racism and racial inequality in literature

Abstract

            Racism has always been one of the most painful topics of literary research. Whether in the works of earlier or contemporary writers, the topic of racism always stood out separately as the cry against inappropriate racial discrimination. Eudora Welty is one of the few talented writers who were not afraid to show the hidden side of racial inequality in America. Where she personally became a witness of racial bias, her impressions readily turned into the source of literary inspiration. Welty’s A Worn Path and Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden uniquely combine the sense of judgment with the sense of racial helplessness. Both Phoenix Jackson and Little Lee Roy are bound to experience social weakness and inability to fight circumstances. This weakness and this inability are the direct results of their racial origin. While Welty (1995) tries to look deeper into what lies beyond the lives of common African Americans, she has to recognize that racism is the inevitable and the essential phenomenon which American society is unwilling to fight.

Racial Inequality

            Introduction

            Racism has always been one of the most painful topics of literary research. Whether in the works of earlier or modern writers, the topic of racism always resembled a cry against inappropriate racial discrimination. Eudora Welty is one of the few talented writers who were not afraid to show the hidden side of racial inequality in America. Where she personally became a witness of racial bias, her impressions readily turned into the source of literary inspiration. Welty’s A Worn Path and Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden uniquely combine the sense of judgment with the sense of racial helplessness. Both Phoenix Jackson and Little Lee Roy experience social weakness and inability to fight circumstances. This weakness and this inability are the direct results of their racial origin. While Welty (1995) tries to look deeper into what lies beyond the lives of common African Americans, she has to recognize that racism is the inevitable phenomenon, and the white community is still unprepared to fight it.

            Racism and racial inequality are regarded as the two most ambiguous and most painful topics in literature. Beyond judging and condemning racism, writers and literature professionals tend to explore, what makes racism acceptable and why society is unwilling to reduce racist attitudes toward African Americans. In case of Eudora Welty, the situation is different. She avoids directly reminding readers of racism, but turns racism into the dominant theme of her narratives. In A Worn Path, the reader will not find any direct representation of racism but will instead try to distinguish between the attitudes which the hunter, a woman in the street, and the nurse display toward old Phoenix Jackson. In Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, the readers will not find a word about racism but will instead seek to define, whether Little Lee Roy’s sufferings are caused by his being a cripple or by his being an African American.

It was December – a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country here was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through Pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. (Welty, 1995)

            From the very beginning of her story, and up to the moment when old Phoenix Jackson leaves the doctor’s house, Eudora Welty treats her character with unbelievable humanism and dignity, which is also characteristic of Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden. To some extent, and the reader cannot escape this impression, Welty indirectly or unintentionally tries to reduce the negativity which other members of American society show toward Phoenix and Little Lee Roy. Welty (1995) is trying to create a different picture of African American people, which makes racism and racial inequality even more painful and unacceptable.

Gretlund (1997) is correct: “Welty demonstrated her ability to recognize the essential humanity of her black characters […] she also manages to convince us that black people are present and play an important part in the life of the Morgana community”. Although Welty (1995) intentionally avoids emphasizing the race to which Phoenix Jackson and Little Lee Roy belong, her desire to depict the two black characters as the common inhabitants makes the racial difference even more striking. For both Phoenix Jackson and Little Lee Roy, as well as for the rest of black community in America, race is not a matter, but a tool of choice. Race limits African Americans in their striving to be equal to the members of the white population. Race deprives them of the freedom of choice, but this lack of free choice and their desire to prove their right for recognition makes them look even more humane against the rest of the white majority.

            Welty (1995) depicts race as the mask under which African Americans have to hide their true identities. More than that, the race is depicted as the mask which the white community takes for granted and which serves the line of separation between the two races. This mask and the fact that white population does not want to look deeper into the human essence of African Americans turn racism into an acceptable practice. “Washed its face, and it was paint all over it made it look red. It all come off. And it could talk – as good as me or you. But they’s tole it not to, so it never did. They’d tole it if anybody was to come near it they was comin’ to git it – and for it to hit’em quick with that iron bar an’gowl. So nobody ever come near it” (Welty, 1995). For Little Lee Roy the red paint is the means to hide his identity; this paint also turns him into the subject of moral and physical torture. This racial disguise is echoed in A Worn Path, where Welty depicts old Phoenix’s dressing as the traditional garb of slavery; “even her shoes, which are arguably the most modern item of her attire, seem more a hindrance than a convenience” (Moberly, 2005).

