June 20, 2024

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Assimilation or Resistance: A Comparison of Two African American novels

3 min read

These two novels are divergent in regards to time frame, family relationship, and class. The female protagonists are both young, African Americans but their lives are complete opposites. Before reading these texts, the only African American literature that I had read and studied have been slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglas’ and Celia, A Slave. These texts showed me that even after emancipation, African Americans were still oppressed, first with segregation and then poverty.

Baby of the Family is a story of assimilation. Lena’s family, even though they live in a segregated society, are joining the white culture as much as possible. They are definitely middle class. In spite of being forced to live in the Black part of town, which is the poorest section, Lena’s family owns a very nice house and have many luxury items, such as two sewing machines, appliances, and a piano. They are working hard and striving to achieve the dominant culture’s “Dream.” Lena and her family have created their own world that exists separate from the white world. In the novel, white people are almost non-existent and there is little confrontation with racism. The style of the novel is very mellow; it practically lulls the reader to sleep. One is given the feeling that assimilation is good and that the message to African Americans is not to “buck the system.” The only example of resistance in Baby comes from the slave Rachel, who tells of her suicide to escape oppression. Before this, Lena did not know much about the lives of slaves; this lack of knowledge indicates her parents’ desire to let the past be the past.

Black Girl Lost is a novel of resistance to the dominant culture. The literary style of this novel is very fast-paced, action-packed, and full of animal violence. This depicts the world of the African American ghetto. The style also gives the sense of a jungle, full of animal imagery (such as Chink being called an ape or tiger). The reader also sees people as predators, economically and sexually. Chink earns his living by preying on other people’s addictions and Sandra is preyed upon sexually by two black men. One also gets a picture of the jungle in Sandra’s relationship with her mother. Sandra has to fight her mother in order to survive. An example of this is when Sandra gets some food from Sammy after working in his store. Sandra was eating the food when her mother came home. She hurriedly ate the rest of the sandwiches but the cake and pop were still there when her mother entered the kitchen. Her mother snatches up the cake and eats it and then demands that Sandra give her the bottle of pop. Sandra runs around the table to stay away from her mother as she downs the soda. This struggle over food between Sandra and her mother reminds the reader of how the animals in the jungle fight over a fresh kill.

From reading these two texts together, the picture that emerges of African American literature is that of the various ways African Americans have been oppressed and are still being oppressed. Lena is oppressed by segregation; Sandra by poverty. In both of these novels, women are subjugated to men. This is shown in Sandra’s rape and her deference to Chink and also in Nellie’s submission to her husband and his numerous affairs.

References

Ansa, Tina McElroy. Baby of the Family. Harcourt, 1991.

Goines, Donald. Black Girl Lost. Lushena Publishing, 2006.

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