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Righting Wrongs through Writing

21 Feb 2017Literature Essays

German Nazis oppressed and murdered Jews by the millions. White slave masters oppressed their black slaves before slavery was abolished in America. Likewise, women have been oppressed in illiterate societies. And, the Darfur genocide story has been in the news for some time. In fact, oppression may be described as a sun that never seems to set. It happens around the world almost all of the time. Writers and poets take responsibility for describing the facts of oppression. But, there are various ways of righting wrongs by writing about oppression. Maxine Hong Kingston’s (2006) short story, “No Name Woman” describes wrongs committed unto a Chinese woman in the 1920s. Langston Hughes’ poems, “Negro” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” also touch upon oppression; yet one of these poems offers hope to Africans that have suffered oppression in America, while the other simply asks the reader to understand the African American as a human being with his or her entire human baggage seeing that Africans had been dehumanized by the whites of America. The themes of Kingston’s “No Name Woman” and Hughes’ “Negro” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” are based in stories of oppression.

Kingston’s short story, “No Name Woman,” begins with the narrator’s mother informing her about her aunt’s suicide and asking her to keep it as a secret. The narrator’s family refuses to acknowledge the aunt as a part of their past lives. The narrator’s mother nevertheless tells the story of the ‘no name woman,’ namely the aunt who committed suicide (Kingston).

The ‘no name woman’ was married in 1924 in China, as part of a ceremony that celebrated many marriages at the same time. When her husband left for work, as other husbands married during the same celebrations also left, she was expected to wait on money from him. But, she ended up getting pregnant many years after her husband’s departure. When the baby was about to arrive, her family house was raided by angry protesting villagers. The ‘no name woman’ gave birth to her first child in a pigsty. The following morning she was found dead with her child in the family well. Apparently, it was a suicide (Kingston).

The narrator’s mother would like to warn her daughter about getting pregnant outside of marriage. After describing such warnings, the narrator explains certain aspects of her life as a Chinese American. She goes deeper into discussion about her aunt, too. According to the narrator, the ‘no name woman’ must have been forced into adultery. The narrator also makes conjectures about why the ‘no name woman’ was sent out of her in-laws’ home and whether the adulteror was one of the village raiders (Kingston).

Some of the problems related to Chinese culture that the narrator raises include the loudness of their speech. Yet, the narrator must wonder about the silence that her aunt must have been forced to keep. The ‘no name woman’ apparently committed suicide out of a sense of shame. Her people could not have tolerated an adulteress among them, which is why her family house was subjected to a raid. The fact that her family refuses to acknowledge her now that she is dead is another problem about Chinese culture that the narrator has set out to complain of. After all, the ‘no name woman’ had been subjected to oppression, according to the narrator’s conjecture (Kingston). Punishing the woman for the crime of another is the main complaint about Chinese culture that Kingston’s story raises.

Kingston would like to shock her readers with her story of the oppressed aunt. Readers are supposed to understand the story as a warning against oppressive behavior. Although there is no clear warning in Kingston’s story, the very fact that it is a story of oppression delivers it as a warning to readers. ‘Oppression is bad’ – the story states this loud and clear. ‘It is injustice to commit acts of oppression’ – Kingston would like her readers to know. Yet, Hughes’ does not only want his readers to understand oppression but also offer hope to the oppressed apart from his attempt to humanize those that have been dehumanized in the past. By writing about oppression that her aunt suffered, the narrator in Kingston’s story also humanizes the dehumanized aunt. After all, once the reader has understood the dehumanization of the aunt in Kingston’s story, he or she is expected to consider the alternatives in the aunt’s situation. In other words, it is inevitable for the reader of Kingston’s story to ask, ‘What could have been done better in the aunt’s situation?’ Moreover, once Kingston has analyzed the mindset of the oppressors of the aunt, she expects her readers to infer that theirs was inhumane behavior.

Of course, Hughes played an important role as a writer and thinker of the Harlem Renaissance. This was an artistic movement of African Americans that arose during the 1920s to celebrate the lives and culture of Africans in the United States (“Langston Hughes”). Because most of the African Americans had been brought to the New World as slaves of white masters, it was poets and writers like Hughes, an African American man, that helped to change the perception of African Americans in the minds of the whites once slavery had been abolished.

Hughes’ poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” published in 1926, and “Negro” published in 1958, therefore depict African Americans as ordinary human beings like everybody else, and yet richer in culture and civilization than many others, seeing that they have participated in the construction of the great “pyramids,” mentioned in both poems.
Hughes was direct and open about the fact that his writings were meant to uplift the conditions confronting Africans in the United States (“Langston Hughes”). Kingston merely describes the fact that it is illiteracy combined with poverty that must be held responsible for cultural customs that seem at odds with shared human values. The fact that Chinese people of the time of the ‘no name woman’ would rather erase the memory of an adulteress than forgive her is horrific. Raiding her house at the time of her first baby’s delivery is even worse. But, then, there are plenty of problems connected with culture that transpire in villages of poor countries. An example distributed by the media is that of ‘honor killings’ in the Indian subcontinent.

These killings are based on the presumption of ‘village elders’ that it is better to kill an adulteress than to bear her as a shame upon her entire family. What is more, it is a known fact that women are disproportionately hurt by such cultural traditions in far off places where human rights organizations may still not establish their presence as they would like. Kingston would like to right the wrongs in all such cultures. Unlike Hughes who writes for African Americans of his time, Kingston is not writing for the ‘no name woman’ in her own time. Rather, hers is a generic story of oppression of women in poor countries where illiteracy is rampant.

