An Outsider and a Distorted View of Social Reality
by Stephen Earley Jordan, II
"Is your ass the same color as your face and hands?" My sister was in the fourth grade and I was in the second grade when a student in my sister's class asked that question. Most people would wonder how someone could remember such an incident, but being an African American male in a predominately white society, I was forced into an outsidership that I have only grown accustomed to very recently. I was not sure, and still not sure if the student's question was a reflection of what he had heard as a common "joke" at home or if he was simply a product of a subtle, yet social brainwashing, pushing me and my sister into an outsider's position. By outsider, I mean mistreated and misunderstood racially and individually.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze my own outsidership in society, how it was forced upon me, and, in turn, used as an advantage in comparison to various novels I have read.
I grew up in McDowell County, West Virginia. There, my sister and I were the only two African American students in the entire school. We, being young, truly had no choice to attend another school and practically had no say in where we lived and who we were to have as friends. Because we were young we didn't see any difference in ourselves in comparison to our white peers. Nowadays, if a student (no matter what age) would ask, "Is your ass the same color as your face and hands?" that could be filed as sexual harassment and racial discrimination. However, in the early 1980's, when this occurred, my sister was only left to run home to my parents, who attempted to correct the vile situation with the school system before it worsened. At that moment, I began to understand that I was in a situation where I would have to prepare myself for even more trying times where I would be similar to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man-too black or too white to be accepted by people of any race.
The narrator in Invisible Man tells us of his many experiences which, in turn, should allow him to explore himself and society, both, mentally and physically. This journey is a common theme in literature. Many authors allow their characters to go on a journey of some sort, whether it be an internal or an external search. Ralph Ellison uses the internal search as a technique in Invisible Man. The narrator is trying to discover his true identity--who he is and what he is. This allows people of all ages to find relevance in this novel. I was a true character, experiencing my own identity crisis as I explored myself and society, both mentally and physically. The same can be said for Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place and Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas.
Rhys depicts Antoinette as one such character in Wide Sargasso Sea who is pushed into an outsider's position similar to mine. When I grew older my family moved to Wayne County, West Virginia and I was able to choose where I wanted to go to school. I could attend Ceredo-Kenova High School in Wayne County or Huntington High School, in Cabell County. I chose to stay in Wayne County for various reasons. I, like Antoinette, either acted too "black" or "white" to become fully accepted by society:
I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. Let sleeping dogs lie. One day a little girl followed me singing, 'Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.' I walked fast, but she walked faster. 'White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away' (23).
This passage mirrors the quote "Is your ass the same color as your face and hands?" What would cause a child to say something like that? It mustn't be the superior European male ego coming to surface because it was someone of African decent who said that to Antoinette. That was one of the earlier moments in the novel depicting Antoinette as not being accepted by her society and placed into an outsider's position. The most obvious factor that can cause an individual to be pushed into an outsider's position is the color of an individual's skin. One's color, by no means, can be easily concealed. We learn from Invisible Man that the narrator does not know who to trust anymore. It seems as though everyone is his enemy, both, blacks and whites. The whites do not want to accept him because he is too "black." Some of the blacks do not associate with him because they view him as being converted into an Uncle Tom or Sambo, with his briefcase and scholarship from the Board of Education. Here, we notice that there is no one for the Invisible Man to trust. He is left alone.
Since the whites view the Invisible Man as a member of a group [African Americans] and not as an individual, this heightens his invisibility. When we are in a group, we are less likely to be noticed. But when we are identified as an individual we have more chances to let our voices be heard in our own unique way. Once again, when the whites look at the Invisible Man as a member of a group, more stereotypes were created. Throughout history we can see various examples as to how individuals have been prejudged because of the actions of a group. Just because one is affiliated with a group does not necessarily mean that the individual is anything like the group's image.
Somehow, ironically, Whites noticed the obvious issue before I did-that I was an African American and did not fit into their society quite well; though I am of mixed heritage that seemed to not be an issue or even considered. Like Antoinette, I was even cast away by those of my own race. Blacks, indirectly, in high school, who knew I stayed in Wayne County and went to school there, considered my family as too "uppity" to attend their school, let alone live in Cabell County where there are more people of color. I knew I was different. I was not like the blacks or the whites. I was myself, and a man without a country.
In high school, a friend, a white friend, asked me if there was such a thing as "black trash." I laughed and said "of course, why wouldn't there be?" She said, "well you never hear of it." I had never thought about that until she had mentioned it. I had only heard of people being considered as "white trash" not "black trash" though I knew if one existed, so did the other. But I wasn't for sure why both existed and how an individual could be prejudiced against his own race, sometimes his own gender, or those who have had historically similar struggles and have the audacity to call him "trash".
I was able to see a more modern version in Antoinette's society. Antoinette was also able to see the multifaceted society with views of different races:
Plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money. They didn't look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger (24).
I felt that there was no need for people to discriminate against anyone, especially those of the same ethnicity. Nor did I see a reason for blacks to be condescending toward me for wanting to go to an all-white school. This outsidership, that was once forced upon me, was now accepted. I wanted to be the sore thumb, the bad apple that stuck out and had an identity and that no one would ever forget; I refused to be self-segregated in the 1990's from the whites, but from the blacks. I felt this opportunity to have an identity, to be the foreigner (like Antoinette), and accepting my outsidership was equivalent to gaining my self-worth. The Mid-century White House Conference Report had various conclusions concerning segregation:
1. Segregation imposes upon individuals a distorted sense of social reality.
2. Segregation leads to a blockage in the communications and interaction between the two groups. Such blockages tend to increase mutual suspicion, distrust, and hostility.
