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Social & Cultural Criticism
Essential Questions: How do the effects of racism impact an individual's worldview, self-concept, and self esteem?
A study of ethnicity and identity would be incomplete without discussion of social oppression, such as racism, ethnocentrism, and sexism, and their significant impacts on an individual’s worldview, self-concept, and self-esteem. The process of discrimination involves the construction of stereotypes and differences. In analyzing the literature, you will consider the kinds of prevailing stereotypes of the ethnic group being studied and explore how differences are emphasized, treated as significant, and then employed by our society to justify and perpetuate inequality. A key element here is the way difference becomes defined as defective or inferior and then is used to justify the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity. Exploring the complex nature of the dominant and subordinate power structure in the United States is significant to understanding how the development of both dominant and subordinate group members are influenced by White racism in the United States.
Social and cultural criticism usually involves making connections between issues within and outside the text and historical/cultural events. Fiction, Poetry, and Drama can examine topics that connect to the real world issues which all of us face. A story, a poem, or a play can convey a message about social attitudes, social background, sex, class, ethnicity, power,and privilege. Authors write works at a specific time, surrounded by specific circumstances and attitudes. Even if the story does not refer directly to events or attitudes contemporary to the writing, those attitudes influence the writer and the story, whether she or he accepts and reflects prevailing attitudes, or ignores, rejects, or challenges them. For example, in "Daughter of Invention," Julia Alvarez writes of the cultural and generational tensions faced by a young girl as she tries to find a place in U.S. society. "Sonny's Blues" is an examination of different sides of the African- American experience and a critique of racism.
Select one story and write an analytical paragraph that explains what particular aspect of our culture and society is being criticized. Do not summarize, rather your paragraph should address the question "Why?" For example, why has Sonny and his brother's experience of racism affected each so differently?
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The aspect of Sonny and the narrator’s culture of being African American in Harlem (their society) is being criticized. The story Sonny’s Blues takes place in 1957 in Harlem, New York. World War 2 had just ended around this setting time and the blacks throughout the country were all for civil rights. They all wanted freedom among every race. However, before the civil rights movement was put into effect life was different and difficult for many races besides the white race. Sonny and the narrator’s experience of racism affected each differently. The narrator taught algebra, and on the other hand Sonny got arrested for heroin use. The fact of being affected by racism can shape a person. Besides for race, I feel like their age difference also affected them. The narrator says “The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm.” (Page 313) In turn, their age difference made them therefore hang out with different crowds. The different crowds of people they went to school with may have brought the issue of racism differently into their lives. Sonny probably experienced more racism comments and hurt growing up. For example, when the narrator was talking to Sonny’s friend about Sonny’s arrest his friend said, “when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I had anything to do with it. I felt sort of responsible.” (Page 311) The crowd Sonny decided to hang out with because of either racial comments or racial comfort influenced him to go down the “wrong road.” The narrator must have had a better group of friends. Even though they grew up together in the same house and are brothers, their culture was criticized. Sonny had to deal with the worst of it in my opinion. The affect of his culture lead him down the wrong path in life. Racial comments and criticism can affect individuals differently and the story Sonny’s Blues proves it.
One student speculated that perhaps the father's early death leaving Sonny without a male presence left him more vulnerable. The narrator was also not present andwas serving in the army. Sonny lived with Isabel's family and felt quite alone. The time of the civil rights movement was a very violent and dangerous time for Blacks.
P/R Kiow Sharpe: Meghan I thoroughly agree with you that racial comments and criticism can affect individuals differently. But, in my opinion the differences between the brothers is more than just age. The narrator was informed of the disasters that were around. Sonny perceived himself to be the disaster. Racial criticism and stereotyping kept the brothers at a distance. The narrator found ways to channel the negative criticism and not become a statistic. Whereas, Sonny wasn’t able to see himself being anything other than what society expected. Tell me wouldn’t you think that if Sonny knew the history of his family and why he was treated differently he would have a different outlook?
I like what you say about Sonny perceiving himself as the disaster and having a weaker coping mechanism.
