When we hear about the black experience, we think about the times of slavery and the oppression that our forefathers faced. From an early age, we learned about African-American history through the struggles of our grandparents or parents or direct life experiences through a Eurocentric perspective in the educational curriculum. In 2021, I have often thought of the black experience as one depicted as oppressive. I often ask myself if I feel oppressed or if I’m being told I’m oppressed. Because of this, I become hypervigilant and analytical of everyone and everything around me.
I am not saying that we should not understand the struggles that we have experienced, or speak to them frequently. However, if we take our forefathers’ oppressive history too personally, or internalize narratives we are told and don’t experience we may feel hatred, victimization, and resentment towards our allies, but also towards ourselves!
We must focus on the noble attributes and positive stories of African descendants of slaves in United States by embracing progressive and enriching storytelling that does not perpetuate negative stereotypes of the black experience.
The following statement can be found in the article The Historical Perspectives of Stereotypes on African-American Males: “Throughout US history, the stereotyping of African-Americans, particularly males, has hurt African-Americans and harmed African-American families and communities.”
For instance, the belief that African-Americans are unintelligent, lazy, violent, and criminals have affected educational outcomes, employment opportunities, socioeconomic status, and the dismantling of African-American families and communities.
Persons in the field of education, business, and law enforcement often believe these stereotypes that manifest themselves as unconscious bias, which is sometimes deadly. In my day-to-day life, a lot of the time I can never truly put my finger on a racial encounter but it burns right under the surface. Microaggressions, and subtle “back door room,” decisions that make discrimination hard to call out. Especially now, when people know everyone’s ears are perked up.
I am faced with decision to let something go or spend time ciphering through why and why not something is racist. My energy is best directed on my life and my art.
Unconscious bias directly impacts practitioners treatment of people they perceive as African-American. This article demonstrates the devastating effects of racial stereotypes portrayed in literature and film on the African-American’s families, relationships, and livelihoods.
I implore my readers to expand their education by reading the inspirational literature of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. The Harlem Renaissance (1920s & 1930s) is crucial to the creative arts for African-Americans. The above writers explored topics of racism, classism, bisexuality, social isolation and invisibility.
The practitioners during this period embraced literature, musical, theatrical, and the visual arts. They wanted to distinguish “the Negro” from the white stereotypes that had influenced Black people’s relationship to their heritage and each other. Now, almost one hundred years later, in some ways, society is still fighting the same fight.
People of this era wanted to liberate themselves from the Victorian era’s idealistic values. The movement created the foundation for all later African American literature and had an enormous impact on Black literature (subsequently Black film) and consciousness worldwide.
While the renaissance was not confined to New York City’s Harlem district, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent. It served as the symbolic capital of this cultural awakening.
Langston Hughes was a key player during the Harlem Renaissance. The American poet, novelist, playwright, and columnist was born in Joplin, Missouri. He was an innovator of the literary art form, “jazz poetry.”
As an author, and singer myself, Langston Hughes is someone I look to as a mold of how to blend my personal interests with entertainment, but also to reflect the real-life needs of the generation. As I’ve progressed in my writer journey, I have also honed in on my message. A message that is not new: family, self-discovery, and possibility.
Hughes’ poetry and fiction were about the lives of working-class blacks in the United States. He depicted their lives as full of struggle, but also joy, and music. He held space for both realities in his art. He exuded pride in the African-American.
“My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all humankind,” Hughes is quoted as saying. He confronted racial stereotypes, protested social conditions, and expanded African America’s image of itself–a “people’s poet” who sought to reeducate both audience and artist by lifting the black aesthetic theory into reality.
Awakening — Pride — Expansion are core values that must be portrayed and embraced in art forms to empower the general public. Through empowerment, people feel hopeful about their lives and can make positive changes.
Hughes emphasized the need for artists to be brave in their approach to their writing. In his manifesto The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Hughes stated,
The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If people of color are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know-how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.
What if we shifted our lens of discourse and narrowed our focus on this idea of “temples of tomorrow” by asking, “Does this film, does this organization, does this politician or personality, does this piece of art, lay a brick onto the temple of tomorrow or take a brick away?”
What can we do to promulgate the positive narratives of the African-American people? For centuries, storytellers acted as storehouses of history. In every culture and religion, stories have played critical roles in constituting meaning, constructing identity, and prescribing behavior. Through memorable characters and compelling events, stories stir emotions and can cause paradigm shifts in thinking.
According to the article Telling Your Own Story: The Role of Narrative in Racial Healing, “Although narratives have the power to trap us in hopelessness, they may also be used as a vehicle to heal. We can reshape our ever-after ending by changing the tone of our story.”
We can tap into our imaginations and tell more impactful stories. We can enjoy the cathartic release of changing the narrative or inputting an alternate ending that gives us joy and empowerment. This does not change reality, but it changes the focus, which can be healing and rewarding.
I encourage writers to rest, declutter their mental space, get away from society’s noise, reflect on the past and then move forward. We must learn from traditional African-American literature and other aesthetic forms to progress and shift the narrative. Perhaps then, media will be inspired to do the same.
Previously Published on Medium