Africans of America had been slaves, so therefore the whites did not respect them enough even after the abolishment of slavery. Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. His poem, “Negro,” on the other hand, was published at a time when racism was considered a huge problem to struggle against in the United States. Many battles were fought to set blacks equal to whites in the minds of all Americans. Hughes’ contribution of the 1950s, his poem “Negro,” was only different to the extent that it was a literary contribution. Countless other Africans were fighting on the streets of America to set things right once and for all.

Both poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro,” are expressions of African American identity. The first poem begins thus: “I’ve known rivers… (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).” In the second as in the first, although the poet has made clear that the narrator is a negro – the poem, “Negro” begins with the words, “I am a Negro (Hughes, “Negro”).” Because the whites had been masters over African slaves, they were inclined to look down upon Africans. Since the whites were owners of property in America and certainly richer, the blacks longed to be like the whites. But, Hughes would like the Africans to feel at home in their own skins. With images of rivers as grand as of the Euphrates, the Nile and the Mississippi – the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” reminds the African of his or her historical roots or the history of the great African peoples who have traveled across all of these rivers adding value to the historical streams of cultures. The poem has irregular, long lines without rhythm because it is making a basic point: the African soul is as deep as any human soul could be. The African individual indulges in deep thinking as he or she travels across ancient rivers. What he must dwell on is his own identity on foreign soil. Remembering the history of his or her civilization, he or she must keep in mind that life carries on. What’s more, even though Africans have traveled many lands, the poet reminds his fellow African that the black race has survived despite all odds (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).

Because “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published during the peak of Harlem Renaissance, it refers to depth of the African soul, given that art is often understood as the voice of the soul and the Harlem Renaissance was all about promoting African art and culture in the United States. Using gentle images such as the Mississippi’s bosom “turning golden in the sunset,” the poet uses his emphasis on rivers to stand as a symbol for the depth of the African soul (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). “Negro,” published during the 1950’s also mentions “depths (Hughes, “Negro”).” As in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the depths mentioned by Hughes in both poems most likely refer to the depth of African knowledge too. After all, both poems refer to the history of Africans. “Negro,” with its sentence arrangements describing either what had happened to Africans or what they have done in the history of the African civilization – also makes mention of the experiences and/or skills that set Africans apart, for example, slavery and singing (Hughes, “Negro”). The poet represents all Africans in both his poems, “The

Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro.” What is more, both poems mention the fact that the Africans were part of the labor force that built the ancient pyramids. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” it was the African who “looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).” In “Negro,” the pyramid is said to have arisen under the African hand, implying that the African was greatly skilled even at the time of ancient pyramid construction (Hughes, “Negro”).

The main difference between the two poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro” is, undoubtedly, the spirit of hope felt through the first poem versus the sense of despair mixed with hope in the second poem. Hughes must have composed “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in a different frame of mind altogether. The poem clearly promotes African American culture and art as originating in the deep history of humanity (Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). Although “Negro” makes mention of world history too, it does not necessarily promote African American art, apart from its reference to singing. The African American may be considered as more of a laborer or low paid worker than an artist in “Negro” (Hughes, “Negro”). Perhaps the poem was not written to promote African American art at all. As mentioned previously, the 1950s saw the whites and blacks of America fighting over the question of equal rights of Africans in almost all major areas of state functioning, including education. There were severe problems related to racism during this period of American history. Clearly, blacks were being dehumanized in the minds of the whites. It was in the mood of that hour that Hughes composed “Negro.” The poem speaks of the ordinariness of the African individual while describing the good uses that Africans have been made of, for example, in the construction of the “Woolworth Building (Hughes, “Negro”).”

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is certainly not dismal or depressing like “Negro,” mainly because it does not make mention of slavery and victimization as the second. After all, Hughes is fighting against injustice toward African Americans in the 1950s. In the 1920s, his cause was entirely different. If “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” had made frequent mention of darkness as does “Negro,” the Harlem Renaissance could not have been considered a harbinger of hope (Hughes, “Negro”). Even so, both poems were composed around the story of oppression of Africans in America, just as Kingston’s story of the ‘no name woman’ revolves around the theme of oppression in poor cultures. If Africans had been treated as equals to the whites throughout the history of the United States, Hughes would not even have written these poems.

Thus, Kingston’s “No Name Woman” and Hughes’ poems “ The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro” were written to right wrongs committed by human beings unto other human beings. Throughout the history of humanity, people have sought to appear strong by dehumanizing those that appear weak. Chinese women in the space and time of the ‘no name woman’ must have been looked down upon even if they were innocent. Similarly, the whites of America continued to look down upon the blacks even after slavery had been abolished. Of course, there is no logic behind oppressive behavior. This is the reason why writers and poets such as Kingston and Hughes have built their writings around these stories. After all, if everybody had a clear idea about the ludicrousness of discrimination, writers such as Kingston and Hughes would have to consider other themes for their works. Clearly, the themes of Kingston’s “No Name Woman” and Hughes’ poems “ The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Negro” revolve around stories of oppression because such stories offer food for thought, not only for writers and poets but also their readers.

References

  • Hughes, L. Negro. Retrieved Dec 4, 2008, from http://amandafa.blogspot.com/2007/12/negro-by-langston-hughes.html.
  • Kingston, M. H. (2006). No Name Woman. 1975. In J. Schlib & J. Clifford (Eds.) Making
  • Literature Matter (pp. 1154-1163). 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  • Langston Hughes. America’s Story from America’s Library. 

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