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Time changes everything; reading these two pieces of work reminds the author of that fact and so much more. Both The Welcome Table, by Alice Walker, and the poem What it's Like to be a Black Girl, by Smith speak out of the dust of the past to those who now live in the future. It is interesting to note that though the subject matter of racist attitudes pervades each story, both writings provide a viewpoint that is unique; The Table deals with an old negro lady on the verge of death, while a Black Girl deals with the other end of the spectrum; a young black girl addressing puberty and adolescence and the troubles and trials facing a maturing young lady. While presenting two differing points-of-view, each offers a strikingly similar stance; that racism affects those who feel its insidious influence in a myriad of ways.
As one article states "Alice Walker is known for her landmark novel The Color Purple, but her short stories are equally intense, often weaving dreamy surrealism and the harsh realities of racism with unforgettable characters" (Walker, 2003, p. 32), and the lead character in this piece of work is indeed unforgettable; described in terms that bring forth a vivid picture of reality. Each word describes the agelessness of the women in clear terms, using phrases such as; "aged blue-brown, eyes," "old tight face, shut now like an ancient door," and "as if she were an old collie turned out to die." Comparatively speaking, the young women in the What it's Like poem is described using youthful words such as "being 9 years old," "not finished," and "edges are wild."
One character seems to have experienced all that racism had to throw at her, learning that even with her 'mildewed dress' the Saviour would be there for her at the end of her journey, while the other character looks to the future that holds the ugly truth, attempting to cover her color with food coloring and a bleached white mophead, never quite understanding that such camouflage does not work in the real world.
The second character has yet to feel the overwhelming pains of racism even though many experts believe that "racism is perceived to be a common occurrence in many minority children's lives" (Pachter, Bernstein, Szalacha, Garcia, 2010, p. 61). The Pachter et al. study demonstrates that this fact continues to be as true today as it was when Smith penned her verse.
Each story begins with a title that sets the scene for the verse that follows. It is quite intriguing to ponder why Walker used a table as her opening gambit; oftentimes in modern literature, the Saviour is described as sharing the food of the gospel, richly feasting on his Father's words, and even providing spiritual nourishment through his teachings. One recent report showed how meal tables are often considered as where "people learn to share with one another" (Crainshaw, 2007, p. 19) and where "we also learn about the nourishing power of daily manna" (p. 19). Tables, and food, have often been used metaphorically in verse to show the riches that can be achieved and to remind us of better times. The Welcome Table for the old lady is one that should be filled with the memories of past experiences, not a table at which she can only set the plates and silver. Maya Angelou writes that before her grandmother "would serve Maya and her brother Bailey a piece of her luscious lemon meringue pie, she would tell a story" (Gordon, 2005, p. 133), and that was the best part of being around the table; they were comforted by the food, but also had "fascinating memories they (could) trigger" (p. 133).
Walker's old lady seems to be seeking that Welcome Table, but does not discover it amongst the 'pious' white folk who were "reminded of riotous anarchists looting and raping in the streets" (Walker). Crainshaw determines that "too many tables are too empty (and) too many tables are too exclusive" (19). Instead of learning about the "wonders of rich feasts" (Crainshaw, p. 19) the old weathered individual in The Welcome Table found she was not welcome at the table at all, at least not by those who would rather view her as a 'cook, chauffer, maid or mistress'.
The young girl in "What it's Like" has not had to face such intense scrutiny as of yet, but she will face it in the future; a future that holds her hostage with "flame and fists and life according to Motown" (Smith). One could say that according to Smith, such a life was the only path open to the young girl, and at its end is not the Saviour found in the Table, but a man nonetheless, a man to which the girl will eventually 'cave into around his fingers'.
Another recent study found that racism is tied to other markers of identity including "sexuality, gender, class and disability" (Arai, Kivel, 2009, p. 461), and that is brought out in both of these works. The young lady is beginning to comprehend the changes that are taking place in her body that will contribute greatly to her identity. She is "finding space between your legs, a disturbance in your chest" and "smelling blood in your breakfast." Those changes alone could bring on feelings of despair and confusion, complement that with the fact that what she sees in the mirror that cannot "deny your reflection" her life seems to be one big mass of chaos. What is interesting to note, is that the young girl seems to display a much more cynical view of life than the older character in The Welcome Table.
The young girl's path seems to be set, whilst the old lady seems determined to change her path. The older lady is confused at the end indignantly telling Jesus "about how they had grabbed her when she was singing in her head and not looking, and how they had tossed her out of his church." It could be that even though she had experienced racism throughout her life, she believed the words of the Saviour when he said come unto me, even to the extent that she attempted to attend what she thought was 'his church'. In actuality, He was not to be found in the church after all, but outside walking in the street.
Both characters attempt to make changes, the old lady attempting to attend the 'white folks church' and the young girl dropping food color in her eyes to make them blue (among other things). It could be said therefore, that racism subtly works on each individual by influencing their thoughts of how they should be, how they should be seen, and how they should act. It seems as if both works show an attempt by the main characters to meet standards that are not necessarily standards that they should be meeting.
When a society has a substantial minority percentage of the population attempting to act in a manner that appeases the majority of the society, problems can arise for both groups. Racism as described by these two pieces of work can be an overriding theme of society, which can mean that anger, resentment and rage can build, on both sides of the issue. Certainly the minority population can end up bestowing on the majority group a certain pinnacle of respect that may not be earned. A 2010 study that took place in an urban educational setting provides evidence of this phenomenon.
A young, male, white teacher wrote a problem on the board of a classroom comprised of young urban African-Americans, the majority of whom were being raised in difficult circumstances. He purposefully wrote an incorrect answer on the board then erased the entire problem -- leaving vestiges of the writings legible there. Before the class ended he passed to the students a test that included the same problem. What he discovered was that even the students who knew the correct answer (or at least knew how to derive the correct answer) wrote the wrong answer down. The question he sought to determine was "could it be that it was difficult for the students to consider that I -- the teacher, the authority figure, the individual with the power -- could be wrong?" (Hinds, 2010, p. 784). The Hinds study helped the teacher to realize that the power to denigrate went well beyond the influence of one teacher on one student; it could (and did) affect an entire population. The study determined that the rage against racism often "stemmed from an extended history of experiencing racial injustice that made him abhor his racial identity" (p. 786).
On the other hand, the majority group can also transfer its fear of the minority onto the minority group overall. This is especially evident in the Welcome Table; when the old lady is viewed by the whites in the church as when "they gazed nakedly upon their own fear transferred; a…[continue]
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