Suzan-Lori Parks: A Casebook

By Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.; Alycia Smith-Howard | Go to book overview

8
Digging Out of the
Pigeonhole: African-American
representation in the plays of
Suzan-Lori Parks

Andrea J. Goto

We should endeavor to show the world and ourselves our beautiful and
powerfully infinite variety. (Suzan-Lori Parks, ‘An Equation for Black
People Onstage’)

Like a quiet, destructive mould, lingering racist ideas thrive in the dark shadows of our history and language, threatening our attempts to fully achieve equality. In 1776, Americans supported the idea of a democratic country, as evidenced by the institutionalization of the anti autocratic sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence; however, an emphasis on the differences between racial communities overshadowed this ideal, even as the country became socially aware and progressive. For the past 200 years, a majority of African-American critics have demonstrated again and again a preference for racial equality while still insisting upon an essential difference between the races. Rather than drawing communities together, this condition divides, a division often drawn on ambiguous lines such as language and history. In W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1897 essay, ‘The Conservation of the Races’, he warns against the theory of difference because the culture could potentially misuse this thinking against blacks by equating difference with inferiority (294), which is exactly what happened. All kinds of racist rhetoric ensued – ideas ranging from claims that blacks originated at a different time than whites,1 to those citing medical conditions that affected only African-Americans, such as ‘Dysæsthesia Æthiopica’, otherwise known as ‘rascality’ (Cartwright: 390). Though fearing this misuse of difference theory, Du Bois nonetheless reinforces it, suggesting that profound differences exist between African-Americans and Caucasian Americans, ‘spiritual, psychical differences—undoubtedly based upon the physical, but ultimately transcending them’ (292).

The times have changed, but contemporary critics still echo Du Bois’s position. In Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks perceives America and its people as racially divided, a rather vague division based upon what she considers the unique black experience. Making this argument, hooks, like Du Bois, prevents African-Americans from shedding (metaphorically) their skin colour to express themselves in more diverse ways. Just as

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