Leah Smith- In the story Sonny's Blues the issues of racism and how it can change a person's life are very clear. Growing up in a time where white people were the dominant race, Sonny and the narrator had alot of hard things to deal with. Although the narrator seems like he has tried to blend in and deal with the harsh affects of racism, his brother Sonny deals with the pain very differently. He deals with his pain by using drugs and playing music. That was his way of channeling his anger towards society and how they treat black people. His brother, the narrator, was seven years older then Sonny, making that a huge reason for the differences in the way that racism has affected them. By growing up in different times, hanging out with different groups of people, and making bad decisons, Sonny has ended up on the wrong road. The differences in their lives were so great that they seem like two different people. The way that racism affected the narrator was extremly different from that of Sonnys.
I can see how different groups of friends can influence a person's direction but I also think how one's life is affected by racism can be traced to intrinsic (within the individual) factors and not just external factors.
P/R Linh Long:I like the statement you made about how the narrator "has tried to blend in and deal with the harsh affects of racism." It is true that the narrator is adapting to the racism world even he is subconsciouly doing so. I also agree with you on how the enivironment of society affect a person. People do deal with racism differently like the narrator and his brother. However, do you think the history of a person culture has an impact on them too? Way before they were Black-American their ancestors were from Africa which lead to the civil war. Thats why there is a little tension in the story between the two races. I think in "Sonny's Blue" the narrator is being racism against his own brother for he looks down at him and blind to see his brother's struggles. I do not see much between the white and the black. You stated that Sonny "deals with his pain by using drugs and playing music." but I took it as Sonny was trying to escape drugs. Thats why he wanted to moved out from Harlem for Sonny knows it will get him in to trouble which it did. Even they are seven years different they both are living in the same enivornment and seeing almost the same people in thier neighborhood. I think the parent plays a big role to Sonny decisiion of choice too. Putting some quotes can help support your idea more.
You have an interesting idea about how the narrator's attitude towards Sonny is also racist in a way. This is an idea you should develop. It would make for a very interesting thesis.
P/R Ben: Leah, I enjoyed reading your analysis of “Sonny’s Blues”. I agree that the reason for the many differences between the narrator and Sonny is how they were raised, Seven years is a big difference when you’re growing up with someone. I also liked how you said that the narrator was just trying to “blend” into society while Sonny didn’t follow the same path. Yet I have two comments; was their age difference the only thing that make them so different or was it because the narrator was a “mom’s boy” and that Sonny was raised more by their father. The second is when you said “
The way that racism affected the narrator was extremely different from that of Sonny’s.
”, did racism really affect them differently or is it the different ways that they dealt with it? Good job on your post.
Your comments about their different personalities is insightful. Sonny was more like his father. "But the principal reason that they never hit it off is that they were so much alike....they both had--that same privacy" (315).
Racism happens everyday, an even if you think that you are not adding to it chances are you are subconsciously doing so. Here in America everyone has agreed to equality, but we all know in reality there will always be a little bit on inequality in the world. In the book, “Daughter of Invention” the family has escaped from the
because of their evil dictator,
who abused laws and force them from their land during 1930-1961. The parents of that family decided they no longer wanted to live in fear so the moved to America . Once in America the daughter said, “We wanted to become Americans and father and my mother at first- would have none of it. (Tan 13). From this it sounds as if she had a hard time accepting both the Dominican and American cultures at the same time. A conflict also came between her parents about the two
. Her parents disagreements on being American troubled here. It was hard for her to feel comfortable in school and to feel accepted. “Those kids were throwing stones today!” (Tan 13). This led to her feeling of discomfort in the school environment and their mother yelled at them in English. I feel the mother is trying to also accept the new culture by forcing herself to speak English with her daughters. She feels the need to catch up with them. One of her daughters belittles her mother because she thinks her crazy mother pays more attention to her “pointless” invention than their cultural problems at hand. I take it that mother’s invention is something she wants to use to help support her family financially in America . In her country she not be more than a wife and mother, but here in America she was given an opportunity to be more than that. The reason the mother didn’t make a big deal about the stones being thrown at her is because she realized she had been through a lot worse.
