This essay highlights the long history of colonization and subaltern experience of the African American community in the U.S. For validating the argument, Suzan-Lori Parks’ selected works are closely analyzed.
Suzan-Lori Parks is an African American writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner for drama in 2002. Her two plays, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990), Topdog/Underdog (2001) and a poem “U Being U” (2009) reflect the race relations in the contemporary multi-racial and multi-cultural American society. The U.S President, Barack Obama recently spoke on the National African American History Month Proclamation, 2012 and said, “The story of African Americans is the story of resilience and perseverance”. The statement is all the more relevant today as we are on the threshold of the 57th United States presidential election that is due on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.
In the past and the present, all the subalterns groups across the globe, for example, Africans under European colonialism, Algerians under French occupation, Dalits in India, African Americans in the United States, women under Taliban regime, and many more have undergone neglect in the domains of politics, economy and in fact all social decision making. Just as the Indian history is a witness to the practice of untouchability in the caste based Indian society, similarly the American history stands evidence to the subjection and slavery of the black community.
The African American community has undergone differential and marginalized treatment because of the darker colour of their race and subsequent racial discrimination. “U Being U” is a personal poem that was written by Suzan-Lori Parks on January 19, 2009. The occasion for writing this lyric was the eve of Barack Obama’s oath taking ceremony as the first African American president of the United States of America. The text presents the condition of subalternity that the community has experienced throughout the progress of the history. The poem is optimistic in vision and approach:
U Being U
Mr. President-Elect . . .
Makes me want to look on others with respect
Makes me wanna
practice Radical Inclusion, you know,
Open my heart wide, especially in the presence of folks who
Are not like me, you know,
work to see my Brother
In the Other . . .
And know that, like You, I too am Prized.
And to those who say yr a Magic Negro,
I love them just the same
And my love helps us weave a United States . . .
The text of this poem stands apart from the canonical literary writings because the poet’s focus here is on the activities of those relegated to the peripheries by the state. It lay bares the deepest emotions and sincere intentions of the poet’s mind. In the United States, subaltern studies has co-existed and contested the dominant, white, supremacist tradition of history. This enterprise brings the questions of voice, agency and resistance to the fore. It is the writing that ‘comes from below’, from the strata of society that is considered inferior in terms of class, caste, colour, race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
The late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States witnessed the rise of the radical and reformatory socio-political movements. The Civil Rights Reforms brought some transitions in race-relations that were more visible on the paper than in the real life. However, in everyday living, the race exerted and continues to exert a lot of influence in determining the social and political conditions of the African Americans in the U.S.
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World presents painful elements of the African American history – discrimination, racial segregation, slavery, lynching and electrocution. The protagonist of the play is Black Man with Watermelon and he appears on the stage is in bare minimum dress of white shorts. Such a contrast of enslaved black body in white shorts is a deliberate choice that presents the black body as the site of physical and psychological victimization.
The re-enactment of the slave tradition is accompanied by resistance that was rendered unheard in the past. Yet, the protagonist’s present privilege, his speech, cannot undo the atrocities or wipe off the devastating effects of slavery on him and his progeny. Paradoxically, the Black Man experiences death twelve times and each time his character is resurrected again on the stage. His figure is like that of a phoenix that rises from its own ashes to a new life. Just as in T.S Eliot’s “The Wasteland” the message of regeneration cuts through the prevailing nihilism similarly, in this play the symbol of re-birth confirms the audience’s faith in the enduring spirit of the black history and black culture. The erasure of time divisions in the play helps the playwright to portray the truth about the continuous experience of the agony that has been a vital part of the Black history. The ironic reference to the, “painless” death is all the more painful because according to Existentialism, it symbolizes the meaningless and sheer waste of life.
The second play, Topdog/Underdog (2001) Parks shows two African Americans brothers Lincoln and Booth, and the focus is on their personal and contemporary social life in the U. S. Both the brothers come from the down trodden section of society because of their lack of access to family life, education, wealth and social rank. Parks subverts the historical facts by assigning the role of Lincoln, to a black character who dresses like the revered Late President, Abraham Lincoln.
In the play, Lincoln’s arcade job involves the re-enactment of the assassination of the President. In the real life, President was assassinated by a man named Booth. However, in the text Booth though remains Lincoln’s murderer but his role is reversed, he is presented as a Negro as well as the younger brother of Lincoln. Lincoln is the elder and more sensible one of the two. Booth is unemployed, kleptomaniac, alcoholic and a sexually obsessed man. He presents the young African American generation that can go astray because of the lack of equal opportunities and the wrong choices that they make for themselves.
The apartment where the brothers live is shown to be, “a seedily furnished” and “cramped” (T/U 7) one room apartment. The living space is bereft of the basic amenities like running water, private washroom and sanitation. Both the brothers have a tough time struggling with racism, education, employment, familial, moral responsibilities and the issues of drugs and alcohol addiction. Booth says in a tone of self mockery that though they live in America but it appears that their home is situated in, “third world” (T/U 34) conditions. Here, Parks criticizes the western thought that identifies the developing countries with stagnation, filth and poverty.
When analyzed from the economic perspective, Lincoln symbolizes the employee who is facing the threat of downsizing from his employer. His job situation sheds light on active, overt and rampant racial discrimination. Booth comments on his brother’s job condition and says, “Theyd pay you less than thd pay a white guy” (T/U 29).
Subaltern studies in literature include conscious efforts made by critics who focus beyond the politics of inclusion or recovery of marginalized voices to considering the aspects of hegemony, discourse, anti-colonialism and decolonization. The attempt is to constitute a powerful official effort to secure the voice of the muted subjects. This approach understands that the subalterns have been long relegated to the corners and ill-fittingly described. The marginalised lot was made to articulate its thoughts in the coloniser’s language. Now, it believes in selective deconstruction by giving a clarion call for resisting such practices.
The question remains is, if there is objectivity possible or are the handful group of intellectuals voicing their own concerns when they make the subaltern speak? Yet, the survey of the literature done above and several other references that could not be made here suggest that the writers do identify themselves with the cause of subalterns. As a writer, Parks traces and re-constructs history from the angle of the downtrodden or the ‘underdogs’ of the society. As a critic too, she is authentically interested in recovering the subaltern voices because only that can change the contemporary unequal power relations in the postcolonial world.