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An African Americans Identity

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An African American's Identity

Charles Chestnut, author of The Sheriff's Children, believed that through his writing, he could eliminate racial discrimination all together. He gives examples of what was called the assimilation process for African Americans who were transitioning into the dominant white culture. Chestnut also wrote his stories to inform white readers rather then offend them, illustrating how African Americans found or at least tried to find their cultural identity while in America. In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, a perfect example of cultural assimilation is a loss of identity as the narrator believed he was white most of his life when it turned out that he was African American as well. Due to their identity loss, in the late 1900's African Americans had to adapt their lives in which they had felt inferior because the whites had the dominant power.

The main reason as to why identity came into question in the first place was due to the fact that most of the African American culture was taken away due to slavery. They felt completely inferior to the whites for several reasons. In Mary Harris's essay, "through forced migration, the Africans lost their native language and much or their customs" (1). The black group was considered to be non-citizens. By the 1800's, the creation of combining two races such as black and white together became known as what was called miscegenation (Harris).

The prisoner in The Sheriff's Children and the narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man were both mulattos who faced many identity struggles throughout their stories. A mulatto is the name of a person who is mixed race. The Sheriff in The Sheriff's Children was the father of the prisoner and the mother was black, making the prisoner a mulatto. His father sold him into slavery when he was young so he never knew his own identity growing up but just his mother's. The prisoner did not have the freedom and money that other males of color had and suffered tremendously due to this tragedy. He faced a lot of racism being a "negro," especially when he was accused of killing the white man. Automatically, the people of his town wanted him to be hung just because of the fact that he was African American. Instead of killing him, the Sheriff protected the prisoner in jail later because he later realized that he was the son that he had with the African American woman. Over the life span of an individual with absent parents, it is confusing and difficult for them to find their identity as they grow in age because they have no idea where their parents are from or what race they are. It is important for an individual to know their race in order to "self categorize" so they can live their life happily knowing who they are. The prisoner in The Sheriff's Children and the Ex-Colored Man in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man are both similar to one another through their race as they grow to find their individual identities.

Some individuals grow to be convinced they belong to a certain identity in which they do not belong to. The narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man grew up thinking he was white when he really was half black as well. The boy's father left his mother when he was little so he never grew up knowing part of his identity. His mother raised him to believe that he was 100% white when he really was not and that is when he realized one day at school when his teacher called him black after telling him to sit back down. Given that his father left his mother and him saying that perhaps his mother may have had a relationship with a white man before his birth father. Throughout the story, the Ex-Colored Man went back and forth from black and white when in real life he was the combination of both. Being white was the dominant race so he therefore felt like he had to be white for the majority of the story and in the end that is what he finally chose to be, an Ex-Colored Man.

The dominant culture, which was white, was the culture that blacks struggled most with as they tried to find their identity. In order to be accepted by whites, people of mixed races had to "try to reestablish an identity or to reinvent themselves in order to gain acceptance from the dominant power" (Harris, 3). During the post Reconstruction period, standards in which the African Americans had to face were very difficult if not impossible for them to achieve. Some of the standards they had to meet included having intelligence (an education), being in the middle or upper class, and having pale skin. African Americans had to adapt to the American culture in many other ways such as speaking the English language and believing that acting and working hard represented "being white." They also had to respect other racial groups, respect and be polite to others. Having children while not married and most importantly but most certainly the notion of patriotism and being proud to be an American were changes African Americans had to assimilate to. In America it was crucial to be polite to one another and treating each other as human beings. It was difficult for the black population to find their identity, as they had to recreate themselves in order to be the dominant culture. For African Americans, trying to fit into the white population was a major battle they had to face as they had darker colored skin and had to reconstruct themselves in order to fit in with the dominant race.

Individuals many time attempt to fit into the race with the dominant power. A perfect example of trying to assimilate to Americans was in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The boy felt that that he was the best white scholar in his classroom and when he went to stand, his teacher told him to sit. Although he did not know he was part black, the Ex-Colored Man felt that he was white because of the lightness of his skin and the wide population of whites in his class. Even though the man eventually found out that he was a mulatto, he still did not have the mindset that he was black and went from being white to black and vice versa. He faced many challenges deciding if he wanted to express his mother's African American heritage by going through the musical genre ragtime or by taking his father's side by living obscurely as a middle class white man. The Ex-Colored Man in fact established an identity that represented his independence. His individualism was very American like or white as he struggled for social mobility, equal opportunities, and a unique sense of identity. For a good amount of time in his life he spent making cigars and gambling as a white man. He was certainly confused and indecisive as to which identity he wanted to take but by the end, he found it best for him to live as a white



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