Sep 21, 2023
Sep 21, 2023
The Truth of Multiracial Societies
with Reference to Contemporary Thought
Is conflict of cultures necessary? The obvious and immediate response is, ‘No’. But conflict of cultures and identities is a reality. From Gandhian benevolence to xenophobia, we have a whole spectrum of emotions before us. Thinking souls have settled the issue as per their inclination, background and thought processes. Identity is largely decided by culture. Among cultures, there should be nothing like a superior culture or an inferior one. But the fact remains that consciousness of ‘the other’, the feeling of ‘otherness’ does not die. In this ocean of ‘otherness’ the personal question ‘Who am I’ becomes important.
My several identities as a woman, a professor, a mother, a Hindu - do these identities exist parallel or are there priorities to them? Do my identities change with place and time? Is there a fixed identity? My identity is decided by my own perception or view of others is equally important? These questions become very significant when we see the desire for civilization dominance in the world. When one culture proclaims superiority over the other, the question of individual identity comes to the center of consciousness. ‘Who am I?’ becomes an important question especially for the floating population of the current world. Can an individual change her/his identity in her/his life time? Convergence of technologies brings convergence of people. The globe trotter, the world citizen or simply the migrant often faces this self humiliating question, ‘Who am I?’ A person of African origin living in America or England or an Indian living in Canada or Australia nurtures very deep sentiments of heart when it comes to questions of self identity. It becomes painful when you do not know which country to love as your own. It gets even more pathetic if the country you love does not love you back. Confusion prevails in the minds of migrants. In an ideal situation, convergence of people would have brought unity of hearts and blending of identities but in reality it seems that it does not happen that way.
The two novels Small Island and The Help project a contemporary world which is full of hostility as well as marginalization. They have effectively brought out the turmoil of ‘the other’. Andrea Levy's Small Island portrays internal exile within the British society. With her multi-vocal narratives, Levy presents an unflinching critique of inequality and anxiety. We get a glimpse of the politics of dislocation. The parents of the protagonist come to England by the great vessel Windrush after World War II. Coming of African labors in a vessel might seem to be trivial to a general reader. But the children of those migrant labors know exactly the magnitude of such an arrival. A straight and blatant statement like ‘migrants and their children are ill-treated’ does not reflect the truth. In such an approach, we lose hopes and anxieties of transition of both the migrant community as well as the dominant, native community. In this poetics of dislocation, writers explore various possibilities of shared culture and even play a disruptive role in contemporary culture. This kind of writing gives more questions than answers. With her style of testimonial accounts of lived histories, Levy narrates challenges of migration. Levy's concern has everything to do with her personal past. Her father, a black Jamaican labor came to England in 1948 on MV Empire Windrush ship. Her mother followed six months later. Those were the times when the name-plates of some English homes read a warning ‘No Dogs, No Niggers’. There are multiple layers of irony in this act of migration of Andrea Levy's father.
‘Identity! Sometimes it makes my head hurt - sometimes my heart. So what am I? Where do I fit into Britain, 2000 and beyond? My dad came to this country in 1948 on the Empire Windrush ship. He was one of the pioneers. One of the 492 people who looked around the old British empire colony of Jamaica, saw that there were no jobs, no prospects, and decided to chance his arm in the Mother Country. His identical twin brother had been in the RAF, stationed in England during the war was returning to do a further round of service. My dad accompanied him, leaving behind in Jamaica his new bride, my mum who waited impatiently for the call to join him.
I don't know what my dad's aspirations were when he arrived in Britain- he certainly didn't realize that he was making history at the time. But I do know that when he boarded the ship, he knew himself to be a British citizen. He traveled on a British passport. Britain was the country that all Jamaican children learned about at school. They sang ‘God Save the King and Rule Britannia’. They believed that Britain was a green and pleasant land- if not the centre of the world, then certainly the centre of a great and important empire that span the globe linking all sorts of countries into a family of nations. Far from the idea that he was traveling to a foreign place, he was traveling to the centre of his country, and as such he would ship-in and fit-in immediately. Jamaica, he thought, was just Britain in the sun.
