What happens when one realizes that the color of one's skin is seen differently by other people than it is by him or her? How does it make one feel to know that the racial group to which one belongs is seen as inferior and that there are certain expectations that come along with being a member of the inferior race? Does recognizing these racial dichotomies have the ability to change a person's life? While realizing one's race can happen in a variety of ways, it can certainly have a very clear effect on a person's life: it can provide that person with an unlimited amount of power. In this case, racial realization becomes a positive entity with positive results.
While it is oftentimes believed that children are oblivious to racial dichotomies, Countee Cullen depicts otherwise in his short poem “The Incident:”
Once-riding in Old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smoked, but he poked out
His tongue and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
The narrator of this poem is an African-American individual who remembers his visit to Baltimore when he is just eight-years old. Cullen presents the reader with a world that consist of the major white population and the minority black population. Through this encounter with the white boy, Cullen's narrator is no longer unaware of the racial differences existing around him. The boy can now see that childhood as he knew it is much different from what childhood really is. This narrator is now becoming a member of a group that has been labeled as inferior and limited because of skin color. Of all the events that happened to him during his time in Baltimore, this incident is all that he remembers because he is no longer the innocent child he once was.
While the poem fails to go into further detail and does not provide the boy's future, the reader is told that this single incident is one that remains with the boy even after the trip is over. It is clear that in this case, the boy's experience helps him become greater and more powerful as an individual, for he does not recount the experience with hatred or rage. The tone is much more understated, as if he is telling about an incident that remains in his memory as an inspiration more than a hindrance. The reader does not experience the aftermath of this event because it is not as jolting to the narrator's racial identity. Therefore, the narrator is able to healthily internalize the impact of this experience without being eliminated by it.
In James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son , the narrator remembers hearing his father's explicit comments about receiving his education and associating with whites. His father warned that someday he would come to realize that he is being tricked into believing the white children like him. Like the boy in Cullen's poem, the narrator in Baldwin's piece is unaware of the truth that lies in his father's words and lives in a world of ignorant bliss. Unlike the young boy in “The Incident,” this narrator is older and more knowledgeable of the history of his people. Yet, he still possesses innocence and naivete that blinds him from seeing the more dangerous, dichotomized world that lingers in the background, working to keep African-Americans from reaching their potential. He knows about the ways of the south, the ways that African-Americans were grateful, but he also believed that he would never be grateful that way. Like the young boy in Cullen's poem, this narrator also “realizes his blackness” through an encounter with someone who is not black. On many occasions, he visits a self-service restaurant, and he finally realizes, after many visits, that he never served because he is a Negro visiting an establishment that does not serve Negroes. This character faces many experiences following this initial one that build him into an African-American male full of rage and resentment for the major white population.
Along with this hatred, he builds a new outlook towards society and its treatment of the minority black population. It is at the dawn of this realization that the character moves from the innocuous he possesses to initiation as an African-American individual who understands what it means to be a black person living in a society that acknowledges America's diversity but fails to celebrate its heritage of color. Although the initiation is painful for this character as he struggles to deal with his newfound awareness, he becomes more conscious of his obstacles. He learned that in New Jersey being a Negro mean that no one really looked at you. They just simply reacted to the color of your skin, and whatever reaction they had to your skin was not one that you had the power to change. While Troy Maxson's realization renders him powerless, the new understanding that Cullen and Baldwin's narrators receive provide them with power to face the obstacles that lie before them.
Similarly, Charles Chesnutt presents an African-American female character who brings power to another black individual. According to Lorne Fienberg, the author of “Charles W. Chesnutt's' The Wife of His Youth: 'The Unveiling of the Black Storyteller,” Chesnutt's' Liza Jane acts as a human re-creation of the present and an “acknowledgment of the past “219. 'Liza is the mysterious woman who travels for twenty-five years in hopes of finding a mulatto man who escapes the bounds of slavery and is trying also to escape the bounds of being black. Mr. Ryder, 'Liza Jane's lost love, has settled into life as a stationary clerk and as a member of the Blue Vein Society, a small color-conscious organization that is more concerned with securing a place within white society than establishing a sense of pride in its black heritage. To them, their black blood is a setback within American society; therefore, they seem to embrace one side of the “color line” more than the other. 'Liza Jane is obviously not from this particular group of light-colored blacks, which is evident when Chesnutt describes her as an embodiment of the South. Mr. Ryder, as much as he tries to reject it, is swept back into his past life while in the presence of 'Liza. Chesnutt presents him not only as being mulatto, a biological mixture of races, but also as a person who can blend in across cultures socially. His skin allows him the choice of embracing his whiteness or his blackness and even possibly moving between the two. In this story, Mr. Ryder chooses to embrace his whiteness and run from his blackness, as a means to climb the social ladder and gain more success. Unlike the transcultured Mr. Ryder, 'Liza never loses touch with her true identity; she will always be able to readily embrace the past struggles that she overcomes as a black woman. Yet, she also realizes that as an African-American citizen trying to establish a life beyond slavery, Mr. Ryder must choose whether to continue a new life with or without remembering the past.
Charles Chesnutt includes Ryder's dream of a society with racial equality, or at the very least, an acknowledgment of the past when stepping towards a brighter future. The plot in “The Wife of His Youth” involves a spectacular scene, pitting the past and present of African-Americans against one another as' Liza Jane enters the life of Mr. Liza. Ryder on the eve of the ball he is hosting at his home. At this ball, Mr. Ryder hopes to ask the fair-skinned Mrs. Dixon to marry him. While Mr. Ryder is hiring for “absorption by the white race and extinction in the black” through marriage to Mrs. Dixon and the hosting of this ball, he actually receives the opposite at the end of the following night (Chesnutt 626). After 'Liza Jane relates her to Ryder, Mr. Ryder faces the dilemma of acknowledging 'Liza as part of his past or rejecting ever having known her. Upon relating 'Liza's tale to his audience, he makes the decision to acknowledge her and presents her to the crowd as “the wife of his youth.” Mr. Ryder, like many blacks, is forced to realize the blackness that he once tries to forget, and in doing so, becomes a stronger and prouder man because of it.
The protagonists within “The Incident,” Notes of a Native Son and “The Wife of His Youth” gain immense power from their experiences. These characters continue to live knowing the kinds of obstacles that will face socially, racially, and economically, and just the acceptance of society's dichotomies are enough to give them the power to work towards their goals and be proud of their blackness during and after this process . Their realizations can possibly be used as a means to elevate and better their lives.
Chesnutt, Charles. “The Wife of His Youth.” The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature . Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: WW Norton, 2004. 602-605, 624-632. Print.