From Keywords for American Cultural Studies
Jump to: navigation, search


If anyone is inclined to comment on the above image of Charles Chesnutt in your contributions, please feel free to do so. Chesnutt believed himself to be 7/8 white, but self-identified as an African American. His various novels, short stories, essays, and speeches are generally counted among African American literature, and dealt with issues of race, identity, and the political rights of African Americans during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. --BrigitteFielder 14:05, 20 February 2010 (EST)

"With whom do you believe your lot is cast?
From where does your strength come?
...There is a who, a where
that is not given and sometimes falsely given
In the beginning we grasp whatever we can to survive"(Kaplan 124).

This short excerpt from a poem written by Adrienne Rich describes the complexity of identity and how it is molded. Some parts of identity are molded by life experiences and interactions while other parts are created by the particular person. While one's social identity may continuously change, personal identity, the identity one creates, remains constant (Kaplan 123). When thinking of what "fits" one's taste or personality, he or she is likely referring to his or her personal identity. Personal identity is highly valued, as it not only sets us apart as individuals, but we can also rely on it to consistently define us, regardless of the circumstances. On the other hand, social identity, how we perceive and make sense of each other, is fundamental to social interaction and to the construction of our society and. One's social identity is the interactions they encounter with society everyday, therefore it has the potential to change throughout our everyday. People interpret words and actions to predict future behavior based on others’ beliefs, affiliations, and intentions. Interpretations of identity are subjective and people’s self-presentation is seldom a honest indication of their actual internal state. The culture we live in today helps to develop these multiple identities. Like Charles Chesnutt, an individual ultimately decides his or her identity. Although Chesnutt is 7/8’s white, he chooses to identify as a Black man. While he may appear as a white man, he holds the ultimate power to create his own identity. This illustrates the role that social interactions play in molding one’s identity; it varies depending on how much power one gives them.

When referring to "The Passing of Grandison", one can discuss both the personal and social identities of Grandison the slave. Chesnutt illustrates in the story the three different perspectives of "slave identity:" the constructed social identity as defined by two generations of white masters and the slave's own personal identity. In the story, the older master, the colonel, expects slaves to be submissive and loyal to their owners. Grandison is labeled as a slave worth his work, but is never seen as capable enough to be a free individual in the North. The colonel treats Grandison and other slaves like chattels, explaining that they are better off in bondage than being free. According to the colonel and the majority of society in the South, Grandison is unintelligent and a mere tool used for labor, who could easily be sold or bought like everyday goods. Grandison performs his identity as the colonel expects him to, all the while contradicting the expectations of his younger master, Dick Owens. Owens believed, however that with the “native gregariousness and garrulousness of [Grandison’s] race,” (12) the free blacks and abolitionists of the North would easily sway and “inoculate him with the virus of freedom” (12). Dick perceives the “slave identity” more closely to how Grandison may have perceived his own identity; an identity that yearns for more: for independence and equality. This is great example of what Carla Kaplan defined as a social insult. "Ascriptions" were placed onto the African-American race, "[limiting and constraining]" the identities to which the African Americans gave themselves. African Americans were believed to only be a great source of labor, and thus worth money alone. The Colonel believed it best for them to stay under enslavement, where they would continuously be cared for by their masters. The perception of African Americans, at least by the colonel, was that they do not have the ability or resources to be able to live independently as freepersons. Thus, although the identities of African Americans were gradually being recognized, by the help of some of those who were free, instead of this recognition being "a mechanism of social justice", it became more a social insult. While Dick interpreted the slave identity only at face value, he lacked the understanding and complexity of how Grandison distinguished his own personal identity. Dick further demonstrates the social expectations of blackness when referring to their “native gregariousness and garrulousness;” that they are innately social and chatty, perhaps originating from the perceived identity of a slave as one who should merely aim to fulfill his masters’ wishes. These social identities harp on the idea of who Grandison and other blacks slaves were supposed to be. Grandison's personal identity however, helps to sort out the labels society has placed on him. For example, while Grandison is portrayed as an unintelligent, fawning slave, we come to later see him as a much more complex character. Grandison not only values his freedom and autonomy, but he also loves his family and cares about their well being, which all help to define his personal identity. His concern for his family is demonstrated by his returning to eventually free them. Despite society's attempt to label him, Grandison uses his knowledge of self and what he values to ultimately reach his goal of escaping with his family from the South.

