Inequality in America throughout the Ages
Centuries ago the United States of America was first colonized by people seeking relief of religious persecution. Their ideals were the basis for American government and, eventual, independence from Europe. As America grew so did its racial diversity and a complex social structure. Minority races, both indigenous and foreign, such as African Americans, especially slaves, American Indians, and Asian Americans were at the bottom of society. Although America claimed and continues to be hailed as the idealistic “Land of the Free,” it was anything but. Langston Hughes saw this unfair claim and exposed it in his 1938 poem, “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes challenges that the optimistic freedom America symbolizes. He states:
(America never was America to me.)…
(It never was America to me.)…
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)…
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
These lines emphasize the inequality of freedom in America for minority races and challenges America’s representation as the “Land of the Free.” This focus on oppression in America is also a dominate theme for writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Sherman Alexie, and Sui Sin Far. Collectively, this small group of writers from different time periods adequately portrays the United States of America as a land where the freedom of minority groups is greatly oppressed by the Anglo majority.
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The first racially oppressed group Hughes talks about is “the Negro,” or more appropriately, African Americans; therefore, Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1960 poem, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” will be analyzed first. While America was still young, most African Americans came to the United States through the slave trade. With time slavery was outlawed and African Americans had supposedly earned their freedom; however, this is quite untrue in many respects. Violence arose among the Anglo and African American races. Presumably innocent African Americans died at the hand of their Anglo oppressors. Emmett Till was a “fourteen-year-old African American boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly ‘leering’ at a white woman” (1365). His unjustified death is depicted in Brooks’ melancholy poem as an extreme hardship for his mother to bear; however, the overall tone of the poem is quite calm. It recounts the physical features of Till’s mother and the things she does after he is dead. But the last lines, “Chaos in windy grays/ through a red prairie,” are a reminder of the excessive measures taken by Anglo men to punish such a young man and the eventual retribution those deeds must face. Till’s death is often associated with the later Civil Rights Movement, in which African Americans demanded equal rights in accordance to the Constitution of the United States of America. Brooks’ portrayal of the affects of his “murder” on not only his mother but future generations highlights the oppression African Americans felt at the time.
In addition to African Americans, Hughes also refers to the oppression of “the red man driven from the land,” also known as American Indians, and Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, published in 1995, exposes this oppression. Before the Europeans began arriving in the Americas, American Indians thrived on this land; however, over time this once plentiful race began to slowly diminish in both quantity and quality of life. Alexie brings forth these notions through his somewhat ambitious American Indian characters living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The all American Indian band “Coyote Springs” is the quintessential American dream. Like a good majority of Americans both now and in the past, they want to become rich, famous, and influential. But their dream is cut short while auditioning for Cavalry Records in New York City. The storyline ends short of realizing the American dream because Alexie acknowledges that in all actuality the American dreams of American Indians usually do not become reality. American Indians were placed on reservations by Anglos and many never leave. The oppression initially felt by American Indians centuries ago by Anglo settlers still radiates through generations today. Even if Victor has Robert Johnson’s magical guitar, and even if Chess and Thomas can sing a duet better than any two people before them, and even if the whole groups gets music lessons from Big Mom, their fate as failures has been sealed for centuries due to the lack of equality for American Indians. The poverty stricken lands given to them by the United States government confine their generations to a lifetime of failure. Furthermore, the replacement of Betty and Veronica as promotional rock stars for Cavalry Records illustrates the incessant victory of Anglos over American Indians. The crash of “Coyote Springs” is a metaphor Alexie uses to demonstrate the oppression American Indians have faced in the past and continue to face.
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Although Sui Sin Far is a much earlier writer than the afore mentioned Brooks and Alexie, her 1912 short story, “In the Land of the Free,” is a satisfactory representation of the last minority group in Hughes’ poem, “the immigrant,” and must, therefore, be discussed last. America was founded mostly by immigrants who came from all over the world; however, after the initial colonization of America by primarily European settlers, the social status of immigrants to the United States became synonymous with the lower class population. In Sui Sin Far’s short story the family’s status in American society versus Chinese society is mainly determined through their language. Prior to arriving in San Francisco, Lae Choo, the mother and protagonist of the story, speaks in very proper, educated Chinese dialect. After her and her infant son’s arrival, she speaks in very poor broken English. It is clear that her place in Chinese society is quite high but she is considered to be in the very lower class society in the United States. This conclusion is highlighted by the fact that her infant son is taken away for several months because of the absence of his citizenship papers. Understandably, the proper paperwork should be in order for all immigrants seeking to come to or permanently reside in the United States; nonetheless, taking a child away for prolonged periods of time is uncalled for and would most likely not have happened to higher class citizens. The inequality displayed toward this family of immigrants in “In the Land of the Free” is uncalled for and underscores the inequality of freedom for immigrants in the United States.
The discrimination of African Americans, American Indians, and immigrants is unjustified and immoral. Racial prejudice in all forms in the United States brings forth animosity amongst Americans and sets forth a bad example for subsequent generations. The inequality in the execution of innate rights, such as freedom, produces citizens of all races who fight to protect these inherent rights. Langston Hughs is one such fighter. He wrote, “America never was America to me.” This line goes against all that America stands for. America should be America for all races, regardless of origin or social status. Minority races should not live in fear of majority races. Oppression and racism should not permeate any one race. America should be, without protest, “The Land of the Free.” We can achieve this by working together as one Nation and, ultimately, one World, rather than as individuals or as individual races. Working together will get us farther than being divided.
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