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African American Experience

julia herman troy family

The African American experience, despite being centuries old, has had a relatively recent appearance in American literature, especially drama. Despite an African American tradition of minstrel shows and melodrama, with a few notable exceptions it was not until the surge of interest in African American culture, thought, and experience during the 1960s that serious plays by and about African Americans reached mainstream theaters. Since then an increasingly vibrant Black Theater movement has pursued African American themes and even attempted to create and inculcate African American forms that utilize aspects of African performance to create a unique blend.

All three plays in this chapter consider African American experiences prior to the turbulent civil rights movement in the sixties. Each portrays African American life accurately and realistically, challenging stereotypes by the very complexity of their characters. Facing the African American experience unflinchingly, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses, they try to explain past behaviors and offer hope for a potentially greater future given the positive qualities their characters exhibit.

As with most ethnic groups in America, African Americans face what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double-consciousness.” Affected by two very different cultures, they find themselves unable to ignore either culture without sacrificing a part of their identity. An effective value system for African Americans becomes problematic as they seek a balance between African tradition and American experience. This double-consciousness creates some of the apparent contradictions within Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun , such as the conflict between Mama’s matriarchal rule (African) and Walter’s patriarchal expectations (American). Hansberry never asks us to take sides, but rather to consider the potential within each tradition.

Hansberry’s racial commentary is subtle throughout the play, but color is integral to its plot, which takes its title from Langston Hughes’s poem about the way in which the dreams of African Americans are constantly deferred in a society constantly antagonistic to their advancement. A Raisin in the Sun depicts a middle-class African American family trying to advance itself in American society, and much of its plot was drawn directly from Hansberry’s own experience when her family tried to settle in a white neighborhood. While growing up, Hansberry also experienced the tension between wanting to assimilate and maintaining pride in one’s own culture. Her play anticipated many of the mounting concerns for African Americans and women of its day.

August Wilson’s Fences has a similar focus on the family, set during the same period, when African Americans were becoming more vocal in demanding their rights. But Wilson explores different social tensions than Hansberry, with his central relationship between a father and his sons rather than a mother and her children, and the depiction of a more working-class family. Wilson offers a skeptical consideration of those African American roads to instant success via sports or entertainment, and through the character of Troy suggests the qualities best suited to African American success; it is unsurprising that Troy was largely modeled on Wilson’s own stepfather, whom he much admired.

Alice Childress’s Wedding Band , set farther South, looks at American anti-miscegenation laws, which tried to prevent romantic interracial relationships, and the effect they had on people’s lives. These laws were regularly enforced during the nineteenth century and remained accepted social policy well into the twentieth. They were grounded in disturbing beliefs regarding racial superiority and inferiority. Wedding Band depicts tragic events that take place during the flu epidemic of 1918, but the lack of tolerance between white and African American cultures it addresses remains a contemporary issue.

A Raisin in the Sun relates a defining period in the lives of the Younger family: Beneatha comes to a better understanding of her ethnicity, Walter learns how to be a man, his wife, Ruth, rediscovers hope, and Mama learns to be less controlling. Mama’s dream has been to relocate to a better neighborhood, but they face racist opposition from local whites, led by Karl Lindner.

The differences between Beneatha’s two boyfriends, Joseph Asagai and George Murchison, are important, as is her choice between them. While Asagai is the complete African, George is the assimilated American. Despite his social standing, George is not a character to emulate for two reasons: first, because he refuses to recognize the equality of women, wanting Beneatha as his “little woman”; and second, because he fails to acknowledge the importance of his African heritage, dismissing it as irrelevant. He knows facts about Africa but has lost touch with its spirit and strength. Because of his wealth he is satisfied with the status quo and selfishly refuses to change. Such individual selfishness thwarts African American development as a whole. George may have wealth,   but he has no real identity of his own and he lacks the vibrancy we see in Asagai’s firm, ethnic identity.

Asagai is not just showing the rich tradition of Africa to Beneatha, but also to the audience. In the fifties, when this play was first produced, his sophistication would have been at odds with many people’s narrow perception of Africans as savages. Yet we should recognize that Asagai is unable to recognize the “American aspects” of Beneatha’s character, for his experience is entirely African. Asagai cannot accept Beneatha’s drive for independence, though he admires her spirit. In his own way he wishes to dominate her as much as George does. Beneatha needs to find her own identity, which lies between the Americanness of George and the Africanness of Asagai.

