Discrimination is a global issue that has not only taken a toll on society all across the world through various occasions in history but remains prevalent even today. According to the American Psychological Association, discrimination is defined as the prejudicial treatment of individuals based upon characteristics such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, and culture. The human brain naturally categorizes encounters of the world as its way of sensualizing surroundings. Discrimination, however, stems from a combination of learned experience, observation, and misunderstanding. As it has become a public health issue, discrimination goes way beyond the surface. According to the 2015 Stress in America Survey, people who have experienced discrimination rate their stress levels increasingly higher than those who have not. Chronic stress has been linked to various health problems including anxiety, depression, obesity, high blood pressure, and stress.
In addition to contributing to health problems, discrimination has been a major barrier in achieving the American Dream, the ideal that all Americans have freedom of equality and each individual has equal opportunity to achieve desired success so long as they work for it. The national ethos became popular and widely accepted during the 1950s and 1960s, mainly because of the economic/technology boom. With World War II underway, American factories began replacing tanks and guns with cars and television sets. The newfound world of mass consumption gave Americans hope and optimism for prosperity and many began moving to the suburbs. Although the thought of such leisure for everyone seems great as to resemble popular sitcoms, the American Dream was not all that it seemed to be during the time as not everyone could enjoy it. Minorities who could not take part in the new American opulence were greatly angered. American myths associated with the 1950s and 1960s, ‘everyone has a fair chance at success if they just try hard’ in particular, do not do justice in portraying the reality of all the American lives in the past because the new American affluence was only attainable for some. While it is unfortunate that discrimination can lead to unfair and detrimental situations, it is very inspiring when individuals are able to use it as their stepping-stone to better lives for themselves. Several writers have used their craft to transform from rags to riches, escaping discrimination while informing others in the hopes that change will eventually be made in history.
Leslie Marmon Silko is among many influential writers who shed light on personal experiences of discrimination through writing. The Native American poet and novelist grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she learned all aspects of the Laguna tribe. According to www.utm.edu, Silko reveals that being of mixed blood while living in Laguna society resulted in pain and discomfort. She suffered from discrimination because she was never fully accepted by whites or Native Americans. Drawing upon her personal experience of discrimination, she wrote Ceremony, one of her most famous works. Ceremony describes the horrors that the Native Americans faced during and following World War II. They were forced out of their homes, taken out of their social context/cultural norms, and forced to join the service. Silko focuses on Tayo, a Japanese prisoner of war, and how he used ceremonies to heal himself after the war because traditional doctors were not acclimated to treat the soldiers’ mental instability. Silko states ‘Jungle rain had no beginning or end; it grew like foliage from the sky, branching and arching to the earth, sometimes in solid thickets entangling the islands, and, other times, in tendrils of blue mist curling out of costal clouds. The jungle breathed an eternal green that fevered men until they dripped sweat the way rubbery jungle leaves dripped the monsoon rain….Nothing was all good or all bad either; it all depended”. Tayo reflects on the traumatic moments during his time in World War II. One of the most fundamental lessons that he learns is that everything in life has positives and negatives attached. Just as the rain is desperately prayed for on the desert reservation, it has its downfalls as well. Likewise, the whites, who were detrimental to Native American customs, were also integral elements in the ceremony that cured men who fought in the war. Silko’s life and literary works relate to the class central theme of scientific reasoning, open-mindedness, and inquiry because she delved into aspects of self-identity and culture. Through her literary work, readers can conclude that Silko was a strong believer that the purpose of the art of writing is to draw upon identity and surrounding culture.