Tan is not the author here, it is Alvarez. Your point about the daughter having to deal with racism on both sides is an insightful one--the white kids at school and her parents' reluctance to become American are two sides of the racist coin.
P/R Leah Smith- I liked the way you used quotes to support your ideas on the story Daughter of Invention. The way you described the story and what you got from it helped me understand where you were coming from and how your thoughts were formed. I also felt that the daughters in the story felt as though their mothers silly idea's were useless and a waste of time.
Although the daughters felt the mother's inverntions were silly, the narrator's perspective is that this activity gave the mother a sense of importance.
Carlie: People tend to think that racism is still not strong amongst us, but in reality it is. In the story, "Sonny's Blues," the narrator and his brother Sonny were raised in the same environment, but took different paths. The boys were seven years apart and when their parents died, their relationship changed from brothers to father and son. It seemed as though the narrator never wanted to be in Sonny's world. Sonny lived with his sister and law and her parents. When he asked Sonny what he wanted to be, he questioned his dreams and thought Sonny could be something more. I think that the narrator became a teacher to make something more of himself than just a black male living in Harlem. Even though he didn't change his environment, he became something more. However, Sonny chose the different path, and became addicted to heroin. When the narrator became aware of his uncle's racist murder, it doesn't seem as if Sonny knew about it. This is what changed their perspectives of living in general. At the night club, it was if the narrator looked into his brother's world for the first time. He now understood him, not knowing before what he was thinking. "And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky." The narrator realized that there will always be suffering. Bad things always come, but you have to move on. There has been racism for hundreds of years, and unfortunately years to come. Sometimes people tend to forget that everybody was born equal no matter if they are a man or a woman or if they are black or white. Victim's struggle but this is how life remains.
You're right about the narrator never wanting to be in Sonny's world. Somehow the mother knew Sonny would need an older brother to catch him when he fell. The mother told the story of his uncle so that the narrator would "let him know you's
" (318) but it took a while for the narrator to figure out what Sonny needed.
P/R Dany Mot: Carlie, I like the way you pointed out the differences between the narrator and Sonny. You gave many points to support what make them different and have different perspectives. However, I see that in the beginning and at the end of your paragraph was about racism, but in the middle of the paragraph, you talked about how the narrator was different from Sonny. What point are you trying to make in this paragraph? Do you want to talk about racism or the differences between the narrator and Sonny? Most of your points didn’t relate to racist they experienced, except when the narrator knew his uncle got killed by white men. I think you should clarify your point by choosing and focusing on only one point. Also, you should make your paragraph more analysis. I think your paragraph is more summary than analysis right now.
You make some good points about focusing on one main idea. Yes, analysis is what I want.
Ben: Racism isn’t a characteristic that we are born with, it is something we learn. Some people learn to be racist from their parents or their grandparents and from where you live. Most people show their racism by what they say or by their actions but some people don’t say or do anything racist but they are still racist. When someone is ignorant about their family history or current circumstance, you could argue that they are just as racist as any other racist. In “Everyday Use”, Mama and Maggie live a simple life in south while Dee lives in a modern city. Mama knows that she was born to work, “I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” “I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man” (110). There is no question that she knows how to work but she does not care where her family came from. Mama’s family is from slave origins and even in the 1960’s, Mama continues the stereotype and continues her and Maggie’s simple life. But when Dee comes to visit, Dee explains to Mama and Maggie that times have changed and that they could start a different life that wasn’t centered on their slave history, "You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it."(116). Even though that Mama didn’t say anything racist, her ignorance about what is going on around her makes her just as racist as anyone else.
That's an interesting point of view. Mama did not have the benefit of education so she wasn't aware that her life was "disadvantaged." She lived the only way she knew how. Dee, on the other hand was given much more. Is mama's ignorance a form of reverse racism? meaning that she accepted her poor lot in life unlike Dee who actively resisted it?
