Assimilation is a concept that is not necessarily the first thought to enter an individual’s mind in thinking about the means by which the American people have become “the American people.” The sacrifice of various cultural traditions, religions, and racial identities was the means by which America developed its “people”.
In keeping this post short, we will discuss the situation involving racial/cultural identities and how attempts were made to completely jettison many races and their traditions to evolve a common American image. In definition, assimilation or the state of being assimilated is classified by the notion that people of different backgrounds come to see themselves as part of a larger national family (wordnetweb.princeton.edu). What this definition of assimilation fails to mention is the notion of forced assimilation, which is a means to which many Native American tribal members became americanized. In the 1800s, there was an issue known as the “Indian problem,” to which the federal government felt it necessary to abate. With the idea of “killing the Indian and saving the man,” the federal government abducted thousands of Native American children and brought them to a school in an attempt to assimilate them into mainstream society.
This photo above depicts the idea that the federal government had when deciding to take care of the Native American issues. Because the government could not get rid of those who owned the lands previous to them, they decided that assimilation and “re-culturalization” was the key to improving the American and Native American relationship. How wrong they were. This is not a situation just from the 1800s, rather it is an ongoing action by voluntary and involuntary standards. Immigration plays a large role in the assimilation issue, in that those coming from international countries come to America for better life opportunities. In doing so, they are assimilated into the American culture or made to believe that their traditions come secondary. America is the proclaimed land of many cultures, but not necessarily. Immigrants come to live the American dream, a feat accomplished by assimilating into the American culture.
In the following video, this man describes his cultural transition into the American lifestyle from his previously maintained Arabic culture.
Nonetheless, assimilation surpasses the boundaries of culture and can be applied to race as well. Unbeknownst to readers, a majority of our favorite novels can exhibit the terms of assimilation. Before, we jump into an assessment of two novels from two differing literary periods, let’s delve further into the classifications and conflicts involving racial assimilation.
During the Civil Rights era, the black and white races were at odds about the abatement of segregation of the races. In a word about “Race Assimilation”, Marcus Garvey described how assimilation was the center of the civil rights era, “Some Negro leaders have advanced the belief that in another few years the white population will make up their minds to assimilate their black populations; thereby sinking all racial prejudice in the welcoming of the black race into social companionship of the white. Such leaders further believe that by the amalgamation of black and white, a new type will spring up, and that type will become the American and West Indian of the future” (1922). Despite his contention towards this idea, it showed how the Civil Rights Era, although a movement for equality and racial impartiality involved the possibility of assimilation of the races to achieve these goals.
In the years following the Civil Rights Era, it has become evident that assimilation is ever more prevalent; despite Garvey’s idea that, “the white man of America will not, to any organized extent, assimilate the Negro, because in so doing, he feels that he will be committing racial suicide..” (1922). To a degree, Garvey’s notion has not been maintained as, “American racial assimilation does not follow the idea that the ethnicity of the black culture needs to be respected…racial assimilation here requires the black minority to leave his or her ethnicity behind as they modify themselves to become what the dominant culture feels is an acceptable black racial identity” (Brother Peacemaker, 2008). Thus, while the white man has not necessarily assimilated the black man, in some sense of the word, he HAS without committing racial suicide.
Taking a step further, we come to the prevalence of interracial relationships and their role in the assimilation of blacks and white. While, in today’s society, there is nothing wrong with interracial relationships, as they are not necessarily frowned upon; it is obvious that the notion of racially identical marriages and relationships is slowly becoming an ancient concept. In a nation that fought so hard for segregation via Caucasian inhabitants and integration via the African American population, we have definitely jumped past the original motives behind the race-based movements of the 1900s. We have moved past equality and delved into assimilation by voluntary standards, a feat not necessarily desired during the Civil Rights movements. A differentiation between racial, political, educational, and societal equality and interracially motivated assimilation must be made to understand the motives behind the Civil Rights Era.
In assimilating, ”the black person who makes the choice to integrate into the dominating culture really must be honest with his or her self and admit that all their pronouncements of concerns for the welfare of the black community take a backseat to their personal desire to assimilate” (The Expense of Assimilation on the Black Community, 2007). I could not have said it better. For years, the black community fought for racial equality in public places, all the while maintaining the characteristics of blackness that made our people “black and proud,” yet the very blackness that we’ve proclaimed as our holy grail has become a thing of the past as more black people assimilate as a means to betterment. From interracial relationships comes the possibility of interracial children, to which it is difficult to embrace both the black and white races with the utmost pride.
Furthermore, it goes without saying that despite the creation of a new “race” through offspring that, “with so much of our American culture controlled by white people, the black person who makes the choice to be in a relationship with a white person is making the choice to try and conform to the dominating white culture and to perpetuate the assimilation of the black community” (Expense, 2007). This notion attests to the interracial reality that interracial relationships are a direct counter to the strong black reality. The black community cannot survive and assimilate at the same time as it is near impossible to promote blackness, all the while undermining the black community by altering your heritage to fit in.
