I read an article in The New York Times called “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” and I thought, “What’s new?” I’ve always felt the need to justify the relevance of my English degree, especially in the face of math and science or the real money-rakers like engineering and medicine. The article defended my education best by describing the humanities as an attempt to understand “what it means to be a human being.” I’m happy to report that in my characteristically long route, I’ve independently come to that exact conclusion, and I no longer stammer in defense when people like my late grandfather say, “I have no use for fiction.” I have use for fiction, Grandpa, and your non-fiction is my bedside sleep aid.
Allow me to offer an explaination of my use now; reading historical facts about the Civil Rights Movement is wonderful for understanding how point A got us to point B and so on. I can see where and how racial discrimination began, and I can see where it appears to have ended: on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks wouldn’t get out of her seat for a white passenger. Over a few decades, cultures equalized enough to elect an African-American president. Rosa Parks was the biggest “spark” that got him there, and history sees and points to her as so. “Thank you, Sister Rosa! You are the spark, that started off freedom’s movement. Thank you Sister Rosa Parks!” so we sang in elementary school. But what was going on in that tiny woman’s head to do something as audacious as saying “No!” to a group of angry whites? There wasn’t a mob of blacks standing behind her. Her actions weren’t sanctioned by the NAACP. She had no army of lawyers advising her resistance. She was alone and not even fed up. She was defeated, and it’s taken the minds of people like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and even the comedian Richard Pryor to actually transport their thoughts directly into my mine as empathetic experience and explain why. Ellison showed me how a studious black teen with the highest of intellectual potential is transformed by the obstacles of not only white society but by the blacks who had settled into a glad-handed niche and fought viciously against each other so that they would not lose their place. By the end (and I’m not spoiling the story), he is hateful and nasty and dangerous, and he silently carries those qualities beneath his skin the way his forefathers have. Morrison showed me the impossible standard of beauty that African Americans strived to meet in The Bluest Eye. There, little black girls pulled their noses, so they’d develop with a more European appearance. A black man is humiliated enough times to become the dangerous protagonists both Wright (Native Son) and Ellison (Invisible Man) evolve in their novels.
These mindsets are developed and perpetuated from parent to child, parent to child, and they can’t be expressed as facts in a textbook because they are the subjective experiences of men and women who lived their entire lives under the pressure of being black. Through these works, I’ve learned about my mind and the thoughts of my Hispanic father, mother, grandmother, and grandfather, and I’m one step closer to what I can only describe as compassionate enlightenment because with this understanding comes peace and a sense of placement. I recognize the social hemispheres I straddle, and I recognize the internal struggle I feel over identifying with either place. The nameless protagonist of Invisible Man has become an awful creature of circumstance, but he understands his invisibility and is happy with the illumination he’s found there. This is what the humanities has done for me, and I bask in my tiny halo of discovering what it means to be a human being.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
Native Son, Richard Wright
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
“That Nigger’s Crazy,” Richard Pryor