CRITICAL LITERARY ESSAY
Richard Wright’s “Between the World and Me” (1935) discuss and analyze three literary
aspects of this surreal lynching poem. This critical literary essay in MLA
style should have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion and their component
parts. Here you should set up your
thesis, state your thesis, briefly state how you will support your thesis in
terms of specific literary aspects (characters, themes, structure, point of
view, title, tone & attitude, diction, genre, intertextuality, symbolism,
signification, or setting) and have a transition sentence to the body of the
essay. Paragraphs in the body of the
essay must have topic sentences on literary aspects. To support your critical analysis you should
quote or paraphrase from the poem and use the secondary sources (Judith Herman,
Clovis Semmes, and George Liptiz) to support your analysis. However, you should avoid quoting long
sections from the poem; the critical issue here is to give your thoughtful
analysis. Also, you should quote or
paraphrase from any of the relevant documents handed out in-class. This
critical essay should be a minimum of full four pages. Essays that are less than four full pages
will not be accepted. Here you should
adhere to the guidelines for submission of essays. Papers that do not adhere to the stated
guidelines will lose significant credit.
Give your essay an original title that is not the title of the poem. Lastly, you should proofread your essay very
carefully for organization, content, grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and
Dr. Carlyle Van Thompson
Dept. of English (We Do the “Write” Thing)
White Supremacy and the African Body
White supremacy racism in medical and health care necessarily involves how Europeans have viewed and responded to the African body. Blackness is an emotional charged and powerful concept in Western European culture and long ago became integrally associated with religious and sexual symbolism. The Western European cultural complex, embodied in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, saw sexual intercourse as sinful. The resulting ambivalence toward sexual intercourse was expressed through tendencies toward sexual aberration, sexism, and racism. For example, the antiwitch craze in Europe was connected with efforts by White males to eliminate White women as healers and with a cultural ambivalence toward coitus. According to Ehrenreich and English, the White, male-dominated Church associated women with sex. All pleasures in sex were condemned because such pleasure could only come from the devil. Healing could come through male priests and doctors, but not through peasant women. Thousands of White women were put to death for the crime of practicing healing after the religious establishment labeled them witches.
In European American culture, White supremacy racism produced tremendous ambivalence toward the African body. To the European, blackness symbolized evil, sin, the unknown, and sexuality. To justify slavery, Europeans frequently argued that black sin was a curse from God. Moreover, according to European ethnocentrism, Africans had defective religions that affirmed their fall from grace and verified that they existed outside the human family. At times Whites released their sexual repression and fears on African peoples through sexual abuse. These attacks continued well after chattel slavery ended. For some Europeans, the African-American body, like coitus, could become desired but at the same time despised, feared, and forbidden. African Americans, for many European Americans, became symbols of sin, sensuality, and sexual desublimation.
European oppression of Africans conjured up other distorted images of sexual fear. The African cultures did not have similar ambivalence about sexual intercourse and did not connect the activity to sin or evil. They and other groups who lived in tropical climates and who felt no shame in exposing their bodies were disturbing to the Europeans. The European justification for chattel slavery stimulated already existing neuroses that resulted in likening Africans to apes. European slavers wanted to exploit the African body and therefore denied that the Africans had mental and human capacities. They fantasized that Black men were beasts with oversized sex organs and an insatiable lust for White women. A resulting Eurocentric culture of domination transformed the fact of the vulnerability of African women to sexual abuse by White males into the view that African-Americans women were inherently immoral and sexually promiscuous. The myths of the Black man as a rapist and sexual brute and the Black women as whore became juxtaposed to the myths of mental inferiority and inherent cultural degeneracy.
White ambivalence toward the Black body was reflected in its most extreme form through lynching. After chattel slavery, lynching became a major tool to subordinate African Americans and preserve White supremacy. Before 1966, the ideology of White supremacy was openly practiced and sanctioned, particularly in the South. The justification for lynching was to protect White civilization from the threat of African-American domination. Each lynching became a ritualistic expression of a deep-seated fear, hatred, and envy of the Black body.