Asagai wants to take Beneatha to Africa, but his impulse is selfish. Beneatha’s home is in America, and America needs her spirited contributions. Beneatha will not find herself in Africa, because she is also American, though she is right to suggest that African Americans need a better understanding of Africa as a part of their heritage. Beneatha and Walter’s pride in their African roots is important, but they also need to have pride in their American-born family and recognize what their strength has achieved in six generations.

Initially, Ruth seems prematurely aged and tired, ready to give in and accept the meager life she has. She has borne a large burden, nurturing and providing for her family with little reward. But Ruth’s dormant strength returns as she refuses to give up the house Mama buys. We learn that this has been her dream as much as Mama’s, and she is able to reinforce Mama’s slipping spirit. The Youngers live in a ghetto neighborhood and their desire to move is valid—the kids chase rats in the street, and the apartment is not only cramped but infested with cockroaches. A better home will allow them more room to grow. The urgency of this move is emphasized by the discovery that Ruth is pregnant.

Mama’s key attributes are her strength and her clear sense of direction. The combined strength of her and her husband has brought the family this far. Hansberry recognizes that African American progress cannot happen overnight but will be a lengthy process. Equality will take generations of struggle—each generation contributing a little bit to the progress. Mama’s plant, which she so doggedly preserves, underlines both her desire to grow and her refusal to give in. It also represents her dream: to have a house with a garden. The “Scarlett O’Hara” hat Travis gives Mama indicates her achievement: by owning property, she has become akin to the mistress of the plantation, rather than one of the slaves working there.

Walter erroneously believes that life is money, but Mama knows that freedom is more important, having been closer to a generation that had none. Walter needs to respect the past, and his parents’ achievements, but it is now his turn to achieve, and Mama must allow him the freedom to develop his own self-respect, for it is Mama’s self-respect that provides the roots of her strength. Mama allows Walter real control—not when she gives him money, but when she lets him decide what to do about the house.

Awkward and soft-spoken, by himself Karl Lindner seems to offer little threat. However, we should recognize the larger community and power behind him. His discomfort ensures that we realize that what he asks is wrong. Even he seems to realize this, but he cannot surmount his own prejudice. He uses platitudes to mask what he is doing, but no one is ultimately fooled. His commentary on empathy is ironically something of which he himself is incapable. How is the Youngers’s hardworking background any different from that of the residents of Clybourne Park? How can Lindner be anything other than a full-fledged racist?

Walter’s instinct to eject this man from his home is right and this action will be more empowering than the money he got from Mama. Walter begins his second confrontation with Lindner sheepishly, but draws strength as he continues—partly from within himself and his own pride, and partly from his family and a recognition of the dignity he owes them for their sacrifices. It is at this moment that we see the man in Walter. Now he can give orders to others and expect them to follow those orders, since he has finally earned their respect.

One aspect of the play that has drawn criticism is its lack of black solidarity, with the inclusion of such unhelpful characters as Willy Harris and Miss Johnson. While Willy runs off with Walter’s money, Miss Johnson’s appearance as a gossipy, unhelpful neighbor suggests the inability of many blacks to assist each other. Miss Johnson is motivated by jealousy, not wanting the Youngers to rise above her, and Beneatha is right to compare her to the Ku Klux Klan: both are destructive to black development in America.

Although the Youngers get their house, it would be a mistake to see this as a happy ending. Hansberry purposefully leaves us uncertain as to what will happen next. What indignities might the Youngers be forced to suffer in Clybourne Park, where it is clear they are not welcome? What will Beneatha decide to do with her life, and will gender restrict her choices? What these stage characters have achieved so far is only a fragment of what they will need to ensure true equality in society for both African Americans and women.

Fences introduces us to the masculine world of the Maxsons. Troy, the father, makes mistakes but takes responsibility for his actions in a way Wilson asks the entire African American community to consider. His wife, Rose, mostly supports him, though she has trouble accepting his infidelity, although it is a weakness for which he pays. Troy tries to teach his sons Lyons and Cory what he has learned to help them survive in a world antagonistic to African American advancement. They expect success too easily and initially reject his message of hard work, but by the play’s end develop new respect for their father.