3. Segregation not only perpetuates rigid stereotypes and reinforces negative attitudes toward members of the other group, but also leads to the development of a social climate within which violent outbreaks of racial tensions are likely to occur. (Supreme Court Brief 76)
Segregation does indeed cause one to have a distorted sense of social reality-whether it's being separated from your own race or another. Confusion was particularly rampant in my mind because of the influences of society. But I would only realize this when I attended college.
I attended Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, West Virginia, a private, Baptist-affiliated school which, at the time only had 825 students. Once again, I was literally the black sheep. The only other African Americans on the campus were those that were on the basketball team. I truly had no niche or clique and the obvious difference between me and the majority of my White peers was the color of our skin; the unseen difference between me and the other African Americans on campus was something I disregarded until I overheard one of the basketball players talking.
"He thinks he's white," one of the team members mumbled to one of his buddies as I walked past. I didn't understand if he made that comment simply because he noticed I was articulate, well-dressed, and in short, uncanningly professional and somewhat more advanced than those who had made the comment. As an outsider, I was able to be the fly on the wall; I heard all and saw all. My freshman year, when I made useless attempts to associate with other African Americans, I heard them ask, "Why does he want to hang with us now?"
I asked, "Why not?"
The more I learned from my outsidership, the more hatred grew inside of me. This hatred was so uncontrollable, and, at the time, seemed so irreconcilable that I did not want to associate with anyone-white or black. I wanted to be alone. My feelings were similar to those expressed by Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place:
I look at this place (Antigua), I look at these people (Antiguans), and I cannot tell children, eternal innocents, or artists who have not yet found eminence in a world too stupid to understand, or lunatics who have made their own lunatic asylum, or an exquisite combination of all three.(57)
I looked at those places (the places I had been and the places I will go), I looked at the people (those of all races around me), and I could not tell if any of them found their eminence in the world too stupid to understand, or lunatics, or all three. I could not understand but I could accept their views on forcing people into an outsidership. After all, what would they have conquered anyway? Only recently have I become outspoken about my viewpoints. Like Kincaid, I was disgusted and ashamed of society:
Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than what it was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them? How did Antigua get to such a state that I would have to ask myself this? For the answer on every Antiguan's lips to the question "What is going on here now?" is "The government is corrupt. Them are thief, them are big thief." Imagine, then, the bitterness and the same in me as I tell you this. (41)
We are all products of our society. The way we are raised, the place we were raised have a great influence on the way that we view society, at large.
Have you ever wondered to yourself why it is that all people like me seem to have learned from you is how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly, and how to take the wealth of our country and place it in Swiss bank accounts? Have you ever wondered why it is that all we seem to have learned from you is how to corrupt our societies and how to be tyrants? (34)
With Kincaid's outsidership, she was able to see her homeland from the perspective of the "fly on the wall." She's been able to see life from various angles. This is similar to the way in which I had started to view life-with a strong, sometimes skewed and slanted, but unique outlook that comes across as somewhat militant at times. The reason why she can not get "beyond all that" and is filled with so much hatred is because it occurred in the past, in the present and will affect the future of the Antiguans. This is the same reason why I can't get past that child asking "Is your ass the same color as your face and hands?" Questions like that have been disregarded as pure ignorance, and sometimes innocence of a child. But he only reflects what his ancestors have taught him in his society.
As I grew accustomed to my outsidership I became more like Virginia Woolf who used her writing as a vehicle and assisted people by maneuvering their way toward equality and justice. Because of my own outsidership, I feel that there is a social injustice which is plaguing society today. This social injustice and corruption forced me into the outsidership, similar to that of Rhys's Antoinette. An example of this social injustice was previously mentioned when I discussed the one-sided, idealistic and fundamental beliefs of the basketball players.
In short, Woolf argues in Three Guineas that society is a conglomeration of people with a particular aim. But society has placed limitations on individuals, thus allowing them to not be treated equally. I feel that Three Guineas is the argument, itself. On page 106, she tells us that the Outsider's Society's first duty was not fight with weapons. Woolf accomplishes that quite well. Her words are her weapons and with precision she has chosen the correct word and answered every question. Woolf seems to define the term "Outsider's Society" as a conglomerate of women who refuse to join society in order to make another of their own. As an African American male, I have made my own society. I live in this society today. Woolf states that outsiders express a feeling of complete indifference, not based on instinct, but on reason.
As noticed in Three Guineas , many authors, especially Woolf, have taken the time to reason. For instance, in one part of Three Guineas Wolf asks, "Why should I fight for my country? What has this country done for me as an outsider?" Those are very valid questions in which people, including myself, can ask today. We see remnants of it in women and various minority groups in relation to joining he armed forces. It appears to me that Woolf feels that the Outsider's Society would have a broader outlook on situations.
For years my parents have made useless attempts, inviting other African American friends over to their Wayne County home. But many African Americans have always given the same excuse, "Oh no. We don't go to that part of town!"
Over the years, I've learned that my society is a unique and gratifying advantage, and has become uninviting to others. I have become an outsider looking in, only to discover the whole scheme of things, which is most always unpleasing.
Supreme Court Brief. "Brown v. Board Education: The Effects of Segregation." 1954. Cultural Contrast for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. St. Martin's Press: NY. 1995. 72-77.