There was a point when my mum had doubts about this emigration; on hearing stories of the treatment the first travelers had received she wanted my dad to return. But it was too late; he already loved England by then. On the passenger list, the twin brothers are put down as having different ages, which might have been a clue. My dad wanted to be his own man and England was the place to do it.’
Anyone who thinks for a moment will realize that racism, resistance, terrorism, cultural dominance and violence are related phenomena. Reading books like Small Island and The Help is an intellectual way of dealing with these troubling issues of our times. The truth of multiracial societies must be analyzed. Declared history is often different from lived history. The process of assimilation of migrant communities and their claims to equal rights are sensitive and highly emotional subjects in literature. Literature that touches concepts of power and exploitation and literature that negates blanket tagging of communities should be studied to understand the times in which we live. These authors should also be studied as the literary canon often avoids unconventional and disturbing writers from the marginalized communities. Small Island is about interaction between migrants and the colonial powers. Their citizens find it difficult to come to terms with post imperial equality. The multiple facets of racism are unemployment, under-employment, violence, apathy, poor living conditions and even repatriation. It is essential to study these works because official history and mainstream consciousness often tend to forget the mental marginalization of the migrant population. Shifting of individual from one place to another is a compulsion and a reality of our times. The migrant community as a whole and the individual in particular - both are continuously evolving by their interaction with native communities. These communities are also sites of new challenges and new possibilities. The word Diaspora brings ‘the imagery of traumas of separation and dislocation and this is certainly a very important aspect of migration. But diasporas are also potentially the sites of hope and new beginnings’. 
These ongoing processes influence the identity of an individual and a community. It is important as to which social class a person is perceived to be belonging to. A vast body of literature, literature of transformation has been produced by travelers, migrants and dislocated people. It is to be noted how an author positions her/himself and how her or his position is perceived by the readers. Black identities in Britain as well as America have been woven out of a number of factors. The novels Small Island and The Help delineate some of these factors. Andrea Levy sticks to history in her fictional narration. She is involved and yet she is not involved in many ways. She is writing about herself and at the same time she is creating fictional characters. In this way she has been able to record some ugly and disturbing aspects of society. The novel Small Island runs in four voices. These first person voices of four individuals bring a mosaic of viewpoints. Queenie and Bernard are white and English and Hortense and Gilbert are black and are of Jamaican origin. Hortense's case is perhaps the most touching. She was brought up in her homeland as a highly sophisticated lady being readied for the teaching profession. Once she is in England, she loses that sense of being special. She faces the biggest challenge a human being can face – to resist a forced change of self perception. The repeated rudeness to which Hortense is humiliatingly subjected is enough to break anyone's heart. Hortense was brought up in a very fine manner. Her tastes, liking and behavior are very fine but ironically the behavior that she receives from the so called superior race is disgusting. In fact she does not meet anybody as refined and as well mannered as herself. Levy has a unique way of bringing out the sense of difference between what one expects and what one gets. Hortense dreams of England:
‘In the breath it took to exhale that one little word, England became my destiny. A dining table in a dining room set with four chairs. A starched table cloth embroidered with bows. Armchairs in the sitting room placed around a small wood fire. The house is modest nothing fancy, no show- the kitchen small but with everything I need to prepare meals. We eat rice and peas on Sunday with chicken and corn, but in my English kitchen roast meat with two vegetables and even fish and chips bubble on the stove. My husband fixes the window that sticks and the creaky board on the veranda. I sip hot tea by an open window and look on my neighbors on the adjacent and opposite dwelling. I walk politeness, ‘A fine day today’, and refinement ‘I trust you are well?’ A red bus, a cold morning and daffodils blooming with all the colors of the rainbow.’ 
But once she comes to England the scene is:
‘Three steps would take me to one side of this room. Four steps could take me to another. There was a sink in the corner, a rusty tap stuck out from the wall above it. There was a table with two chairs - one with its back broken - pushed up against the bed. The arm chair held a shopping bag, a pajama top, and a teapot. In the fireplace the gas hissed with a blue flame.
Thus this? I had to sit on the bed. My legs gave way. There was no bouncing underneath me as I fell. ‘Just this? This is where you are living? Just this?
