The Influence of the Harsh Racist and Sexist Environment of the Authors on the Pieces

In American Literature concerning written by and about minorities, the environment that the author was in at the time, and grew up in, often affected the subject matter and how the author portrays it. This trend is especially evident in literature written in the 20th century, in works by authors such as Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Anne Sexton, and Claude Mckay. These authors had experienced racism, subjugation, and hate simply for the color of their skin and for their gender, and they managed to turn it into a positive creative force, and wrote classic pieces such as “Theme for English B”, “A Raisin in the Sun”, “Self in 1958” and “If we Must Die”.

These classic examples of American literature were written in a reaction to the environment that the author lived in, and they will be remembered and studied for a very long time.

First off, in the 1920’s, during the Harlem renaissance, and especially in New York, many African American artists were experiencing a newfound demand for their creations.

Among these artists were the likes of Langston Hughes, a member of the emerging African American middle class and an author who tried to reflect how the majority of the African American race felt towards social issues through his poems.

In the poem “Theme for English B” he “converses” with his English teacher (who is white) about the similarities and differences between their lives, based solely on their race. He points out that they really aren’t all that different in lines 21-25 where he says, “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.

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I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. /I like a pipe for a Christmas present, /or records–Bessie, bop, or Bach.” He concludes the stanza with, “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like /the same things other folks like who are other races. /So will my page be colored that I write?” (Hughes 25-28) These passages show his disdain for whites who think that they are better than African Americans, and how he finds their hatred and judgment frivolous and useless. This very clearly illustrates the environment and attitudes that the author lived in and was exposed to at the time he wrote this piece.

However, Langston Hughes’ attitude toward inequality is very different from Lorraine Hansberry’s view in her play, A Raisin in the Sun and Anne Sexton’s ideals in her poem “Self in 1958”. In the 1950’s, the women of America were rising up against popular gender roles in a second wave of feminism. Both African American and White women were displeased with how they were treated by their husbands, sons, and by society in general, and this is apparent in these two pieces.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter, the “man” of the house, so to speak, does not respect his sister Beneatha’s decision to become a doctor. This is evident in the passage where Walter says, “Why do you have to go and be a doctor? [If] you’re so interested in sick people, go be a nurse, like other women. Or get married, and shut up.” (Hansberry 32). In this time period, it was very rare for a woman to be a doctor, let alone an African American one, and Beneatha’s environment caused her to aspire to break social norms and become one of these few. In “Self in 1958” Anne Sexton paints a picture of what it’s like to be a housewife in the 50’s. She is “a synthetic doll… with nylon legs, and luminous arms….. [and] live[s] in a doll’s house” (Sexton 9,33,11).

This passage shows how she feels fake, a doll in a doll’s world, and is not pleased with that fact. The role of the housewife in 1950’s America was one of submission and servantry, constantly trying to please the man by keeping up appearances. In both of these pieces of literature, the environment is reflected in how the authors react to social injustice.

And lastly, In the poem “If we Must Die”, by Claude Mckay, the environment is especially reflected in the literature, in references to the race riot in chicago that had occurred earlier that year, nicknamed “The red summer of 1919”. In lines 1-8, Mckay writes:

If we must die-let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die-oh, let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

This passage has references to fighting, being abused and taken advantage of, and mocked. These references to the Red Summer, a summer when there were race riots in Chicago that lasted one week, in which dozens were killed and hundreds wounded. This reference would be much more obvious if the poem was read in the environment that it was written about. The passage also illustrates how many African Americans’ felt about the riots, having a mentality along the lines of “if we must die, let’s make it for a cause and achieve something” The environment and events happening in the time period are the very reason that this poem was written on the subject that it is, and in the style that it is.

In summary, the environment that Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Anne Sexton, and Claude Mckay were immersed in at the time that they wrote these pieces affected the subject, tone, and attitude of the literature. This is especially accentuated due to the fact that these pieces of literature are reactionary to social stimuli relating to the often oppressed minorities of the time period, as a way of pointing out what is wrong with society, and showing the struggles that were faced by common, everyday people. These authors reacted to the environment as anyone would when faced with a situation that displeased them, and did so effectively and memorably.

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The Influence of the Harsh Racist and Sexist Environment of the Authors on the Pieces. (2023, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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