The house and its setting are expressions of its owner, Troy, surrounding him with the elements that make up his life: home, baseball, garbage, porch, and his fence. Their permanence gives us a strong sense of Troy’s solidity of presence. He has built onto his family’s home a “sturdy porch” to facilitate his storytelling sessions, and set up a bat and ball in the yard as a permanent reminder of his thwarted potential. The perennial garbage cans remind us of how he makes his living as a garbage collector, and he is building a fence to satisfy his wife and to keep his family safe. Troy’s home is as much under siege by antagonistic opposition as ancient Troy found herself to be, and he is right to beware of any “Greeks bearing gifts”—be they loans or scholarships—for he lives in a world where he must forever be wary of white exploitation and unfairly weighted laws.

The concept of the fence is a central image of the play. The trick with fences, Wilson insists, is to build one that will protect rather than separate. Such a fence provides supportive boundaries rather than divisive restrictions, but its construction will not be easy. Troy completes his fence just before he drives Cory away, but it has a gate by which his son can one day return. Cory thinks he has broken free of his father on leaving home; however, he only swaps one set of rules for another. He has exchanged the African American ethos of his father for the white-dominated ethos of the Marine Corps. It will be better for him to reclaim the former and reenter his father’s house, which he accomplishes by the close of the play as he declares his intent to quit the Marines and begins to understand his father’s legacy.

It is useful to read Troy’s life as a metaphor for the enduring, life-affirming African American spirit, which is the legacy he hands his children. After a harsh upbringing that had no cushioning from the hardships of life, Troy spent time in jail for killing a man (an action that could easily be taken as self-defense, given the circumstances). His captivity in jail represents the tribulations of slavery that he needs to get beyond. Troy is subsequently allowed to develop white skills (playing baseball), but not allowed to compete in white circles (baseball leagues remained segregated at his peak). After release from jail he is left with only the basest jobs from which to choose. His two sons seek paths to riches through music and sports, which are apparently easy, but deceptive. Troy is rightly suspicious of both (standing in the way of Cory’s sports scholarship and refusing to listen to Lyons’s band), because in each area the tendency was toward exploitation, and most African American participants gained meager rewards for the talents they exhibited. Troy refuses to consider such deceptive possibilities and through hard work makes a solid niche for himself, ensuring that his spirit lives on after he is dead.

The song that Troy sings about Old Blue is one he learned from his father, and it shows a generational bond that is undeniable. Cory and Raynell (an illegitimate child for whom Troy takes responsibility), end up singing that same song and through it, recognize something of their heritage. Just as Troy has many characteristics of his father, so is Cory very similar to his father. Their mutual lack of patience, their stubbornness, their desire for control, and their inability to openly express love may not be attractive qualities, but they are family traits that each generation needs to recognize and accept. They are also   traits that form the bedrock of their ability to be so hardworking, determined, and responsible.

The final scene of the play occurs after Troy’s death on the morning of his funeral. Despite the sad circumstance, it remains a scene of hope. Troy’s presence remains strong. Lyons, having survived a stint in jail for cashing other people’s checks, like his father, who did jail time for murder, has found new direction from being so restricted. Raynell, tending her garden, indicates a future growth. And Cory comes to a new understanding of his patrimony by beginning to acknowledge his father’s spirit in him and is able to attend his father’s funeral. The most lasting significance of that hardwood fence becomes truly apparent as Troy tells us when he is building it: “How you know how long I’m gonna be here, nigger? Hell, I might just live forever” (60). And in a way he does, through his enduring values and his offspring.

Wedding Band tells of the deforming pressures that antimiscegenation laws have on the relationship of Herman, a German American, and Julia, who is African American. Unable to marry, and trying to avoid discovery of their illegal relationship, Julia grows tired of changing apartments and being alone, as she waits for Herman to save up sufficient funds to pay back a loan from his mother and relocate them to the North where they can marry freely. Before this happens, Herman is struck by flu while at Julia’s house, and to hide the relationship, medical treatment is delayed, resulting in his death.

Prior to the Civil War, many white slaveowners had relations with women slaves, but their offspring were legally slaves. After slavery was abolished, an obsession with the preservation of “pure” bloodlines developed, largely to ensure that land stayed in white families and could not be inherited by people of “mixed” race. This was supported by state law in forty states, even into the 1960s. Consequences for breaking these laws were harsh, from hefty fines to extended jail sentences, depending on the seriousness of the relationship. In South Carolina, where this play is set, intermarriage was forbidden between whites and African Americans, American Indians, mulattos, and mestizos, and the minimum penalty was a fine of $500 and/or a twelve-month jail sentence.