Furthermore, in this entry on identity, Kaplan discusses the concept of performativity as well. She states that it is "a subversive practice because it reveals that identities are not really 'our own' and that we are not really 'what we are'; rather, we are how we identify- a process that is mutable and changeable. This idea as it links to identity is perfectly evidenced in Grandison's behavior. When Grandison is first introduced as a character in the story he is identified as the "perfect" slave who is undoubtedly loyal to his masters. At several points in the story his refusal to leave his master despite the numerous attempts handed to him clearly contradict how most people expected slaves to perform upon arriving to a free state during that time. When he finally does receive an opportunity to break free from his duties as a slave when he runs away from his kidnappers, he proceeds to run back to the place where he has been held as property. Grandison's performance, or his "passing" as an unintelligent, naive slave with little mind of his own has very little effect on his personal identity. Grandison maintains his performance of loyalty and obedience as he aims to please his master in order to pacify his master's view of what represented the “slave identity” and, ultimately, to gain their trust such that he could fulfill his own agenda, and perform acts that will solidify his personal identity as a man who loves and wants to protect his family. Paul Dunbar may argue that Grandison “Wear[s] the Mask,” adhering to his social identity of a slave. While feeding into the social identity he develops at the hands of his owners and the entire slave-owning class, Grandison's personal identity is not sacrificed and he is loyal to his family instead of the original assumption that he would be loyal to his masters. However, as Kaplan stated, how we are identified is subject to change, which could be explained by the end of the story when Grandison flees his masters' plantation with his entire family. At this point, Grandison finally fulfills societies' expectations of how slaves acted during that time period.

The idea of two separate identities is further supported by the author, Charles W. Chesnutt. The image of Chesnutt, as seen on the stamp above, demonstrates that while he self-identified as African American, because of the social construction of identity, society would probably label him as a white man. The social identity of the 19th and 20th centuries that Chestnutt was labeled would be strikingly similar to the social identity he would have if he lived in modern day America. Because he was 1/8 black, the "one drop rule" would have made Chestnutt a black man according to the legal system, though his physical appearance would have made it incredibly easy for him to pass for a white man. The ease of his passing brings another question forward: Would it really have been considered to be passing if Chestnutt had decided to identity himself as a white man? In many ways, Chestnutt is socially observed to be of the white race. Chestnutt therefore shows that it is possible to have a racial identity that is different from the race that one personally identifies with, further demonstrating that the social perception of identity may often conflict with one's own sense of identity.

While Grandison in "The Passing of Grandison" must hide his true identity from his masters, Ellen Craft in "Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom," must hide her identity as a black woman from all who she encounters. Grandison hides his intentions and inner thoughts, but Ellen hides much more, her gender, her race, her opinions, her thoughts. Ellen creates a whole new identity for the sake of passing; she transforms herself from a healthy black woman to a disabled, sick, white man. In this story, again the distinction is made between personal and social identity, only William and Ellen Craft know who Ellen truly is, but due to an ingenious plan, society is fooled and her social identity is changed by her audience. "The Passing of Grandison" and "Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom" share a common theme that slaves are often more intelligent that their masters assume them to be. The owners often have paternalistic attitudes towards their slaves, that they are like children who must be guided and punished for doing things wrong. They do not have rights and and perceived to be better off under the guidance of their masters, which of course, gives the slaveowners the upper hand on dual counts; they are doing their duty to society by taking care of their incompetent and needy slaves, while gaining tremendous economic benefit for reaping the benefits of their labor. The social identities of slave vary from being like children, to criminals who will always run away, stealing "property" from the master whenever they get a chance, to being too crafty, to being too stupid to make it on their own. Identity is a powerful thing; in the social sense, it determines how people perceive each other, how different people are treated, our roles in our societies. Personal identity on the other hand, is how we perceive outselves and our own positions in life. In both stories about slaves who self-emancipated themselves and helped to free others, personal identity prevails, implying that how one sees herself is the most powerful thing in determining her own actions, and what she is willing to do to be free.