So far we have discussed the changing identity of African American slaves. How they have reached freedom in the North and become abolitionists, leaders of freedom, reformers, and inspiring published narratives. Today I will be continuing the African American Identity during the 20th century and in relation to Frederick Douglass.
In this video trailer, the ‘coloured’ help are segregated from the white American families. They are not even allowed to use the same facilities because the African race was thought to carry diseases that were easily spread to the Americans. This film is significant in the portrayal of the ‘coloured’ community in the 1960’s. Most of the women are too scared to open up about their experiences as maids to the white family, but Skeeter, an intelligent woman and college graduate is determined to get their story out. Though she fights many battles on the way, she ends up publishing the novel on the maids’ personal experiences of segregation and mistreatment. This film is all about segregation, and the control that the white population still has over the inferior, ‘coloured’ help. All of the ‘coloured’ individuals in the movie are maids. They are forced to raise the children of the white families, and do all of the cooking, shopping and cleaning, without complaint or trouble. During the 1960’s, the ‘coloured’ people of the South, were defined by the white American society as merely maids, who should be deprived of equal status amoungst a ‘white’ community. It is not until Skeeter comes into the lives of these ‘coloured’ women, encouraging them to reveal their stories to her, that they would become brave enough to speak out and defend their identity. Skeeter wants their voices to be heard so that Jackson, Mississippi and other Southern states, might view ‘coloured’ people as equals.
This advocating for equality and shaping of identity follows with the 1960’s black activist, Malcolm X. During the 1960’s, Malcolm X advocated for human rights of black individuals. He was one of the greatest African Americans influencing the integration of black and whites in America organizing the Organization of Afro American Unity. “Malcolm’s embracement of the term Afro American promoted its acceptance among persons in the Black power/Black consciousness movement. In his speeches at this time he used the phrase ‘We are an African people’ to emphasize the relationship of Black people in America to Africa” (Collier-Thomas & Turner). Malcolm truly inspired the people to embrace their identity. Many of Malcolm’s speeches aim to dismantle internal oppression within the Afro Americans, and give them a sense of liberation and personhood. In this video, Malcolm X explains his name to the government desk. He does not want to take the identity that the white people have given him, a “so called Negro.”
Let’s travel back in time over a half-century and recap the identity of Frederick Douglass and how he shaped his identity. Douglass was a slave for the early part of his life, forced into extreme labour and oppression by his slave master Mr. Covey. Douglass always knew that he was more than what the American slave-holder reduced him to. To demonstrate this, he portrayed his masculinity and stood up for himself against the control of Covey. As Paul Gilroy puts it in his book, ‘The Black Atlantic’, “it is the slave rather than the master who emerges from Douglass’s account possessed of “consciousness that exists for itself” (Gilroy 60). This is the point in the narrative in which Douglass takes on his own identity, rather than reducing himself to the oppression and control of his master. Once Douglass was a free man in the North, he changed his name in order to put his slave history and identity behind him. Thomas and Turner’s article, “Race, Class and Colour: the African American Discourse on Identity” outlines the identity of an African American slave:
“Slavery denied Africans their original identity, leaving them with a sense that they were lacking a fundamental wholeness as human beings. Africans were confronted, not only with a condition of loss of freedom, but with the repudiation of the very legitimacy of their culture and human identification. The institution of slavery promoted efforts to deny the Africans legitimate foundation of the very nature of their being, in a sense to cast them from being to nothingness” (Collier-Thomas & Turner).
Douglass refused to let this ‘slave’ identity overcome him for the rest of his life because he knew his potential and who he was, an intellectual, strong-willed man. When he arrived in the free North, Douglass wanted no longer to be identified as a fugitive slave. He wanted to be recognized for who he was so he changed his name from Bailey to Douglass in order to keep the daunting past of slavery behind him. His identity became that of a free coloured man living in America as he aimed to establish the ‘New Negro”.
Though in the 1960’s Southern states did not hold coloured people as slaves, they still were under the impression that they were inferior to the white population. Coloured people were greatly segregated from society, making them feel like they were unworthy individuals to the white Americans. Malcolm X advocated for equality amoung the black and white communities in the 1960’s. He encouraged black people to embrace their identity and love who they are in order to be viewed the same way by the white society. Frederick Douglass helped to shape the identity of the African American.
Collier-Thomas, Bettye, Turner, James. “Race, Class and Color: The African American discourse on identity.” Journal of American Ethinic History. 1994. Web.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” The Modern Library. New York: 2000. p.3-110.
Gilroy, Paul. “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.” Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1993. Print.