The Struggle of Finding a Home in African-american Literature
The “American Dream” connotes a vision of a house with a white picket fence, a place of warmth and family, a secure place to lay one’s head at night, a place to just be. Much of African-American literature since the 1900’s demonstrates that the quest of a “home” for most African-Americans, complicated by racism, segregation, and oppression, becomes a frustrating and nearly impossible dream.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” Delia permits her husband Sykes’ unemployment and infidelity; she even allows him to bring a snake onto the premises regardless of her fear of the creature, but Delia balks at the thought of giving up her home. The title of the story describes the work ethic of Delia which is further demonstrated in her discussion with the errant and selfish Sykes, “Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!” (Hurston 1023). When Sykes refers to the house as “his” in saying that he did not want white people’s clothes in his house, Delia quickly and hotly reminds him that it is her “sweat… [that has] paid for this house” (Hurston 1023). Even as Delia comes to realize that it is too late to worry over her relationship with Sykes she realizes that she can never give up “her little home. She had it built for her old days, [she had] planted…the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely” (Hurston 1024).
Richard Wright’s “Long Black Song” also describes the struggle to have a home in the rural South. “Long Black Song” is set shortly after World War II and tells the story of Sarah and Silas, so poor they “ain got not money t be fixin no clocks” (Wright 1422). Although Silas does not fill the space in her heart left by Tom, Sarah is grateful to Silas for “[giving] her her own home… more than many others had done for their women” (1431). Silas has slaved for “ten years…t git [his] farm free” (1433) and is proud to finally be doing well enough to hire another hand to work his farm. But both Sarah and Silas’ dream of a home and farm owned free and clear turns nightmare as a result of an interaction with a white man. Whether Sarah is raped, has sex willingly, or merely acquiesces, the fact infuriates Silas who has fought too long to be his own man. In his article “Charles W. Chestnutt’s ‘The Web Of Circumstance’ and Richard Wright’s ‘Long Black Song’: The Tragedy of Property” suggests that “a Black Man’s attempt to participate fully in the white economic system might very well lead to tragedy” (Delmar). Silas encounter with the white men results in the death of one of them. Knowing the white men will be back for vengeance, his choice comes down to running away and giving up his home or to stay and surely give up his life. Despising the whites, he sends Sarah and the baby elsewhere and chooses to stay and die with his self-respect and on his own grounds.
In his article, “Pro & Con: “The Great Sharecropper Success Story,” Nicholas Lemann discusses the failure and success of “the overall transition of black America from being three-quarters rural to three-quarters urban in the half-century from 1910 to 1960” (Lemann). Lemann finds that the migrations did not always result in better personal circumstances for African-Americans. Langston Hughes’ two poems “Madam and the Rent Man” and “Ballad of the Landlord” both show the beginnings of ghettoization and indifferent slum lords. The speakers in both poems cite numerous, even hazardous and unsanitary conditions in their rented residences only to find that the landlords and rent agents are only concerned with the collection of money not with providing reasonable repairs. In “Madam and the Rent Man” an agent of the landlord comes by to collect the rent. While insisting that he must have the rent, Madam explains that “The sink is broke, / The water don’t run… Back window’s cracked, / Kitchen floor squeaks, / [and] There’s rats in the cellar, /And the attic leaks” (Madam 11-18). She points out that she had raised these concerns previously and yet neither “rent man” nor land lord “done a thing… [they] promised to’ve done” (Madam 13-14). While Madam ultimately refuses to pay, the poem ends with the frustration of both her and the rentman, an ironic note of agreement. “Ballad of the Landlord” takes a similar idea a step further. As the speaker refuses to pay a landlord for similar faulty conditions, the landlord threatens the speaker with eviction. The speaker reacts by threatening the landlord with bodily harm. Frustratingly, police involvement does not result in the landlord’s enforced repairs, but instead results in headlines that read “TENANT HELD NO BAIL / JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL” (Ballad 32-33).
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is about a working-class and poor family. The drama, set “sometime between World War II and the present” (Hansberry 1772), takes place in a Southside Chicago ghetto. Michelle Gordon, in her article entitled “Somewhat Like War: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun,” says that “Hansberry directly engages crises produced by ghetto economies and dehumanizing living conditions” (Gordon 123). The five member Younger family is nearly living on top of each other in a two bedroom apartment where the varying personalities begin to wear on each other. The tiny apartment was never supposed to be a permanent situation. Mama explains how she and Big Walter, upon their marriage, hadn’t “planned on living here no more than a year… [They were] going to set away [money], little by little, and buy a little place…. [They] even picked out the house” (1.1). As children came along and finances tightened the dream had faded. With the next generation Ruth has the same thoughts and bemoans how the dream of “the way [she and Walter] were going to live [is] starting to slip away” (2.1). Mama decides to buy a house so that they can have enough space for the new baby that Ruth carries, but not without reservations. While Mama buys a house they can afford, it is in a white neighborhood, and despite the attempts of the white neighborhood to buy them off, they make the move anyway. Hansberry almost ends on a happy note as the family reverts to their everyday squabbling, but their future seems perilous. More than likely they will encounter extreme and possibly violent reaction to their presence in a white neighborhood.
In 1943 A.H. Maslow wrote his paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he posits that human beings most basic needs begins with physiological needs such as food, water, and sleep. Once these basic needs are met, human beings tend to look for safety. Shelter or a secure home is part of this need for safety. The quest for a secure home then becomes a need that must be essentially satisfied before human beings can consider the need for love and belonging, or the next step, esteem, and the final step, self-actualization. “Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of prepotency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more prepotent need…. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives” (Maslow 370). Further, he discusses how the chronic “deprivation” (Maslow 375) of any particular need not only becomes the sole focus of a human being, but causes major psychological trauma.
If it can be conceded that the African-American literature examined in this article is a fair representation of society, then it becomes evident that racism, oppression, and segregation has impeded many African-Americans from finding a safe and secure environment in which to live. Denying the basic need of safe and secure shelter, the stepping-stone to other needs, then prevents an entire culture from achieving its full potential, certainly a major fault in American society.
Delmar, P. Jay. “Charles W. Chestnutt’s ‘The Web of Circumstance’ and Richard Wright’s ‘Long Black Song’: The Tragedy of Property.” Studies in Short Fiction 17.2 (1980): 178-181. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
Gordon, Michelle. “Somewhat Like War: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun.” African American Review 42.1 (n.d.): 121-133. Arts & Humanities Citation Index. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004.1771-1830. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Madam and the Rentman.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004. 1304. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Ballad of the Landlord.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004. 1302-1303. Print.
Hurston, Nora Zeale. “Sweat.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004. 1022-30. Print.
Wright, Richard. “Long Black Song.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004.1419-36. Print.
Lemann, Nicholas. “Pro & Con: “The Great Sharecropper Success Story.” Public Interest 105 (1991): 107-22. ERIC. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Maslow, A. H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review 50.4 (1943): 370-396. PsycARTICLES. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.
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