Olaudah Equiano also used his personal accounts of discrimination to influence his writing. Www.pbs.org states that he was born to the Nigerian Ibo people in the kingdom of Benin. His family had dreams for him to achieve a prominent career in life such as a chief, elder, or judge. Their dreams were shattered when he was kidnapped at the age of eleven and separated from his family. Surprisingly, slavery was a piece of Ibo culture and Equiano’s early experiences as a slave were not all unpleasant. Some of the families that Olaudah was owned by even treated him as if he was a part of their family. Upon his captivation, however, the generous treatment abruptly ended and Olaudah faced the real pressures of slavery and discrimination. He shared his experience of being separated from his family and held captive as a slave for many years in his narrative The Life of Olaudah Equiano. In the narrative, he states “I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely” (380). By describing the horrifying experience of witnessing slaves decide to commit suicide rather than continue to live in slavery, and even contemplating the idea himself, Equiano emphasizes that enslavement can actually be worse than death. He concludes with a powerful rhetorical argument against the slave trade and commercial arguments for abolishing slavery. Olaudah’s life and literary works fit into the class central themes of diverse voices and changing the ways of thinking about America as a nation. Although his diversity ultimately forced him into harsh slavery, he used it as a powerful weapon, sharing through his writing and broadening society’s perception of slavery.
William Edward Burghardt DuBois, popularly known as W.E.B. DuBois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. According to www.biography.com, DuBois grew up in a predominately white town where he identified himself as mulatto. He attended school with whites and was supported academically by his teachers, who were also white. It was when he began attending Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee, however, that he first encountered Jim Crow Laws and the horrors of racial discrimination. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk focuses on slavery and racism as well. DuBois uses ‘the color line’ to symbolize the societal divide between races. Although invisible, the line greatly controls society both mentally and physically. He characterizes the force of racial prejudice and alienation as a veil that separates black people from whites and from the broader society in which they live. DuBois states “The nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people—a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people” (564). The Souls of Black Folk focuses on the cringing reality that the economic structure was degrading as it denied a majority of black Americans their rights. Various pieces of legislation were put in place through the Constitution, but there was no effort in enforcing them. Although the 13th amendment abolished slavery, racism survived for years to follow. Despite the 14th amendment establishing citizenship for each individual born in the United States, African Americans were not treated as citizens. Although the 15th amendment granted all male citizens the right to vote, African Americans had to undergo a series of tests and stipulations to be allowed to vote, which made it impossible for them. The life and literary works of DuBois fit into the class central theme of diverse voices and changing ways of thinking about America as a nation because he used his voice as a minority to challenge the faults of American legislation.
Ralph Ellison was among the more fortunate of minority writers. According to www.pbs.org, Ellison was a competent African American man born in Oklahoma in 1913. During the time, Oklahoma was known to be a frontier state with no legacy of slavery. Ellison was able to explore fluidity between races, attend a keen, nondiscriminatory school, and pursue his dreams with mentors, both black and white, behind him for support. Although he did not have to experience the discriminatory nature of society, he shed light on those who had to. In Invisible Man, Ellison highlights the relationship between racism and identity. Powerful symbolism is shown as the fighters are ordered to scramble for coins on an electrified rug. The rug symbolizes the economy and struggles of African American individuals. It reveals their endurance of pain and hardships to survive in white dominated society with limited opportunities available to them. The blacks are forced to experience agony and discomfort while desperately trying to get the coins, which represent power, wealth, and prosperity, all at the expense of amusement for the whites. The electrified rug and gold coins showcase the ways that the dominant whites manipulated blacks by putting them in harm’s way to obtain success that was basically impossible for them to reach. The narrator struggles to develop self-identity as complexities arise due to the fact that he is an African American living in a racist American society. Throughout the novel, he travels through a plethora of communities from the Liberty Paints Plant to the Brotherhood. Each community, however, has a different perception of how African Americans are to behave in society, which forces the narrator to abandon his true identity and behave inauthentically to conform to the different societies. Eventually, the narrator comes to the realization that the racial prejudices ultimately place limitations on his behavior. He comes to conclusion that he is invisible, in the sense that he is surrounded by blind people who cannot see his genuine nature because racism inhibits their vision. The narrator learns that he can only come to understand himself by isolating himself from harsh society. His grandfather uses his last moments of life to make a powerful command to his son. His last words are ‘Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days….I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’ (1211). In giving his lecture, the protagonist’s grandfather, who has practiced compliance towards whites his entire life, dies telling his family to live life exhibiting the opposite behavior. He wants his family to obtain justice in ways that he could not fathom achieving during his lifetime. He argues that they can eliminate the racial dichotomy by using the powerful weapon of perceived obedience. Ellison’s life and literary works fit into the class central theme of diverse voices and changing ways of thinking about the self and consciousness because he used his voice as a minority African Americans to shed light on the lives of other African Americans, in hopes of bringing about change.