'Yes, this is it.' He swung his arms around again like it was a room in a palace.
'Just this? Just this? You bring me all this way for just this?’
The man sucked his teeth and flashed angry eyes in my face. ‘What you expect, woman? Yes, just this! What you expect? Everyone live like this. There has been a war. Houses bombed. I know plenty people live worse than this. What you want? You should stay with your mamma if you want it nice. There been a war here. Everyone his like this.
He looked down at me, his badly buttoned chest heaving. The carpet was threadbare in a path in the middle and there was a piece of bread lying on it. He sucked his teeth again and walked out the room. I heard him banging down the stairs. He left me alone.
He left me along to stare on just this.’ 
It is not only that the physical conditions were dismal. There was actually no acceptance for a black, young lady who was trained to be a teacher, who was educated, sophisticated and refined. Andrea Levy has very skillfully brought out the concept of self perception. Self perception is perhaps the most important factor in determining the identity of a person. Self perception is all that matters. The most important thing is how a person views herself or himself. Hortense saw herself only and only as a very fine teacher. She had undergone extensive training to be a teacher. Her self-perception was that of a teacher.
After all the initial shock, she goes to the office where teachers are supposed to go and apply for jobs. She is confident because she carries letters of recommendation with her. But she realizes that she cannot get the job of a teacher because she is a Jamaican black. In her typical ironical style Andrea Levy portrays an extremely smiling white lady who keeps smiling at Hortense and throws her out of office.
‘Her comely smile belied the rudeness of her tone. And I could not help but note that all gladness had left her eye and remained only at her mouth.
I trained at the teacher training college in Constant Spring, under the tutelage of Miss Morgan.
'Is that in Jamaica?'
It was relief that she tipped her head to one side while she let out a long breath. I eased myself believing everything was now cleared between us. Until leaning all her ample charm forward, she told me, 'Well, I'm afraid, you can't teach here’, and passed the unopened letters back to me.
I was sure there had been some misunderstanding although I was not clear as to where it had occurred. Perhaps I had not made myself as understood as I could. ‘If you would read the letters,’ I said. One will tell you about the three years of training as a teacher I received in Jamaica while the other letter is concerned with the position I held as a teacher at ___________’
She did not let me finish. ‘The letters don't matter’, she told me. 'You can't teach in this country. You're not qualified to teach here in England’.
'But…’ was the only sound that came from me.
'It doesn't matter that you were a teacher in Jamaica’, she went on, you will not be allowed to teach here’, she shook the letters at me. ‘Take these back. They're of no use’. When I did not take them from her hand she rattled harder at me. ‘Take them’, she said, so loud she almost shouted. Her smile was state as a gargoyle. My hand shook as it reached out for the letters and all I could utter was 'But____’
Miss, I'm afraid there really is no point your sitting there arguing with me.' And she giggled. The untimely chortle made my mouth gape. 'It’s the decision of the education authority. I can do nothing to change that. And, I'm afraid, neither can you. Now, I don't mean to hurry you but I have an awful lot to do. So thanks you for coming’.
Every organ I possessed was screaming on this woman, ‘What are you saying to me?’ She went back about her business. Her face now in its normal repose looked as severe as that of the principal at my college. She picked up a piece of paper, wrote some thing at the top. She looked to another piece of paper then stopped, aware that I was still there. ‘How long is the training in England?’ I asked her.
‘Good bye' she said pointing a finger at the door. ‘Must I go back to college?’
‘Really, Miss, I have just explained everything to you. You do speak English? Have you not understood me? It’s quite simple. These is no point you asking me anything else. Now, please, I have lot to do. Thank you’. And she smiled on me again! What fancy feigning. I could not stand up. My legs were too weak under me. I sat for a little to redeem my composure. At last finding strength to pull myself up, I told this woman, 'I will come back again when I am qualified to teach in this country.' 'Yes', she said, ‘You do that. Good bye.' 
