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Race and Gender in American Literature during the 50s and 60s
“To Whom It May Concern, I intoned. Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
– Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
Social history's story is ultimately about processes or systems (such as capitalism or modernization, depending on the theoretical stance of the historian), but it is told through the lives of various groups of people who are ostensible, though not always the actual subject of the narrative. Since social experience or relations of power are embodied everywhere in society, one can choose among a variety of topics, and it is relatively easy to extend the list from workers, peasants, slaves, and elites and diverse occupational or social groups to include women (Kourany, Streba, Tong, 1992). During the Modern Period, Women and African Americans were consistently subjected to marginalizing stereotypes and demoralizing treatment; the Ku Klux Klan ran rampant in the American South, and Women were socially pressured into domesticity; both were subjected to domestic abuse and public humiliation. These social and political characterizations of American culture naturally bled into literature and into the postmodern years following WWII. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” are testaments to this statement—each highlighting separate social struggles, race and gender, in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"
The contemporary philosopher Frantz Fanon argued that “For the Black man, there is only one destiny and it is White” (Buckingham et al., pg. 300). Based on the premises that ideal spectacles of society (whiteness) contradicted the spectacle of the Other (blackness), the Other is left with no choices but to assume the ideals of superiority and reject their otherness (Buckingham et al., pg. 300). This internal struggle for self-identity for the African American individual also represents W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of the color line, which is the veil that separates society from African Americans. For Du Bois, black experience is characterized by the phenomenon of double-consciousness: one white, one black/one superior, one inferior (Macey, pg. 103). Ralph Ellison’s narrator in “Invisible Man” is told by his father that the way to liberation is by embracing certain aspects of whiteness in order to combat racial injustice:
“On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Franklin et al., pg. 2431).
In these lines, Ellison is further arguing Du Bois’ philosophies on the color line—that the African American race will be saved by an “educated tenth”; they must cross the color line in order to eliminate it just as a team of explorers must send the strongest swimmer across a river in order to help everyone— the young and elderly who would be otherwise too weak to cross alone— conquer the obstruction.
Broad Historical Context: Racial Inequality
The setting of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is during the Modern Period, characterized by extreme political hypocrisy; injustices perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow Laws (among others) slid on quietly until the 1950s when elitists finally met firm Civil Rights resistance in landmark legal cases such as Brown vs Board of Education. During the 1960s, Gunnar Myrdal of the University of Stockholm and a large staff of sociologists, historians, economists, political scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other specialists for the Carnegie Corporation of New York published major scholarly research such as “Myth of the Negro Past,” “Patterns of Negro Segregation,” and “Characteristics of the American Negro,” which collectively illustrated a common conclusion: the treatment of African Americans was America’s greatest scandal and that the almost universal rejection of them was America’s outstanding denial of its own profession of faith in the equality of humanity (Franklin, Moss, pg. 472).
The Problem with No Name
Even though the portrayal of African American equality was ultimately a sham since they were emancipated and granted freedom during the 19th century, light was shed into the social issues of African Americans over the course of the 20th century and achieved political momentum in the 1950s. An unheralded social group, however, went on with little attention and thus truly epitomizing Ellison’s idea of cultural invisibility: American women. Virginia Woolf was one of the few lone wolves on the woman’s literary avant-garde for feminism and creating a distinctly female literary tradition. Female agency, when analyzed in the duality of influence between politics and gender, became not the recounting of great deeds performed by women, but the exposure of the often silent and hidden operations of gender which are nonetheless present and defining forces of politics and political life (Kourany, Streba, Tong, 1992). Even so, heavy social chains weighed down women during the Modern and Postmodern Periods in the United States. As Betty Friedan said in her “Feminine Mystic,” woman’s subversive role in a patriarchal society was “the problem with no name”; that is cultural invisibility!
Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie"
The marginalizing of women functions through gender roles: Social structures designed to condition and assign men and women distinctly different social attitudes and preferences. Simone de Beauvoir in 1949, anticipated many concerns of the gender-sex debate when she remarked, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman” (Macey, pg. 156). In other words, man is defined as a human being, whereas a woman is defined as a female (Buckingham et al., pg. 276). Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” effectively explores this social dynamic and patriarchal silencing of women through domesticity. For instance, domesticity is the selling point Laura’s mother emphasizes to her gentleman caller: “It’s rare for a girl as sweet an’ pretty as Laura to be domestic! But Laura is, thank heavens, not only pretty but also very domestic” (Williams, 1944). Clearly appearance and femininity are Laura’s defining characteristics, which are ironically referred to later as a “pretty trap.” But furthermore, Laura’s mother tries to educate Laura in what to look for in her potential suitors: “Character’s what to look for in a man” (Williams, 1944). In juxtaposition between the defining characteristics of a woman and the defining characteristics of a man, Williams is hinting towards Beauvoir’s claim: it is indeed the case women must be inferior to men! It is also important to note, these gender roles assigned to women and men were socially pressured upon them and how well they conformed and exemplified their role was the measurement of how good a wife or husband, male or female, they would be seen as from society.
Broad Historical Context: Gender Inequality
In the 1940s even the spunky female stars of the 1930s, like Joan Crawford, became domesticated and took photographs of themselves mopping floors for publicity (Aries, Duby, pg. 579). By the 1950s, the vast majority of white middle-class and working-class Americans conformed as best they could to the prevailing ideology, marrying young, having several children, and defining themselves first and foremost as homemakers or breadwinners (Aries, Duby, pg. 581). It was not until the 1960s when this powerful domestic ideology, which represented the ideal image of society—the successful and happy American family, came under scrutiny and thus shedding light into the blights of the private lives of American women. Feminism was the manifestation of these early uncertainties. Heralded literary critics such as Harold Bloom investigated the history of the literary woman author, as well as Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert’s masterpiece of literary criticism, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” which essentially established the first concrete foundation in support of a distinctively female literary tradition (Riederer, Class Discussion). Employment patterns began transforming and women’s political voice began to speak up over issues such as abortion and sexuality.
By the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans and American women had already experienced social injustices and public humiliations. Before World War II, racial and gender issues made leaps of progress, but not without hard fought battles resulting in many sacrifices, beatings, deaths, lynching’s, and torment. Both African Americans and women were oppressed under the same system, but under different social circumstances; African Americans were bracketed outside cultural norms by the color line, whereas women were marginalized by domesticity perpetrated by patriarchy. Nevertheless, both groups found a common sympathy: cultural invisibility. Both African Americans and women were effectively silenced through the Modern Period; neither group achieved a firm political stance with the power to fight back oppression until the 1950s and 1960s when the myths of the American family came to light with the ugly truths of reality.
Aries, P., Duby, G. (1991). A history of private life: Riddles of identity in modern times (2nd Ed., Vol. 5). Cambridge, MA; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Buckingham, W., Burnham, D., Hill, C., King, P., Marenbon, J., Weeks, M. (2011). In The philosophy book: Big ideas simply explained (1 ed., pp. 198, 276, 300-301). New York, NY: DK Publishing
Franklin et al. (2008). The norton anthology of american literature. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Franklin J., Moss Jr. A. (2000). From slavery to freedom: A history of African americans (ed. 8, vol. 2). New York, NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Kourany, J., Sterba, J., and Tong, R. (1992). Feminist philosophies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Macey, D. (2000). Dictionary of critical theory. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Williams, T. (1944). The glass menagerie. Retrieved from http://staff.bcc.edu/faculty_websites/jalexand/Williams--The_Glass_Menagerie.htm