Representation of Marginalized Groups in American Culture and Literature
When it first appeared in 1450, the word “representation” was defined as “something which stands for or denotes another symbolically; an image, a symbol, a sign” (“representation”). Since then, it has been used in the context of law, art, and even mathematics. In 1553, that shifted to include the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “the act of putting forward an account of something discursively; a spoken or written statement, esp. one which conveys or intends to create a particular view or impression” (“representation”). To “create a particular view or impression” has gained value in American culture and literature over the years as the ability to represent oneself or another in a just and faithful way has become a point of an issue when it comes to marginalized groups, minorities in particular (“representation”). Without the ability to put forth a true image of a person, group, or institution, the threat of misrepresentation becomes apparent, leading to the chance of such marginalized groups becoming stereotyped, overlooked, and cast off without the true information. With instances of this happening all over the country, people from marginalized and minority groups are using literature to stake their claims over their own groups and cultures and represent themselves.
Authors and poets Langston Hughes and Louise Erdrich have done just that with the poem “Visitors to the Black Belt” written in 1949 and the novel Love Medicine written in 1984. In eighteen lines, Hughes relays his disdain for “you,” the “visitor” that does not truly see what his experiences in life are. By calling his audience “visitors” in the title, Hughes is implying that there are those that only visit long enough to receive the surface-level gist of his home in Harlem. They see that he lives “across the tracks” and the jazz movement that started there, but they do not see the “hell” that it truly is. These oversights come from a lack of correct representation.
The same theme of misrepresentation carries over into Erdrich’s novel as it tracks a slew of Chippewa narrators spanning fifty years. The reader follows as experiences jump from person to person, year to year, putting together a storyline from multiple perspectives. As different people tell their stories and the stories of others, the lives of two Native American families are faced with death, falling in and out of love, the effects of conflict, and “love medicine,” or special gifts. The novel offers layers upon layers of narration through a non-linear narrative structure that leaves pockets open not only for the characters but for the author to craft a true depiction of her Native American culture in the way that she wishes to present it.
The concept of true representation in literature has been a topic of debate in recent years, and Robert Warrior states in his Keywords essay “Indian” that, while the Native American “experience” has been overlooked and misunderstood, it is not enough to create “[inclusivity]” by “creating a new branch” for it in academia. He further supports this claim by quoting Craig Womack who states that “[w]ithout Native American literature, there is no American canon. Let the Americanists struggle for their place in the canon”. The idea that Native American culture is the foundation of all American culture, including literature and art, does hold value, especially when one takes the colonization of these groups into account. There is much room for speculation about what would have happened had the Americas not been colonized, but the fact remains that, as of 2014, only approximately two percent of the United States population was of Native American descent (US Census). That leaves the rest of the population with limited access to a small group of people, further exposing the risk of misrepresentation in the media, arts, and literature. In that case, having tribal literature at the base of the American canon could increase the amount and reach of proper representation before misrepresentation.
Though Warrior and Womack made these claims with Native Americans in mind, the idea of the American canon not only belonging to Americanists can have a positive impact on other misrepresented groups, such as the black Americans that Hughes wrote about. In the first stanza of his poem “Visitors to the Black Belt,” Hughes picks apart the geographical and metaphorical line in which he and his community are stereotyped and disregarded. His distinction between the “visitors” that talk about “across the railroad tracks” and his experience “here/ On his side of the tracks” is a play on the idiom “right side of the tracks”. In her American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, author Christine Ammer defines the idiom as “the desirable part of town,” leaving the opposing “wrong side of the tracks” to be undesirable or unattractive. The example given for the undesirable part of town is as follows: “The children from the wrong side of the tracks often came to school without having eaten breakfast,” suggesting that the “other side” could be experiencing poverty or food shortage. This trope has become common and also implies that people from the wrong side of the tracks are dangerous, criminals, dirty, or have other negative characteristics. The line “to me it’s here” indicates that Hughes knows of the distance between his life and the life that the outsiders are seeing, while he is also attempting to make it clear that what he is being forced to contend with is happening as he experiences them much differently than the others.
While the misrepresentation of lifestyle and home is explored in Hughes’ work, it is the misrepresentation of individuals and their families that is showcased in Erdrich’s novel. For example, Maria Lazarre and her family act as the people from the wrong side of the tracks in Love Medicine. Her family members are described as dirty, “horse-thieving drunks” who are “so low that you cannot even think they are in the same class as Kashpaws”. Because of these stereotypes that perpetrate almost all areas of her life, Marie spends the rest of it trying to live above what others think about her.