In this state of extreme pain Hortense walks into a wrong door and goes into a dark cupboard. No one helps her. When she comes out, all the three white 'superior' women giggle at her. It is a very sad picture. Her whole being is full of pain. Her self-perception has been trashed. Her husband Gilbert suggests that she should take up ‘regular’ jobs of sewing, washing or cooking. Her husband watches her:
‘Tears were dropping into her tea. Out come the Sunday handkerchief. A shaking hand dabbing once more at her eye. I thought to apologize but feared what could might fall from my careless mouth. It was a timid hand I stretched across the table to place over her. I waited for her to slap it away. But she did not.’ 
Every atom of Hortense's being hungers to get dignity, recognition and respect that she duly deserves. But it is never going to be that way. Her poetic justice comes in strange ways when her white land lady Queenie gives birth to a black baby boy who has been fathered by Hortense's husband Gilbert. The white lady weeps before them to take the boy into their caring. The scenes are brutally clear. The scene of birth, the scene of pleading - all leave the reader dumb. This is what cross-culturalism is all about. This is what it comes down to be. The mingling of human souls, that flow of human warmth which unites the human race, that force which we call universal humanity and all such lofty ideals are missing. Queenie is not a racist but her husband Banard is a die-hard racist. Gilbert, the black man is almost a fool and does not understand the nuances of the situation. Hortense, the thinking lady is the lone sufferer. Human civilization has come to a point where interaction of races is inevitable but the novel raises questions on the dynamics of this interaction.
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a deeply psychological work which describes the inner life of black domestic maids. The novel works at various levels but the novelist’s exploration of interactions between black sub-ordinates and their white employees is worth noting. The novel has a whole range of characters from sympathetic Skeeter to high-headed and racist Miss Hilly. Aibileen is a domestic maid who looks after a toddler Mae Mobley. The mother of the baby Mrs. Leefolt does not care much about the child. She somehow wants a maid to take care of the baby so that she may continue to lead her fanciful life. Aibileen, on the other hand, is a very spiritual and thinking person who has suffered a severe tragedy of losing her son. Aibileen is black; she is always at the receiving end of social treatment. To forget her own personal loss and unspeakable pain, Aibileen merges herself in Mae Mobley. She loves the child intensely. She wants to forget her pain by showering all her motherly love on the child. The child starts crying in the lap of her mother but becomes happy as soon as Aibileen embraces her. The mother is skinny but Aibileen has lots of fat. Aibileen says,
‘Here's something about Miss Leefolt: she not just frowning all the time, she skinny. Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week. Twenty three years old and she lanky as a fourteen years old boy. Even her hais is thin, brown see- through. She try to tease it up, but it only make it look thinner. Her face be the same shape as that red devil on the redhot candy box, pointy chin and all. Fact, her whole body be so full a sharp knobs and corners, it’s no wonder she can't soothe that baby. Babies like fat. Like to bury they face up in your armpit and go to sleep. They like big fat legs too. That I know.
By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley following me around everywhere I go. Five o'clock would come round and she'd be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren’t never coming back. Miss Leefolt, she’d narrow up her eyes at me like I done something wrong, unhitch that crying baby off my foot. I reckon that's the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns.
Mae Mobley two years old now. She got big brown eyes and honey-color curls. But the bald spot in the back of her hair kind a throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind a favor except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain't gone be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby. 
Life is full of unspeakable truths and The Help tries to capture the essence of some of these truths. Aibileen is not the real mother of Mae Mobley but she is more than her mother. Miss Leefolt is the mother of the child but that bonding between the mother and the child is missing. The blank woman full of motherly instinct is bringing up children of other people but has lost her own child in an accident. The lives of blacks are hazardous. The services of the blacks are unrecognized. Their goodness is often unsung. There are many good white people also. Miss Skeeter is one such person. She has a sympathetic attitude towards black maids. She wants to pen down their experiences and sensibilities. These efforts of Miss Skeeter become a kind of movement. Unknowingly and perhaps unintentionally, she becomes the champion of the cause of African-American maids. Her personal relationships suffer due to this. In a way she becomes alien and unattractive for the white community. There are many layers of segregation is the society. Vision of different people do not match. Miss Skeeter and her lover do not share the same vision. Miss Skeeter and Miss Hilly are again poles apart. The forces are pulling people apart. Amidst these contradictions, the novel develops.