Herman and Julia display a domestic intimacy and devotion that insists theirs is a lasting love and not some brief infatuation; she even buys his socks. The title refers to the wedding band Herman gives Julia on the tenth anniversary of their secret relationship, but she cannot wear it on her finger. They are held apart by an unfair law, and the social stigma their relationship invokes. Mattie’s man, October, a cook in the Merchant Marines, writes in his letter to Mattie that there are “two things a man can give the woman he loves … his name and his protection” (90). Herman can give neither to Julia, and, ironically, October can give neither to Mattie. Mattie has a previous husband she cannot divorce, and, because they are not legally married, she cannot claim October’s allowance to pay her rent. Julia’s generous gift to Mattie of her ring and her tickets to New York near the close of the play indicates a bond between these   women in their mutual poverty and predicament, a bond that also offers Julia a release from her loneliness.

When Herman falls ill, Julia’s first thought is to fetch him a doctor, but she is prevented by her African American neighbors and Herman’s family, because of the social and legal ramifications of making their relationship public. She fears to take him to a doctor in case the trip should make him worse and she be blamed. His family refuse to take him until dark to avoid being seen. They patronize and insult Julia, and Herman’s mother declares that she (the mother) is “as high over [her] as Mount Everest over the sea. White reigns supreme” (120), as she reclaims Herman and takes him home. Angry at her own powerlessness, Julia lets loose ten years of resentment over the way she has been treated, and vows to have no more to do with whites. When Herman returns with a ticket for her to head North, planning to join her later, she initially rejects his offer, holding him responsible for the whole history of African American exploitation and restriction. But her anger subsides when she realizes how ill he is. This time they lock the door against his mother’s interference, and Herman dies in Julia’s arms, a gesture that triumphantly affirms Julia’s moral right to be with her love.

Before the invention of antibiotics, flu was often fatal, and calling a doctor would have been a matter of life and death for Herman, who might have been saved by earlier medical intervention. But if his relationship with Julia had been discovered, everyone would have suffered: Julia would have faced a fine and/or a prison sentence, Fanny a loss of reputation for allowing the relationship to take place under her roof, and Herman’s whole family a stigmatization that would have affected their social and business life. Fanny and her tenants were also reluctant to suffer from being quarantined, which would have taken away their chance to earn money. These people are not villains for waiting to call a doctor, as much as victims of a society that allows such unfairness to exist.

Julia’s African American neighbors are as disturbed by her affair as Herman’s mother, although for different reasons. At worst, they assume Herman is just using Julia, and at best they see his choice as foolish because he cannot protect his partner. Fanny urges Julia to leave him before her reputation is destroyed, Lula cannot even imagine being intimate with a white man, and Nelson points out that if the genders were reversed in such a coupling the man would soon be lynched. The Bell Man, a local white peddler, shows a common response on discovering that Julia is seeing Herman, by assuming she is a prostitute.

The play’s secondary characters create the cultural atmosphere that influences the action. They voice social attitudes of the time, as well as depict other problems that came from living in a racist culture. Through Nelson, an African American soldier who goes to fight for a country that still denies him equal rights, we get a sense of a growing African American discontent and unrest. His anger at the discrimination he constantly faces contrasts with the obsequiousness toward white people that we hear is displayed by Greenlee, who   used to work in Herman’s bakery. Nelson’s mother Lula and Mattie both scrabble against poverty to raise children alone. Even Herman’s mother struggles to maintain a hard-won social status at a time when anyone of German descent was vilified because of the war.

Aiming for authenticity, Childress allows characters of both races to display pettiness, intolerance, and materialism. Mattie and Lula share stereotypical views of white men that border on racism. The children play games with racist references toward the Chinese, and Fanny makes anti-Semitic remarks. Fanny is also snobbish, materialistic, and a selfish opportunist. Even Herman and Julia are not without their flaws, for Herman delays their move North for selfish reasons, reluctant to give up his business, while Julia is harsh in accusing him of racism. Herman has nursed her when sick, paid her debts and expenses, and shown nothing but high regard for her. Yet Herman’s own father had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan and taught his son to recite bigoted speeches at their meetings, and Julia is disturbed by Herman’s refusal to hate his father. Nevertheless, they possess sufficient dignity to seem heroic as they struggle against great odds in their search for happiness, and their dilemma draws attention to an uncomfortable aspect of American race relations.

African Americans as Photographers and Photographic Subjects - Stereotypes, Racial Uplift, and the Democratic Medium, Old and New Negroes [next] [back] Africa: Portuguese Colonies - SLAVERY, AFRICAN COLONIES IN THE AGE OF IMPERIALISM

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