Self Using Race as a Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Smith may dislike the stereotype, but she cannot help internalizing it. She feels unfinished because she is regarded as unfinished, and even members of her community urge her to straighten her hair. This is completely different from the joyous, affirmative sigh "I am complete" at the end of Morales' poem. Just as Morales admits that all experiences with racism and discrimination are different, Smith's poem demonstrates how African-American women frequently lack assurance of their sense of self and that their physical qualities are regarded as alien to what is considered 'good' and 'American.' (The young Smith's wearing white to cover up one's tallness seems an attempt to mask blackness and presumed 'badness' with clothing). Morales' instability of identity lies in multiplicity of national cultures, but Smith, even as a young, black girl, but carefully balance her sense as an American and African-American with even greater care and psychological discomfort that Morales. This is not immediately obvious, which is why the title of the poet suggests that Smith is instructing the white reader, rather than merely stating a list of external identities possessed by the poet like Morales.

The extent to African-Americans as 'other' is hard-wired within American culture is revealed in Smith's stress upon her youth in her poem. Unlike Morales, her poem begins with the poet is a literal child, not a figurative child of the Americas, when her socialization into black female sexuality begins. The poem begins in lowercase, as if written in the voice of her nine-year-old self. The commonplace rituals of black girlhood, like getting one's hair straightened are revealed as negative socialization techniques to make the author mistrust her inherent beauty as a black woman. The sense of not being 'okay' and not being accepted is reinforced by the child's own community. Although Morales in her interview speaks of the tensions of being both Jewish and Puerto Rican, Latina and American, the struggle is far more visceral in Smith's poem as she portrays her hair being straightened with harsh, white chemicals, echoing the experiences of many black women: "Even though I could tell from the way my grandma touched my scalp / she loved me / what she was lettin' me know / maybe god didn't love me & my brown krinkly short head of hair was a mark / lettin' the whole world know / god is not on this chile's side" (Sekyai 2003:1). A black woman may be regarded as sexual by the dominant cultural norms, but never as beautiful: "African-American women are not seen as the archetypal symbol of womanhood, as is the case for White American women. Notions of womanhood in the United States inevitably include standards of beauty" that are difficult for white women to attain but are literally impossible for black women to aspire to emulate (Sekyai 2003:1).

In Smith's poem, still speaking in the voice of a 'black girl' acquiring sexuality is seen as a negative, rather than positive transition, a disturbance, rather than a positive act of growth, rather than Morales' voluptuous celebration of hips and garlic in her sense of herself as a Latina. For Smith, becoming a black woman:

It's finding a space between your legs, a disturbance at your chest, and not knowing what to do with the whistles, it's jumping double dutch until your legs pop, it's sweat and Vaseline and bullets, it's growing tall and wearing a lot of white, it's smelling blood in your breakfast, it's learning to say fuck with grace but learning to fuck without it, it's flame and fists and life according to Motown, it's finally having a man reach out for you then caving in around his fingers.

Some aspects of Smith's coming to puberty, like menstruation (referenced in 'smelling blood in one's breakfast) could be said to be common to all women, of course. But the ambiguity of this and other metaphors suggests something sinister as well, as if the author has been brutalized by someone and is smelling blood in her breakfast from a fight, rather than is simply feeling ill after her first period. The fact that black men likewise do not always celebrate black womanhood is underlined by how the black record label Motown highlights a sense of subservience in black women, and indicates that caving in rather than resisting is what is considered beautiful and desirable for black women. Motown counsels that if black women cannot be conventionally beautiful, they must submit. "One of the most prevalent images of black women in antebellum America was of a person governed almost entirely by her libido, a Jezebel character," writes Deborah Gray White in Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South" (Daniels 2009). In Smith's view, black women are regarded as 'wrong' if they are overly sexualized and also wrong if they do not make themselves appear sexual in a conventional manner by straightening their hair. They are wild or ugly, never simply right in their own skin in the eyes of whites and even black males.

"Of skin tone, hair texture, and body type, the color of one's skin is the least easily altered," which black women like Smith must grapple with on a daily basis (Sekyai 2003:1). Even after longing for blue eyes and suffering for straight hair, Smith knows she never quite measures up, not even in the eyes of her own community or in the eyes of African-American males. This sense of inferiority eats away at the soul. There are some positive examples of the black female body in the Smith poem, such as jumping double dutch. But the carefree images of childhood play are immediately undercut with images of young black girls being forced to wear white and dodging bullets.

Smith's poem does not end on a positive, upbeat note like Morales' work. But that does not necessarily mean that her poem is depressing. Rather, through the act of speaking, her poem is an affirmative action of the right of the poet, as a black woman, to express her pain by critiquing the dominant ways both black and white society offer her as a means of self-expression. Both poems, through their catalogued lists of identity in the case of Morales, and Smith's list of self-defining experiences of black girlhood attempt to instruct the reader how to see the poet's identity in a more complex manner, beyond categories and stereotypes.


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