Even when she is grown with children of her own, Marie’s thought process when she visits a nun she knew when she was a teenager reveals her ever-significant need to prove others wrong and present herself in ways that she believes she deserves. “ by now I was a solid class. Nector was a tribal chairman. My children were well behaved, and they were educated too,” she says, describing a life that is a far cry from alcoholism and thievery. This situation lends itself to overcompensation, as Marie’s actions show that she believes her life and accomplishments must be bigger and better than what she had before in order to receive respect, acceptance, or any other positive attributes. Much like Hughes, the ways in which she was unjustly described impact how she interacts with others and how their opinions impact such communication. In both situations, residents of the Black Belt and members of a family that is looked down upon must fight to present themselves as they truly are.
In the same breath, the second stanza in Hughes’ poem simply explains that visiting Harlem will not constitute the full extent of the experiences living there. To the visitors and tourists, to see Harlem as “up” there is looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, whether what they see it as good or not. To Hughes, “here” in Harlem may have been a different world. Take the Harlem Riots of 1943, for example. After a black soldier attempted to intervene in the arrest of two black women, white policemen shot him. The false news of his death caused an uproar in the city and a riot ensued, ending with six deaths, hundreds of arrests and injuries, and thousands of dollars in damages. Though the conditions that surrounded and sparked the riot were based on an inflated cost of living, food shortages, and “racial discrimination,” among other things that predominantly impacted black Americans, the news did not accurately depict that. A 1943 article from the New York Times stated that spokesmen for “Negro organizations” agreed that “the disturbances in Harlem were not race riots but outbreaks of hoodlumism” a day before another article stated that stores were closed after the riot “because they were wrecked by hoodlums”. In the event of an outsider reading this news, Harlem may look like an area that was run and wrecked by such “hoodlums,” rather than by people who fought against unsatisfactory living conditions. To the outsider, Harlem may have looked like removed chaos, while it was much more involved and real for Hughes. This limiting act of misrepresentation not only twists the truth but also contradicts Hughes’ attempt at accurately presenting himself and others through his literature.
The act of telling another person’s stories and experiences also has significance in Love Medicine, though it is in a more relaxed and conversational way as opposed to news articles. Though many of the active characters in the novel tell their own stories, some leave the representation of their lives and personalities in the hands of others. Characters like Moses Pillager are spoken of in biased ways by those that already have certain opinions of them, leaving the reader to accept that or stipulate about the legitimacy of such claims and stories. Rushes Bear becomes one of these characters, and her progression from a mean-spirited woman with “hardened lips” and a face like a “wedge of steel” to someone who was hardened by life and softened by loneliness is only shown by someone who had a much better opinion of her than the first. The reader, who was introduced to the Rushes Bear that was to be avoided by Lulu only finds that in her later years, she was stuck with Marie, who reveals the true nature of her character. Without Marie’s testimony, Rushes Bear would have lived and died as the villainous mother, her loneliness and pain unknown; without Lulu’s stories, her cruelty would have less weight. It is only the joining of the two that gives the reader the most well-rounded sense of who Rushes Bear was.
The opposite of unloading the truth is covering it up, and in the third stanza of “Visitors to the Black Belt,” Hughes describes the ways in which jazz is making Harlem’s visitors overlook the “hell” that he is experiencing. By only using the two words to represent his experience with the South Side, Hughes could be implying an all-or-nothing mentality, meaning that, while he and his community are suffering in the cold, the visitors are only seeing a musical movement that has liberated and entertained. In Robert Mcruler’s Keywords essay on “Normal,” he states that “racialized populations” like Hughes in Harlem are among those that do not count as “normal”. After that distinction, he claims that “[l]ives lived beyond the confines of the normal have been marked as illegitimate and targeted for surveillance, control, correction, confinement, and even elimination”. While there is evidence to support that claim, Hughes’ situation may add another action to groups living outside of normalcy: actively ignoring the abnormal. When a stranger visits Harlem and sees the bright and lively jazz community, they may overlook what is going on beneath the layer of goodness rather than seeing the plight of a space’s residents. If that is the case, the act of proper representation becomes that much more difficult when members of a different group cannot or will not look at or search for the truth.
In his closing lines, Hughes takes the reins and actively moves from calling the visitor “you,” to “outsider,” suggesting that he is holding his ground and taking ownership of his home. In doing so, he is giving his home and peers value, making the visitor the minority, and making himself a priority. The next and final line suggests the same notion of Hughes taking matters into his own hands when he says “ask me who am I”. By inviting the outsider to inquire about his life rather than creating opinions based on location and what he’s known for, Hughes is setting the stage for his own chosen representation. Hughes’ act of asking for the chance at self-representation is one of the obvious ways to take control of the presentation of his life, though the mere presence as a misunderstood group in literature also has significance.