In this context, both African American characters seem to follow the two similar journeys, the one being the journey to self-recognition, and the other guiding Phoenix Jackson and Little Lee Roy to the ultimate place of destination. The stories prove that we are unprepared to look deeper into the essence of a human under the cover of racism. Such disguise and labeling is usual for all races, but in case of African Americans, this labeling is combined with discrimination, which often borders on true abuse. It appears that race can readily provide white community with the right to kidnap, humiliate, and use black people for their not always moral purposes; as a result, “Black people appear absolutely unable to oppose to this discrimination and to withstand these unjustified pressures” (Weatherby, Sullivan & Core, 2004).

            It should be noted, that the choice of the time and circumstances in both stories is not accidental. Christmas time for Phoenix Jackson and circus realities in Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden make the topic of racism even more tragic. For Phoenix Jackson, Christmas time and “the image of the town’s residents carting prettily wrapped packages amid red and green electric lights contrasts sharply with the lonely old woman” (Shuman, 2002). For Little Lee Roy, “the grotesque and fantastic phenomenon of a circus Geek is explored in human terms” (Westling, 1989). Ironically, the traveling circus is one of the most important entertainments in rural South, and not conventional acrobats but human grotesques always attracted hundreds of spectators (Westling, 1989). For Keela, his race so wisely hidden under the red paint adds to his feeling of ‘otherness’, and those coming to see him use his image to project their own fears about losing identity and turning into a faceless circus creature. “The purpose of the story is to reveal the true identity of the ‘Indian maiden’ as that of a diminutive crippled black man who watches with glee as one white man insists on telling another white man how the imposture was exposed” (Westling, 1989). The image of a cripple and the concept of injury are common for both A Worn Path and Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden: and where Welty describes the tragedy of Phoenix Jackson’s grandson, the reader comes to realize the social injury of racism in America. Cripples and injuries are more than the cause of physical suffering; it is the permanent injury of the American way of life, “the racist condescension and occasional charity offered by white society, the promises of medication and relief” (Moberly, 2005).

            The choice of circumstances and the emphasis on appearance make racism even more cynical. “I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender. […] I am an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me. My little grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming” (Welty, 1995). This sense of forgetting self is characteristic of racism. This sense of forgetting as an important aspect of Phoenix Jackson’s journey is also equaled to forgetting and losing the sense of identity in Little Lee Roy. He is reduced to the level of a woman-outcast, without any clear status in the circus community and with the sense of disease in the racism, the consequences of which he tragically suffers (Dooley, 1995). This combination of deceptive appearance, disguise, disease, negligence, and the loss of identity make the two stories very objective. The two stories create a full picture of the causes and consequences of racism in America. Both stories do not leave any room for justifying racism. Both confirm the ill nature of racial attitudes on the side of white community. Finally, both stories reveal the difficult pathway black people have to follow in their quest for moral and spiritual freedom.

            Conclusion

            A Worn Path and Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden describe the hidden aspects of racism in America. For Eudora Welty, racism stands out as a disease which white community cannot and probably, is not willing to cure. The humanism and humanity with which Welty treats her characters is the distinctive feature of both stories, which makes racial differences and inequalities even more striking. Ironically, the more Welty tries to depict Black people in humane colors, the more “other” they become in the eyes of the white community. The more objective Welty tries to be in her judgments, the more distorted the racial attitudes of white people become. Surprisingly or not, Welty does not directly condemn racism, but in her desire to find out the social truth she creates a picture of racial tragedy in the lives of American people. In her stories, white people appear too weak to fight the long standing prejudice. Moreover, they use the social weaknesses of black people for their not always moral purposes. Racism in America is inevitable. Racism in America is painful. Racism in America has already turned into an acceptable practice. Through the prism of Little Lee Roy’s malady and Phoenix Jackson grandson’s disease, Eudora Welty emphasizes the role of true virtue against the power of physical health, and where white people turn racism and racial inequality into the tool of discrimination, Black people have no other choice but to follow the predetermined pathway, to prove to themselves that they are humans, too.

References

Dooley, D.A. (1995). Plain and ordinary things: Reading women in the writing classroom.

SUNY Press.

Gretlund, J.N. (1997). Eudora Welty’s aesthetics of place. University of South Carolina

Press.

Moberly, K. (2005). Toward the North Star: Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” and the slave

narrative tradition. The Mississippi Quarterly, 59 (1-2), 107-127.

Shuman, R.B. (2002). Great American writers: Twentieth century. Marshall Cavendish.

Weatherby, H.L., Sullivan, W. & Core, G. (2004). Place in American fiction: Excursions and

explorations. University of Missouri Press.

Welty, E. (1995). Thirteen stories by Eudora Welty. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Westling, L.H. (1989). Eudora Welty. Rowman & Littlefield.

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