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Many works of fiction, poetry, and drama deal with all sorts of issues from war, duty, despair, grief, love, and many others. Some works are strictly fictional, while some have elements of reality. In this paper, we will go over the two works, that was written in the twentieth century, a time of war, violence, and many inequalities. Before during and after World War II, African Americans were targeted, being discriminated against through housing, segregated transportation, and segregated education.
Through many years and growing up Ralph Ellison learned from cultural experience that inspired him to write many of his works including the Invisible Man, which we will specifically be covering the chapter in the short story called the “Battle Royal.” Another author that was present during the twentieth century was Lorraine Hansberry, her experiences in life play too many of Lorraine’s strengths especially in her play A Raisin in the Sun. Racism is a theme that presents itself throughout both of these works, and it is akin to how each of these authors lived during these times.
Racism and the Civil rights movement have played such a large role in our nation’s history and has been a driving factor in many of the works of literature. Both Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” and ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ by Lorraine Hansberry show the types of racism and segregation that African Americans faced during the Civil Rights movement.
Before during and after World War II, African Americans were targeted, being discriminated against through housing, segregated transportation, and segregated education. Before the Civil War slave-holding states did not enact segregation laws upon their slaves. “However, whites made it illegal for slaves to learn to read and write and control their bodily movements through coercion and surveillance by overseers, owners, and slave patrols. When the Civil War overturned slavery, the issues of where African Americans would reside, what jobs and schools they would have, whether they would vote, and what public accommodations they would use suddenly became serious.” (Honey 2018)
During the reconstruction era of the United States, the poor (including whites and African Americans) in the South struggled with the rich upper class of business owners, merchants, bankers, and railroad corporations to gain wealth that workers and farmers of the era could not create. The creation of “white supremacy” election campaigns spawned the false accusations of African Americans claiming that they were responsible for crime and rape.
Disregarding the meaning and intent of federal law, the Supreme Court in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision claimed that separating people by “race” was a mere local custom that did not contradict the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal rights and due process before the law. Separate could be equal, it ruled, as it upheld the right of states to impose segregation. The Court also let stand state miscegenation laws, which outlawed marriage between members of different “races,” as well as state measures that effectively eliminated blacks (and often poor whites) from voting. (Honey 2018)
However, after this African Americans resisted the Jim Crow laws and refused to follow them wherever and however they could. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 and fought tooth and nail to destroy the Jim Crow laws. Eventually, a case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education and that case overturned Plessy v. Ferguson it ruled that separate schools for whites and African Americans were inherently unequal. This decision helped pave the way for freedoms and the removal of segregation. By the end of the twentieth-century segregation was no longer in effect but the fight for equal rights for all citizens was still an obstacle to overcome.
Ralph Ellison had many accomplishments throughout his lifetime, from being a cook during World War II to writing stories, Ralph’s influence was present. Ralph Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His home state practiced segregation, but Ellison grew up without the oppression that most African Americans faced in the South. Growing up in Oklahoma City Ellison was exposed to various elements within the culture of whites and African Americans.
Ellison’s mother would often bring home popular magazines and recordings of music that had often been discarded by her employers. While in public school Ellison learned the fundamentals of musical harmonies and symphonic forms of music. He also learned about songs, dances, and stories of European folk cultures. Ellison befriends many of the members in the jazz orchestra the Blue Devils. ‘Ellison’s broad cultural experience inspired him to join several schoolmates in proclaiming themselves Renaissance Men- -individuals dedicated to transcending racial barriers through the study of art and thought.” (Gale 2018)
In school, Ellison took lessons from Dr. Ludwig Hebestreit a conductor of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. Through this instruction, music became Ellison’s primary form of expression. Ellison also enjoyed reading literature, he would read books by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson. While at home he would read all different types of books like westerns, fairy tales, and detective stories. While traveling through the city, and in barbershops African Americans would introduce him to folk tales, western legends about black cowboys, outlaws and Indian chiefs.
After graduating high school Ellison went to Tuskegee Institute but without funds for transportation, he would hop into freight cars to Tuskegee. Ellison found employment at the college library gave him a chance to increase his literary knowledge. “In the office of the Daily Worker on 135th Street in Harlem, Ellison met writer Richard Wright in 1937. After becoming engaged in a discussion about literature, Wright asked Ellison to write a book review of Walter Turpin’s These Low Grounds for the first edition of the short-lived periodical New Challenge.” (Gale 2018)
After writing his first short story Ellison became a regular contributor to the periodical New Masses and the Negro Quarterly. After not being able to join the U.S. Navy Ellison joined the Merchant Marines during World War II. During this period Ellison wrote the story “In a Strange Country” which was set in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. After returning back to the United States he got his idea for his novel Invisible Man, his book was published in 1954. “Few novels of postwar American fiction have been as celebrated, written about, and analyzed as Ellison’s Invisible Man. Many critics contend that this author’s ability to delve deeply into the chaotic and complex character of American society has rendered him a lasting figure in modern literature.” (Gale 2018)
Lorraine Hansberry dealt with segregation, being born in the 1930s, her family dealt with segregation as well as herself. Hansberry came from a family with a long struggle for the civil rights of African Americans. Hansberry wrote articles and essays on multiple types of topics including homophobia, and the Cuban missile crisis to name a few. To some, she is considered to be one of the most acute observers and talented playwrights of the time.
Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930. Her family was well known for their struggle in liberating African Americans. Her family had moved into an all-white neighborhood, and as Hansberry would leave for school “…in the morning she was confronted by angry whites throwing bricks at her. One concrete slab narrowly missed her head. Her family barely lived there a year when a lower court ordered them to leave. Her father fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and eventually won in 1940.” (‘Lorraine Hansberry’ 2011)
Against her parents’ wishes, Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin. During her time at the University of Wisconsin, she became interested in writing after watching a few plays, Juno and the Paycock. As her thirst for writing grew, she became bored with the teachings at the university. She left the university to work for the newspaper Freedom, which was headed by Paul Robeson in New York. She began writing political pieces, as well as book and drama reviews. She became an associate editor of the newspaper by 1952. That same year she went to the International Peace Congress in Uruguay because Robeson could not get into the country because the State Department refused him a passport.
During the congress, Hansberry learned more about issues like poverty, dictatorships, the arms race, and the United States interference in Latin American countries. She was also able to meet women of color from other countries. In 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, who she did not know at the time was a homosexual. When she found out four years later, they had separated but they still remained close to each other.
Nemiroff still maintains control over her works published and unpublished. Before she died, she entrusted Nemiroff with the revisions of her play Les Blancs. “In 1957 Hansberry wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun, about the bleak social conditions that force a black family to defer their dreams until their own strength and pride help them struggle toward opportunity.” (‘Lorraine Hansberry’ 2011)
Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun appealed to whites, many African American groups criticized it, saying it had caused African Americans to be blended with white culture. Amiri Baraka did not consider her play to be ‘true black art’ but he changed his mind in 1987. In 1964 Hansberry created another drama The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window however, it was not considered a success, a lot of the content included in the play baffled her audience and made them scratch their heads. It disappointed her viewers, they wanted to see a sequel to her first play.
Throughout her life Hansberry played roles in the civil rights movement, perhaps her biggest moment was when she met with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Hansberry led a walk-out because she was worried about the oppression that most African Americans had faced. By the age of 34 Hansberry became ill because of cancer, she also had a stroke that caused her to become paralyzed, as well as losing her eyesight and speech. She was able to recover from her stroke but in the end, she became too ill from her cancer.
Racism is a theme that presents itself in both “Battle Royal” and A Raisin in the Sun. Both authors had lived through the civil rights movement, and in each work racism is apparent. “About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard and brought up my father to do the same.” (Ellison & DiYanni ‘Battle Royal’ 2008 342).
With this statement, Ellison tells of a time when slavery was believed to have helped African Americans, that everything they did was for the common good and they never questioned it. Many times, throughout the story young African Americans, would be put in situations where they would have to fight each other or be against each other in one way or another. When the narrator steps out of the elevator into the hall they were told to put on their “fighting togs” (Ellison & DiYanni ‘Battle Royal’ 2008 343).
Each of them was given a pair of boxing gloves and they were then led into a ring where they would fight each other. During this fight, the narrator “…compares himself, to inanimate objects: a “ginger cookie”, a “jack-in-the-box”, a “football”, a “dish rag”, and a “pocket-sized dictionary”. His self-imposed appellation even reduces him to non-object status.” (German 2001).
The imagery that Ellison uses highlights the idea that when one sex or race treats one another as an object or animal, they both become dehumanized or seen as beasts. Because white men treat African Americans as animals it shows a complete disregard for them being treated as a human being effectively dehumanizing them. The story goes on more to describe the way that the boys are treated like animals versus actual human beings, when the narrator reaches in to grab a coin on the rug the electricity shakes him ‘like a wet rat’ (Ellison & DiYanni ‘Battle Royal’ 2008 347) with each of this images that you are shown Ellison shows more of the dehumanizing factor that he wanted to get across beside the overt racism in the story perpetrated by the white men surrounding them.
The racism seen in Hansberry’s play is a different form of racism but still rooted in the civil rights that many African Americans fought through. “The Murchisons are honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people. I thought everybody knew that. I’ve met Mrs. Murchison. She’s a scene!” (Hansberry & DiYanni ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ 2008 1306)
Once Ruth began to mention marrying George, Benetha goes off saying she wouldn’t want to marry him because she didn’t feel any sort of way about him and if they did get married his family wouldn’t like it. She then goes on to talk about disliking people who are better off than them because those types of people dislike poor people. This tends to bring up an inter-racial conflict they believe that George has money that they are just like the snobbish white people.
This was another battle that many African Americans fought against during the twentieth century, whether they should be happy for the communities that have thrived during this era and see the differences between them and the whites, or if they should be treated just as the whites are because they are better off than they are because of their wealth. Even though wealth does not attribute to ones’ sacrifices made by the families to get there. In the play Georges’ family is perceived to be better than everyone else in the African American community and that they are just like the whites that the African American community despises.
Racism has played such a large role in our nation’s history and has formed a lot of issues that can be prevalent in society today. It is important to read literature from the past, a lot of people living today haven’t seen much of what had happened during the civil rights movement. Through literature from the early twentieth century can help us in the twenty-first century understand much of what had happened during the civil rights era and why these works are relevant even today. They’re still people who face different kinds of oppression in the United States, and it may not even be related to race, even in other countries, people are oppressed for trying to live their own lives just like everyone else.
It is important for us to realize this, and look upon the past, through literature and stories told by those who came before us to not make the same mistakes in the future as we did in the past. If it wasn’t for Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry and many others who lived during the civil rights movement our society may not be what it is today. Literature from the past, present and future can help shape our ever-changing lives through fiction, poetry, plays, scripts and more hopefully for the betterment of mankind.
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