the Harlem Renaissance, are instrumental pieces in the conversation about race. Originally known as the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance signified a period of social and artistic explosion in Harlem, New York in the 1920s. This paper seeks to discuss the issue of racism and otherness as painted in the revolutionary pieces of work Sanctuary and Theme for English B.
Sanctuary, published in 1930, is a short story of a womans loyalty to her race which proves to be stronger than her anger and grief. Larson tells the story of a strong female character, Annie Poole, who protects the murderer of her son out of a sense of loyalty to her race. Jim Hammer seeks refuge at Annies house after having shot at a man when caught stealing. She offers him a hiding place only to later learn that Jim shot and killed her son, Obadiah. Obadiah is portrayed as a collaborative lad, working for the white man faithfully. However, when Annie is asked whether she has seen anyone pass that way, she declines, failing to give up Jim who is hiding in her house. She tells him to be thankful for his black face. Sanctuary relays the message of loyalty, people of color would rather stick together than tell on their own to the white man as illustrated by the failure of Annie Poole to give up her sons murderer despite the grief over the loss of her son. She understands that the rules are different for the black man.
Langston Hughes Theme for English B is a poem written in the 1950s. The poem centers on a young colored twenty-two-year-old student whose instructor asks him to write something true about himself. The student reflects on himself, recounting that he is the only colored student in his class. While he feels like an outsider at the school, the young man identifies himself with Harlem, a place he believes to fit in. The student continues to list some of the common things he likes to do like eating, sleeping and listening to music pointing out that his being colored impedes him from the luxury of liking the same things that white people like. The speaker wonders whether his written page will be different- colored -as he is. He finalizes his work by acknowledging that despite him and his instructor belonging to different races, they are linked by the fact that they are both Americans. However, the instructor has the advantage of being white, older and freer.
Through this poem, Hughes clearly paints a story about identity, race and truth. Wrapped up in his search for his identity is the speakers core theme of race. He is black, born in the South and lives in the center of black culture in New York- Harlem. Also, he is the only colored student in his class. The young man cannot help but feel that people are not equally free and thus their different freedoms accord them different truths. He seems to arrive at the conclusion that a persons truth cannot really be separated from their race.
In both these pieces of work, the idea of blackness is a seen as product of racism. People of color are only aware that they are black by seeing themselves through the eyes of the white people. The distinction between Negros and whites is brought out very clearly, further reinforcing the notion of black inferiority and white superiority. Nevertheless, one may argue that the complex of inferiority is rooted in the psychology of being black. As illustrated in the Sanctuary, a woman is more loyal to her color of skin than her personal feeling of grief, and the young student in Theme for English B believes that his truth is tethered to his color. Regardless of the roots of this inferiority, it is very much a real part of the black person.
Inherent in this racist culture is the idea that there are different degrees of humanity, where the white occupy the highest rank. The Sanctuary portrays the white man as the employer and law enforcer (the sheriff), while the black man is seen as a common worker, in the case of Obadiah, as well as a thief and murderer as drawn in the character of Jim Hammer. The speaker in Theme for English B asserts that his instructor has the advantage being white thus affording him more freedoms as opposed to the black student who feels like an anomaly at his school. The theme of racism and blackness as painted by Larsen and Hughes in their art have been influential in shaping the conversation about race to date.
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