The novel is about racism but it is not only about racism. It is about humanism, counter-racisms; it is about feminism. Skeeter is a passionate white woman determined to better the lot of African American maids, penning down their memoirs. Her search begins with the sudden disappearance of her childhood maid Constantine. Skeeter is emotionally entwined with Constantine. When she pursues the case of her lost maid, her comfort zone is broken and she realizes that African-American maids live and work in extremely hostile circumstances. Skeeter develops a very deep and spiritual bonding with Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson. After many rejections, their project to publish memoires of these maids catches pace.
Within this narrative, there are multiple layers of concepts of racial superiority, physical human beauty, civilization dominance, master-subordinate relationship and the idea of trust. Can people of two different races trust each other? Will society allow this trust? Miss Hilly is a strange example of being a very compassionate mother but a very cruel landlady to her African-American subordinates. How do we solve these contradictions? Can these contradictions ever be solved?
When we study novels such as The Help and Small Island, we have to equip ourselves with adequate psychological, social, political and intellectual tools in order to understand the phenomenon. Racism or residual racism can be more traumatic in today's post-racial era. It becomes all the more difficult to understand and explain the situation when everybody is politically correct.
Apart from physical living conditions, desire for recognition, bondage and affection are crucial. We live in a much heralded post racial era. But if we are ready to scratch the surface of reality, we will find many challenges. The biggest challenge is recognizing the persisting racial inequalities. Ignoring the real issues and supposing that everything is perfect is perhaps the most absurd form of present day racism.
Apart from the official and formal systems, race and identity are psychological, somatic and civilization issues. In The Help, Skeeter suffers simply because of her humanitarian attitude towards the African-American maids. It is strange that even today, discriminatory incidents are reported from places considered to be fountains of new knowledge. On February 20, 2014 The New York Times reported:
‘On the campus of the University of Mississippi, a few hundred yards from a monument honoring confederate soldiers, a statue of the university’s first black student, who enrolled in 1962 amid rioting that left two people dead, stands as what administrators call a powerful symbol of progress.
But when two unidentified men placed a noose around the bronze neck of James Meredith this week and left behind a flag with the confederate battle emblem, it set into motion a new round of soul searching in a place where past and present restlessly coexist." (Racist Episodes Continue to Stir o/e Miss Campus). 
Individual responses to discrimination are different. Hortense reacts differently from Gilbert. Queenie is different from her husband Bernard. In The Help Aibileen is different from Minny and Skeeter is different from Hilly. The novelists have effectively shown identity splitting in cases of victims of discrimination. Confusion, vulnerability and erratic behavioral patterns often emerge. Someone has beautifully said that it gives a strange feeling to the member of a minority community to love the country of her/his residence. It is like a loving a father who declares, ‘You are not my favorite child.’ Andrea Levy in her subtle ways has stressed the importance of recognizing black diversity. All Africans are not the same just as all whites are not the same. Levy's pain is that her education, her sophistication, her training and her mental elevation were not recognized simply because she was an African. It is an extremely complex situation where beyond all efforts, the binaries exist. ‘We’ comprises of white, male, heterosexual and citizen. ‘Them’ comprises the other race, women, homosexual and immigrant. Howsoever polite, howsoever sympathetic, the discourse is divided between "We" and "Them".
Being politically correct is a necessity of our times. But as intellectuals we cannot be satisfied with just that. Open and honest debate, analysis and discussions are essential. Papers such as this one are not aimed at hiding identity crises resulting from racism; these papers are about actual healing, love and humanism. Race is a reality and it has to be addressed. The world does not go by necessity alone. It’s true that cultural dominance is an unnecessary phenomenon. The chances are that this tendency is not going to die soon. As long as color of skin, region, religion will continue to decide an individual’s identity, the related discourse will go on. Both the tendencies seem eternal- the tendency to dissolve differences and call us one humanity and the tendency to demarcate and differentiate. Our thought processes give weight to the just side by some degrees. The process must go on.
More by : Prof. Shubha Tiwari