As a Native American author writing about Native American life, Erdrich enters as a part of the latter group. Though she is not writing a dictionary about everything needed to know in order to truly understand Native Americans, her portrayal of members of that group in all of their glory adds to the true American canon mentioned previously. By not sugar-coating her culture and recognizing that there are Native Americans that commit adultery, drink too much, have mental illnesses, and so on, Erdrich is arguably posing a more accurate depiction of what she knows of her culture. Out of context, the representation of less-than-perfect people from marginalized groups may not be beneficial, but when looking at what representation Native Americans have, anything is more substantial than one-dimensional sports mascots and stereotypical Indians in headdresses and loincloths that act as the face of some consumer goods. In that situation, authors like Erdrich who write such cultures into representation are needed alongside groups that fight for the same proper exemplification such as the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (NCARSM) that was formed five years after Love Medicine was first published. According to their website, “the impetus which formed the NCARSM was the … media coupling imagery with widely held misconceptions of American Indians in the form of sports team identities resulting in … stereotyping”. The formation of the NCARSM at that time groups Erdrich’s novel with the fight to reclaim Native American identity, culture, and representation in a correct and faithful way, showcasing that authors and poets are not the only ones fighting for accurate depictions.
When it comes down to the writers as individuals, both have been put into separate categories of literary movements because of their ethnicities, further widening the gap of representation in American literature. Langston Hughes, who is one of the faces of the Harlem Renaissance, is technically a modernist, but his work is also classified as Black Modernism. Author Adrienne J. Gosselin states in her article “Beyond the Harlem Renaissance: The Case for Black Modernist Writers” that “American literary history views Modernism as largely a European movement,” often citing literature such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound as significant to the time. She continues to claim that “while American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance both share such primary Modernist concerns as alienation, primitivism, and experimental form,” black writers from that time are often classified simply as Harlem Renaissance writers instead of black modernists or modernists in general. Hughes exemplifies such models of Modernism as “Visitors to the Black Belt” which illustrates the separation and isolation that he experiences as a black man in Harlem while also straying from the traditional poetic form by switching lines in the middle of sentences and foregoing verse. The act of separating him based on race and not writing style or themes thus creates an atmosphere not conducive to proper representation as his participation in such literary movements is not inclusive nor all-encompassing.
Though Louise Erdrich’s novel is a Postmodern text, her Native American heritage puts her in the Native American Renaissance movement. As she is also taking part in a sector of literature that boxes her by ethnicity before the text, Erdrich earns her place as a postmodernist by writing outside of the traditional novel form with unreliable narrators, disconnected plot lines, and breaks from reality that the reader must unpack themselves. In a sense, her postmodern writing is similar to Hughes’s but more potent. As Michael Bérubé is quoted in Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology, he states that postmodernism is “30% more Modernism for your money”. Erdrich’s use of the non-linear narrative strategy mentioned previously and themes surrounding magic-like powers, isolation, and the breakdown of character’s lives over time stretch into postmodern criticism and commentary of how identity is formed through culture and experiences, the disjointed society that people are living in, and an escape to the deconstruction of words and reality that Ihab Hassan attributes to the movement. Such characteristics of writing have been seen in other celebrated Postmodern works such as Beloved by Toni Morrison and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut that challenge the ways in which the truth is found and perceived. In spite of the similarities in these pieces, Erdrich’s place in the Native American Renaissance creates a barrier between searching for and finding postmodern literature that represents an array of cultures and groups.
When isolated, “Visitors to the Black Belt” and Love Medicine may act as works for entertainment purposes or a general commentary on society, while there is something much bigger than that happening underneath the surface. The stereotypical ways in which the marginalized groups in both pieces are presented in the media, arts, literature, and every other part of society are often uncontested or inaccurate, making the act of true representation that much more important. In order to create a climate that caters to all Americans and their right to show themselves as they truly are, it is up to the members of such misrepresented groups and faithful allies to push that into the spotlight. The use of literature offers another point of view and looks into such groups, giving this issue in American culture an avenue to be resolved or lightened, and Hughes and Erdrich have used their writing to become participants in that. While Hughes’s poem has a direct correlation to the inaccurate representations that he experiences, Erdrich’s writing proved to be multifaceted in its exploration of the misrepresentations of characters while also becoming a source of information about the Native American culture that she knows. Despite their efforts, the amount of time between the conception of both texts proves that the fight for representation was and continues to be an ongoing battle, and similar contributions to American literature will pick up where they left off.
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