African American Perspective in Early 20th Century America

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Throughout the era after the Civil War, Blacks struggled to show themselves and create an identity outside of the confines of slavery. There were many different ideas that display how Black should be perceived and how Blacks should carry themselves in order to uplift the race. Uplifting the race was one of the most influential ideas of the time. Miscegenation, sexuality, and education are just three of the issues that were influenced by the racial attitudes of the times. Many authors commented on these issues and the other issues of the time. Nella Larsen, Booker T. Washington, and Charles Chestnutt are three authors that share their views with their readers.

Miscegenation occurs when different racial groups mix through marriage, sexual relations, and/or procreation. During the years after the Civil War before Jim Crow laws were revoked by the Civil Rights Act, miscegenation, specifically between Blacks and Whites, was shunned by society if not illegal in some states. Sometimes miscegenation occurred out of love yet, other times miscegenation was forced. Especially during slavery, white slave owners would forcibly have sex with their slaves. Although after slavery, rape still occurred frequently.

In Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, the reader sees the issue of miscegenation arise. Helga, a Black woman who struggles to find her identity, sat at a dinner party. She and another woman named Anne began discussing Audrey, another black woman, and her dating partners. Larson writes Anne saying, “’She ought to be ostracized.’ ‘Why?’ asked Helga curiously… ‘Because she goes about with white people,’ came Anne’s indignant answer, ‘and they know she’s colored’” (Larsen, 49). We see Anne, a black woman, disgusted with the idea of white and black mixing socially. Later in the same scene we see her say, “’And the white men dance with the colored women. You know, Helga Crane, that can only mean one thing.’ Anne’s voice was trembling with cold” (Larson, 50). Larsen seems to give a sense of mocking at the way Anne feels about Audrey’s dating life. Although Anne portrays one side of beliefs for miscegenation, Larsen gives another view point through Helga. Helga argues with Anne, trying to understand why Anne would care if Audrey went with White men or Black. Larsen writes about Helga’s thoughts after the argument, “Helga gave it up. She felt that it would be useless to tell them that what she felt for the beautiful, calm, cool girl who had the assurance, the courage, so placidly to ignore racial barriers and give her attention to people was not contempt but envious admiration” (Larsen, 50). Larsen shows her readers her true thoughts through the warm language and thoughts that Helga has. Booker T. Washington had a different perspective on miscegenation than Larson’s carefree attitude. Booker T. Washington sees the White and Black race as separate. During his speech to the Atlanta Exposition, Washington says, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Washington, 83). Washington discusses how social things such as marriage, sex, eating, drinking, dancing should be separate between the races. Washington happens to be more like Larsen’s character Anne than her main character Helga. Charles Chestnutt writes about miscegenation in his book The House Behind the Cedars. The reader sees a huge struggle between the two ideas portrayed in Larsen’s book. Rena and her brother John are the product of miscegenation. Their father was a rich white man and their mother a poor black woman. Their parents relationship happened in secret; and while their relationship seemed loving, it was not able to be an average relationship because of the racial boundaries. Chestnutt does not tell his readers what he believes; however, he does show his readers the conflict that arises out of miscegenation. The old judge who helped John become a...
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