Month: February 2013

What is in the American Identity?

African Americans waving an American flag

African Americans waving an American flag

The above image features a group of African Americans waving an American flag, representing the fight for American identity.  Throughout history, African Americans have been fighting for an identity in the United States, whether it be as a cultural group, or as individuals.

Politically and socially, African Americans have looked for identity for centuries.  They started as slaves to the colonists, gained independence through the Civil War, and then thanks to discriminatory laws like the Jim Crow Laws, they were forced to be thought of as an exiled group, rather than a group of citizens.  They have been victims of hate crimes, crimes that are meant to cause fear in a specific group of people, and laws that have thrown them into minority status here in the US, despite all the progress that has been made.  Because of color, African Americans have been prevented from voting, taking public transportation, and even looking at white women or walking down the street looking suspicious in the past history of America.  This has caused struggles for African Americans to find an identity in the US, having to fight for their freedom and erasure of the stigma attached to their skin color.

Postcard of the lynching

Gelatin silver print. Copy photo. Frame, 11 x 9″, photo, 3 7/8 x 2 3/4″ inscribed in pencil on the inner, gray matte: “Bo pointn to his niga.” On the yellowed outer matte: “klan 4th Joplin, Mo. 33.” Flattened between the glass and double mattes are locks of the victim’s hair.”

As individuals, African Americans have searched for identities as well.  Where do they vote in the polls, where did they come from, how can they get a job that allows them to be comfortable in their position, and still fights the stigma of African Americans becoming cleaning personnel or struggling to hold down some other low wage job.  The search for identity has been especially prevalent in literature, for example Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and Quicksand by Nella Larsen.  Song of Solomon features a young man, Macon “Milkman” Dead, who is searching for himself through the imagery of flight as a method to escape his life and his troubles, and also a way to find himself.  He is searching for an identity outside of a family nickname given to him at a young age, and looking to make a life for himself outside of that that his father expects of him.  Quicksand follows Helga Crane, a young teacher who is searching for her identity after giving up her position as a teacher and traveling North.  As she searched for herself, she looks for her uncle, and attempts to use sexual experimentation in an attempt to figure out who she is.

The search for African American identity has always been a problem in the United States.  Whether it is personal or cultural identity, there have been people all over the country who have searched for fulfillment and a face other than the sea of nameless blacks that has come to be the stigma of African Americans.

Source of photos:

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Dancing Sambo: Obedient Enertainment

Dancing Sambo Puppet

Dancing Sambo Puppet

This image of a Sambo puppet reinforces negative stereotypes forced upon African-Americans until only recently in US history.  This toy portrays African-Americans as controlled entertainment.

The image contains both a puppet and poster or booklet describing its use.  The doll has dark skin and exaggerated  large, red lips. He has a white-painted nose set above a wide grin. His pants are brightly striped and around the puppet’s neck is a large polka dot bow-tie.  A top hat sits on his grinning face. The doll’s knees are hinged, giving the viewer the illusion that he is moving, or most likely dancing. Many aspects of the doll are over-sized and bright. From the white gloves, to the clownish mouth, this is not an image that a viewer would take very seriously.

The paper to the right of the doll looks as though it is a poster or booklet. It has a picture of the Sambo puppet dancing, looking exactly like the physical puppet. The text makes the statements that the puppet is: “Easy to work” and, “Fun at your parties”. The words “Dancing Sambo” are in block letters above the image, playfully tilted and seem mirroring the dancing figure of the puppet.

The fact that this character is a puppet on strings on its own implies that African-Americans are to be controlled. When the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man encounters a previous brother selling Sambo dolls, he is outraged.  He knows that he has been played like a puppet his entire life, always letting someone control his actions. Sambo is kept in line by doing and moving as others would like him to.  Its limbs are hinged, which give the illusion that the puppet is dancing.  This further disrespects African-Americans by presenting them as tools of entertainment. This idea of entertainment can also be seen in the phrases on the booklet.  They claim that Sambo is easy to work and fun at parties.  This fits into the identity that was forced upon African-Americans to be obedient and put on a show when needed.

This form of dehumanizing disrespect is evident in  Invisible Man.  The protagonist is first made to give his graduation speech to a group of white men after being forced to fight other African-Americans and provide comedy by getting shocked while trying to pick up money.  These men were only using the protagonist for their enjoyment; to laugh at him. In another instance, the protagonist is asked by a drunken member of the Brotherhood to do a dance because of his skin color.  This character desires entertainment from the African-American man who would of course be good at dancing. The Sambo puppet only increases these stereotypes in its character’s clownish appearance and reliable movements that his owner can have control over.

This Sambo doll does not only serve as a toy to be played with.  It is a representation of negative identities imposed on African-Americans.  The fact that it is to be controlled on a string and made to dance by its owner, along with its bright and silly appearance reinforce the identity of an obedient entertainer on African-Americans.


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Masks: Beauty or Deception?