Arthur Raper’s classic study of 21 lynchings carried out in 1930 illustrated this powerful reaction. All but one of the lynchings was of an African American. In several of the lynchings the victims were clearly innocent, while in most cases there was serious doubt that a crime had been committed or uncertainty about who had committed the crime. When James Irvin, an African American, was lynched ay Ocilla, Georgia, he was jabbed in his mouth with a sharp pole. The White mob cut his toes and fingers off joint by joint and extracted his teeth with wire pliers. They mutilated the body further before covering it with gasoline and setting it on fire. The mob fired shots into the burning body, and thousands of White men, women, and children came from miles around to observe the event. Although Whites also lynched Whites, lynching became increasingly a racial act directed against African Americans. We should also note that parallel to the racist rationale behind lynching. Whites frequently claimed that because of their alleged uncontrollable sexual passion, Black women were incapable of being victims of the crime of rape.
White ambivalence toward the Black body and the inferiorization of Black intellect has become normative in European-American culture. Psychiatrist Frances Welsing believes that the fear of genetic annihilation and psychological distress over the inability to produce color—color is a normative state of the majority of the world’s population—is a principal stimulus behind this type of behavior. However, regardless of the cause of White supremacy racism, libraries are full of Eurocentric scholarship concerned with the size of Black skulls, genitalia, and mental capacity. Every few years, White scholars, who are usually from prestigious institutions of Eurocentric scholarship, resurrect theories postulating some genetic intellectual defect in African Americans. One must wonder about the source of the cultural sickness that episodically spawns these kinds of questions regarding other human beings. This intellectual racism routinely distorts public policy and the production of meaningful knowledge. One scholar noted, for example, that at the beginning of the twentieth century, a White medical establishment was fixated on the myth that high rates of syphilis among African Americans were racially based. This medical establishment frequently painted poverty-stricken and oppressed African American as inherently and morally degenerate and, thus, the cause of their own problem. It failed to acknowledge the social basis of health problems.
The normative dimension of White ambivalence toward the Black body is, perhaps, best exemplified by observing its foundations in American popular culture. The American minstrel tradition whereby White men blackened their faces and created stereotypical and distorted images of African Americans was a release for many White Americans into what they projected was the Black persona. This mode of entertainment established the normative model for African American racial imagery in American popular culture. Noted scholar Nathan Huggins concluded that the lust, passion, and “natural” freedom that allegedly characterized Blacks were the desires of a repressed, White American alter ego. White American wanted to become the subjective Black that they thought existed while rendering inferior African American as a class. Raper, a White scholar and student of African-American lynchings, observed, “The black faced characters common in vaudeville, in grade and high school entertainment—sometimes in those of the church—are good drawing cards for white audiences primarily because white people enjoy seeing servile and docile Negroes in ridiculous roles.”
Through White-controlled institutions of legitimation and the economic power and conditioned cultural preferences of mainstream White audiences, African Americans remain symbols of sexuality, immorality, and violence. These images help to dehumanize African Americans and shift the blame for socially induced health problems to some inherent defect of personality. Historian David McBride observed one of the many effects on public policy:
The nation’s health care system could not break from traditional and modern racialist discourse and institutional health care policy during the AIDS crisis. Thus, the health care and civic community leadership for much of the nation’s black population was not significantly incorporated into the national health care establishment’s AIDS programs.
Like the tuberculosis and syphilis epidemics of the past, a White-controlled medical establishment and media characterized African Americans (Africans and others of African descent) as originators of these diseases, as a public health nuisance, and as deserving of these conditions because of their alleged hopeless sexual promiscuity and cultural depravity. The historic dimensions of White ambivalence regarding the African body also had implications for the character of medical experimentation.
–Clovis E. Semmes, Racism, Health, and Post-Industrialism: A Theory of African-American Health (1996)
TRAUMA AND RECOVERY ANALYSIS
The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.
Atrocities, however refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.
The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner which undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.
The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This is most apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb and reliving the event. The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called “doublethink,” and which mental health professionals, searching for a calm, precise language, call “dissociation.” It results in the protean, dramatic, and often bizarre symptoms of hysteria which Freud recognized a century ago as disguised communications about sexual abuse in childhood.
Witnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma. It is difficult for an observer to remain clearheaded and calm, to see more than a few fragments of the picture at one time, to retain all the pieces, and to fit them together. It is even more difficult to find a language that conveys fully and persuasively what one has seen. Those who attempt to describe the atrocities that they have witnessed also risk their own credibility. To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims.
The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. The study of psychological trauma has an “underground” history. Like traumatized people, we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past. Like traumatized people, we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the future. Therefore, an understanding of psychological trauma begins with rediscovering history.
–Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (1992)