P/R Meghan: Ben, I enjoy how you open up with the intellectual thought of a person being taught to be racist, not the idea of being born racist. You also provide examples to show how people are taught this concept. I like the quotes you selected to prove your point of Mama and Dee’s different ideas, and the main overall idea that Mama applies racism to her family’s culture by not changing her views of just being a slave. I do agree with this portion (in particular) of your paragraph: “But when Dee comes to visit, Dee explains to Mama and Maggie that times have changed and that they could start a different life that wasn’t centered on their slave history, "You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it."(116). Even though that Mama didn’t say anything racist, her ignorance about what is going on around her makes her just as racist as anyone else.” I strongly agree that Mama’s silence and ignorance really proved that she allowed the racism to occur and didn’t try to stop it. One question I have for you is: do you think Maggie is just a follower to Mama or truly agrees with Mama’s thoughts? Great job on your posting
Good comment.I couldn't have put it any better.
Sokcheath Ros: Civil War ended a hundred of years ago, but racism and discrimination against black people still exists strongly all over the United States. Although the United States’ constitution says that black people and white people have equal rights, Black people are still suffered in white people’s society. For instance, in the story “Sonny’s Blue” written by James Baldwin, shows the reader about how racism affects Sonny and his mother’s world view. In the beginning of the story, the narrator’s uncle was run over by a car driven by a group of drunken white men. They drove off without looking back. His death affected on narrator’s mother’s view on white people. She told the narrator that, “I ain’t telling you all this to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody. I’m telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed” (318). She told the narrator to look out for his brother, sonny because she afraid Sonny would get killed by those white men her husband’s brother. She thinks that all the white men are racists. Also Sonny tries to escape from Harlem because he was afraid if he would addict to drugs again. He feels that Harlem is not safe for him. Narrator states how Sonny afraid of living in Harlem anymore, “There was something in his eyes I’d never seen before, some thoughtfulness, some worry all his own” (321). Therefore, racism has a great impact on Sonny and his mother’s world view and their self esteem and self-concept.
Racism had a negative, destructive impact on their lives. Why do you think the narrator was not affected in the same way?
P/r Liam McKnight: Sokcheath did a great job using a specific example from a story to illustrate his point. I like how he used it to really drive home his point. Also it was very good how he analyzed with his paragraph and didnt summarize at all, that made it alot easier for me to feel as a reader. Sokcheath also had great use of quotes and i like how he put the page number in there for me to use as reference. The only thing I would suggest for Sokcheath to improve would be his grammar, to fix the grammatical errors in his paragraph. I know that is a trouble for him sometimes but other than that he did a great job and I enjoyed his paragraph.
Sokcheath offered some analysis on how racism affected the mother and Sonny's worldview, what do you think about how racism affected the narrator?
, takes place after the civil rights movement, and it touches on the effects that racism can cause in a generation. During that period in time, African Americans found it hard to advance. Segregation,stereotyping,as well as, social and economic class forced a majority of hard-working African Americans into low-income public housing. Optimism for African-American people was improbable.The hands of racism scarred many mentally and physically. Sonny and his brother both are affected by racism in different ways but yes, they were both affected. "Some escaped the trap, most didn't those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in a trap." (Baldwin 316)The brother was aware of the world and was equipped with enough knowledge of his surroundings to advance amidst the destruction of his environment. The brother saw the negative effects racism had on the father and opted for change. He strived to overcome the negativity of his environment rather than succuming. Sonny on the other hand was sheltered from the truth; he was unaware of what afflicted his family. His parents, handicapped him from the pain of racism and by doing so, he became distressed. Furthermore, stereotyping kept Sonny and his family from connecting. His parents were unable to guide him cause of his likeliness to his father. They stereotyped him and never expected him to accomplish much. He like many others affected choose to find solace in groups and in cultures that do not judge or profile. For Sonny it was easier to get-along instead of working hard to overcome.
Wow! you are very persuasive.