Antonio Austin picture

In Ralph Ellison’s, The Invisible Man, there is an overarching theme of masks. When I think of a mask, I often think of it as an accessory for a special event. Within the context of this book masks are used to hide shocking facts or characteristics about individuals whom are being portrayed.

In this picture, from “The Masks” episode of “Twilight Zone” you see this screenshot of four individuals with disconcerting countenances upon their faces. Their faces are seen as depressing, jovial, serious, and unentertained, yet each one of these individuals are all holding a mask. The masks that each individual is holding seem to actually be different from the emotion that they are expressing upon their face. However, most of these masks are noticeably angry and very serious. The masks are not only just angry, but are also very distorted in comparison to the human face. All of the individuals are also wearing nice clothing, which leads me to believe that they may be a well off or affluent members in society. These people also look as though they are lifeless, functioning in a robotic and in a habitual manner.

The masks that are seen within this picture can be related to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, most distinctly regarding the character Dr. Bledsoe. Dr. Bledsoe puts up a façade of being a very prestigious, dedicated, and helpful president of the Narrator’s college, however he proves to be like the individuals that I saw within this image; fake, lifeless and wearing masks. Dr. Bledsoe had many different masks during is tenure within the book, such a loyal servant for the white community. This masks is seen when Dr. Bledsoe is rebuking the Narrator for taking Mr. Norton into the black community that and visiting the likes of people such as Trueblood. He ridicules the author because he should have should have shown him the things that he should be seeing. His constantly made sure that he was a serving and appeasing the white community by using the role of being a “good nigger.” Bledsoe also mentioned how he would not let anyone take his title or status away from him no matter other individual’s costs.

Another memorable mask that is seen in Invisible Man was when Dr. Bledsoe tricked the young and naïve Narrator into thinking that he was reprimanding him by sending him to work, with the goal of returning to school. Dr. Bledsoe showed this mask of betrayal by writing the author letters to members of the Board of Trustees of the University in order to help him find a job. However, this was not the case, and sent the Narrator on long journey within the book.

The use of masks is seen not only in this image, but also throughout Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as a form of manipulation and arguably as a means of adaptation for some characters.


2006. Friday Child’s JournalWeb. 25 Feb 2013.            <  pope.jpg>.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1980. Print.

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Soul Food, Movie, 1997.

Soul Food, Movie, 1997.

George Tillman Jr.’s Soul Food tells the story of how traditional Black cooking (otherwise known as “soul food”) brings together members of a Black family living in Chicago.

This scene from the movie shows the women in the family cooking Sunday dinner. The grandmother, Mama Joe, is wearing a dress layered with an apron, and a wrapped head scarf. What she is wearing was a very common outfit worn by female slaves and black women during the early 1900s. However, the sisters have on regular clothing. There seems to be dialogue between Mama Joe and Bird (played by Nia Long). Bird is clearly positioned in the foreground of the frame with a look of disgust, while Mama Joe is in the middle-ground of the frame responding to Bird.

If one were to actually watch the movie they would notice that Bird is making ham hocks. The reason for her look of disgust (shown in the image above) is because she is asking Mama Joe,”Why we gotta eat ham hocks anyway?” Of course Mama Joe has a response saying, “That’s all we had to eat! Ham hocks, pig feet, chitterlings, so we learned how to make things taste good by trying them out.” She then goes on to say, “Soul food cooking is about cooking from the heart.” Although not shown, the sisters start to understand why Mama Joe maintain certain soul food recipes.

Soul food cooking first became relevant during slavery. Slaves were given the parts of animals that were “undesired,” such as feet and intestines (i.e. chitterlings). What Mama Joe explains is that they had to make do with what they were given, and the food that was made was then fed to the families. The dishes mentioned above as well as other dishes (i.e. greens, black-eyed peas, yams, etc.) all make up the basics of “soul food,” and recipes have since been passed down from generation to generation, eventually connecting today’s generation with their ancestors who were once enslaved.

Although a subtle reference in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, soul food is symbolic. When the protagonist indulges in a yam being sold by a street vendor, he starts to explain the experience, saying he began to feel a “surge of  homesickness” and “an intense feeling of freedom.”  What is symbolic about the yam it is literally a rooted plant that has been adapted into traditional black cooking, connecting one to their “roots;” therefore, explaining why the protagonist felt “homesick” because it reminded him of his history. However, the “feeling of freedom” is interrupted by a rotten taste in the protagonist’s mouth, representing his remaining disconnect to his culture (which is further discussed in the novel). This shows a correlation between one’s connection to their Black history and the psychological “taste” of Black food. One does not work without the other.

Soul food is a tradition that connects Black people to themselves, each other, and their history.


Soul Food. Dir. George Tillman Jr. Perf. Irma P. Hall, Nia Long, Vanessa Williams, Vivica Fox. Twentieth Century Fox, 1997. Film.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible man. 2nd Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.

“History Of Soul Food.” Award-Winning Gourmet Gift Baskets by N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2013. <;.

Lynn, Andrea. “Soul Food – History and Definition of Soul Food.” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. <;.

“Soul-Food History.” Soul Food Advisor. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. <;.

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