Born to Polish parents in Sweden 1948, Art Spiegelman had a very arduous life. Www.britannica.com states that Spiegelman immigrated to the United States in 1951 along with his parents, where they settled in Queens, New York. He gained interest in cartooning and attended Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design as a teenager. He attended college at the State University of New York. Spiegelman’s life was heavily impacted by the Holocaust, the devastating mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi regime. During the Holocaust, Spiegelman’s parents sent Rysio, his brother who died before he was born, to live with an aunt because they thought that he would be the safest in her care, away from the terror of the Holocaust. In 1943, however, the aunt poisoned herself, Rysio, and two other young children who were in her care, so that the Nazis would not have the ability and satisfaction of taking them to extermination camps. Spiegelman left college without a degree after his mother committed suicide in 1968. He developed a strong relationship with his father, who shared his experience as a Holocaust survivor. His father’s personal accounts inspired Spiegelman to write one of his most famous comics, Maus. Issues of race and class are very relevant in the plot of Maus by Spiegelman. As racism is seen on a grand scale in the Holocaust, mice symbolize the Jews, while cats represent the Germans. The symbolism used is taken straight from Nazi propaganda, which depicts Jews as vermin that needs to be exterminated. The cat/mouse relationship is also representative of the relationship between the Nazis and Jews, as the Nazis played with the Jews before taking their lives. Beneath the simplicity of the metaphor, however, is Spiegelman’s aim to illustrate the unyielding stratum by class and race that characterized Poland during World War II. As Vladek is talking to Anja in the comic, he exclaims “To die, it’s easy. But you have to struggle for life!”. Vladek acknowledges it would be far easier to die than survive. However, living through their horrific reality meant putting up an undying fight. Spiegelman’s life and literary works fit into the class central theme of changing ways of thinking about America as a nation because the Holocaust was a major period of history.
Discrimination is an issue that has plagued history for several years and affected many lives. It is seen in many groups today, including immigrants, African Americans, and women. Immigrants, who mainly come to America to escape their relentless lifestyle in their home country, have to undergo an extensive process to gain citizenship in America within a relatively short period of time. Police brutality has resulted in devastating occurrences regarding injury and death of several unarmed African Americans. A gender pay gap exists in employment between men and women as women are paid substantially less than men, despite working the same types of jobs. Discrimination has spread like wildfire over the years and caused a plethora of complications, with health deterioration being a major predicament of today and the American dream being a major predicament of many years ago. As it has been seen to have many negative aspects, it is inspirational to see individuals use it for positivity as writers Leslie Marmon Silko, Olaudah Equiano, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, and Art Spiegelman have done through literature. Individuals like these are those who provide hope that one day America will overcome discrimination and all United States citizens will be have the ability to fulfill their Constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- “Africans in America/Part 1/Olaudah Equiano.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p276.html.
- American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/discrimination.
- Leslie Marmon Silko, http://www.utm.edu/staff/lalexand/ceremony.htm.
- Levine, Robert S., et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
- “Ralph Ellison.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 26 Jan. 2010, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/ralph-ellison-an-american-journey/587/.
- Ray, Michael. “Art Spiegelman.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 19 Aug. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Art-Spiegelman.
- “W.E.B. DuBois.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 10 Sept. 2019, https://www.biography.com/activist/web-du-bois.