Dany Mot: Now a day, many people think that there is no more social and cultural criticism. In fact, there is still, and everywhere. Nobody is treated equally whether it was in the past or it is in the present. We can prove this in many literatures. In “Daughter of Invention”, we can consider that racism and sexism were two impacted aspects which affected the narrator and her mother. For instance, the narrator’s statement, “We’re not going to that school anymore Mami!...You want us to get killed? Those kids were throwing stones today!” (p.12), “….Here we were trying to fit in America among Americans; we needed help figuring out who we were, why these Irish kids were calling us spics” (p.14), also “….But in New York, I needed to settle somewhere, and the natives were unfriendly, the country inhospitable” (p.15). Based on these statements, racist impacted the daughters’ self-concept and self-esteem. These sound like the daughters were giving up and feeling disappointed living in the U.S. It was not easy for them to encounter the racism and fit in American society. Because they were from Dominican Republic, which both language and culture were different from American’s; they felt uncomfortable to get involved in these society. They might feel segregate from their schoolmates when they were attacked because they had different skins and their English were not good. In addition, the story also showed about the different sex roles between Latin and American society impose on men and women. In American society, women were more freedom than Latin’s. Woman could go to work and decide on many things as men. But in Dominican Republic, woman could be only a wife and a mother. They had no rights to make decision on anything. This can prove in the narrator’s statement, “But my mother had gotten used to the life here. She did not want to go back to the old country where she was only a wife and a mother (and a failed one at that, since she had never had the required son)” (p.16). According to this statement, the sexism in D.P changed the mother’s worldview; she appreciated the freedom she enjoyed in America. So, racism and sexism are two aspects of social and cultural criticism which impact on individual’s worldview, self-concept, and self-esteem.
Yes, there is criticism of racism and sexism in this story. Sometimes your sentence structure is a little confusing.
P/R Carlie: Your paragraph is a great analyzation of the story. I completely agree with the mother just wanting her own freedom. However I think that the use of quotations is a little confusing and they should be spread out, and used to make a point. Also, the father was greatly influenced by his past. Maybe you could have focused on that also. It is a great paragraph and I really enjoyed the insight.
I agree about the quotes. A writer should uses them sparingly.
Racism has been around for a long time and it still exist today. In the story "Sonny's Blues" the characters are greatly affected by the discrimination against black people. Where they live they are sterotyped to fail, and growing up in a white mans world being black doesn't make it any easier. I feel as though racisim is much more than just skin deep its about how you look, speak,dress, it about what you have, and how you present yourself. I feel as though racisim is just a way of showing fear, when you show racism your judging something you don't know.
Sterotypes and racism go hand in hand. Racism is based in fear of "the other." When someone is discriminated against because of physical appearance such as dress, it could be racist or a class issue.
P/R: Sokcheath Ros: Natasha, your paragraph defined what the racism and stereotype mean. And i also agree with your idea about "racism is just a way of showing fear, when you show racism your judging something you don't know". It's true. Before, you judge somebody, you should learn more about that person. However, I don't understand about how stereotype fail characters in Sonny Blue? I think Sonny was into drug because where he grew up were surrounded by violence and drug, and he need someone to advise him, someone to help him get through it. Furthermore, you should use the quote from the story to support your information.
Good comments. Some quotes would help support Natasha's statement.
Liam McKnight: Racism is still alive in the USA today. Although it isnt as out in the open or as strong as it once was, there is still a level of segregation in this country at times. I think the story of "the lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara illustrated this well. The neighborhood that the kids in this story grew up in was a lower-class all black neighborhood in New York. There werent any white people in this neighborhood and all the kids were shocked when brought to a expensive toy store that mostly whites shopped at. It was a culture shock for them to see the prices at this toy store and seeing mostly white people shopping there, it really illustrated how seperated these african-american's were in their social and economical state when compared to the white men that were in this part of town. That is a big thing in my opinion, segregation isnt what it used to be where they have seperate bathrooms or water fountains for blacks, but they still segregate by neighborhoods and economics in a lot of ways and that is unfortunate, I thought the lesson illustrated that very well.
You're right. Look at Lowell as an example. What are the neighborhoods? Where do the immigrants live? Where do the rich white people live. Good insights.
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