Literary critic Robert Bone stated his beliefs that, “assimilation has its roots in what Langston Hughes has called “the urge to whiteness within the race”…it begins with an incorporation of the white ideal…this early idealization may persist throughout adult life as an unconscious desire to be white. The other side of the coin is an unconscious self-hatred, likewise appropriated from the dominant culture” (Hollins, 2011). Much like when the federal government chose to assimilate the Native American, assimilation, by this context becomes the means to escape from the problem and thus involves a denial of one’s racial identity.
Let’s delve further into a brief analysis of two literary movements that enable assimilation and an example novel produced during both. For purposes of the analysis, we will look into the novels, Quicksand and Caucasia.
Written by novelist Nella Larsen, Quicksand describes the life of Helga Crane, a mulatto teacher who’s living in the realm of hypocrisy and prejudice, which compels her to desert her job at an affluent school to discover where she fits in society. The story begins by describing Helga’s phenotypes, “a slight girl of twenty-two years, with narrow,, sloping shoulders and delicate but well-turned arms and legs…with skin like yellow satin…her curly blue-black hair plentiful…” (Quicksand, 5). Helga spends her days complaining about her job at the affluent Naxos, school of the black, where assimilation into the uniformed and structured lifestyle is a must. Helga struggles with her forced assimilation into the Naxos lifestyle as she prefers to wear bright and colorful apparel. This, in itself, compels her to quit her job and escape the obligatory assimilation laid out by the Naxos culture.
In escaping, Helga ends up in Copenhagen, Denmark, the birth place of her Danish mother. It is clear that Helga is searching for people that she can fit in with, nonetheless for journey to Denmark proves unsuccessful. Once arriving to Denmark, it is Helga’s urge to assimilate to their culture and in essence, fit in. However, her attempts are thwarted when she is treated as a racially exotic woman rather than the Danish woman that she desires to be seen as. Rather than remaining in Denmark to identify with her Danish relatives, Helga returns to New York City to re-establish herself amongst her black peers.
In the story of Helga Crane, one can see the role of both forced and voluntary assimilation. Helga’s obligatory assimilation was a means to structure at the school where she worked, and like the Native Americans of the 1800s, it urged her to run away from the assimilated lifestyle. Although, Helga was immersed in people identifying with her “black” side, she found it too difficult to integrate to the standards of Naxos. Nonetheless, we can note Helga’s voluntary assimilation when she travels to Copenhagen to become assimilated with people sharing her “white” side. Her impulse to run into the dominant race within the alternative black race gives her no happiness correlates to the idea that interracial children will look to the dominant race for comfort and satisfaction. Even though, Helga was ultimately unhappy with her dominant race, it depicts the conflicts of interracial children and the struggle of race.
Taking a step further, we can look into the concept of assimilation in the novel Caucasia. Written by Danzy Senna, Caucasia tells the story of two young sisters with opposing phenotypes born to interracial parents. Cole, the older sister, embodies the physical features of her father as a chocolate-brown, curly haired girl. In contrast, Birdie, embodies the physical characteristics of her mother as a pale-skinned, straight haired girl. Although close from birth, Cole and Birdie must live their day to day lives under the pressures associated with their community in Boston, Massachusetts. The girls attend an all-black school following the separation of their mother and father, a feat which makes life more difficult for Birdie as the phenotypic white child. With protection and help from her older sister, Birdie is able to adjust to life at the Nkrumah school.
Cole, on the other hand, has no troubles at school, but faces a plethora of issues at home. Because her mother is a white woman, who chose to assimilate into the black culture (once she fell in love with her husband), she has little to no experience in caring for a black child with kinky and nappy hair. This furthers Cole dislike of her mother and love of her black father. Evidently, the two sisters are separated and forced to live with their physically-similar parents, leaving each to form bonds with their respective parent. Following the separation, Cole and her father travel to Brazil, to assimilate with the people, whereas Birdie and her mother travel on the road for years before settling in a small town in New Hampshire.
Despite their biracial statuses, both sisters are forced to assimilate to their respective surroundings: Cole’s being Brazilian and Birdie’s being full-fledged white. Their assimilation is necessary for their freedom and in Birdie’s case, goes against all that her mother and father were fighting for in terms of equality. Birdie’s parents were advocates to the presence and maintenance of blackness. As an advocate for blackness, you would never expect for Birdie to be forced into white assimilation just to save her mother from incarceration.
Overall, it is apparent that jumps from the Civil Rights movement, to assimilation through integration and passing, have resulted in the beginning stages of the loss of the black identity.
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