Richard Wright did not go out one day and say, "All right, itís time for me to change the world." Instead he wrote about his life in Black Boy, he shed light on the injustices that were occurring in Native Son, and that ultimately opened the publicís eyes more than a declaration of change would have. Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, "But let the world dream otherwise, / We wear the mask." We have all worn a mask, because we have all wanted or needed to be someone we are not. Through his early years, Wright did not wear this mask, and every time it got him in trouble. As time passed, he learned that whites would not tolerate him unless the mask was on. He felt there was no need for such a thing because there was nothing wrong with himself, but appeasing whites he had no choice. "I entered the library as I had always done when on errands for whites, but I felt that I would somehow slip up and betray myself. I doffed my hat, stood a respectful distance from the desk, looked as unbookish as possible, and waited for the white patrons to be taken care of" (Wright 270). He pretended to be stupid not because he wanted to be stupid, but because whites wanted him to be stupid.
Poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay also portrayed injustices by writing the truth. "Iíve Known Rivers" by Hughes, one of his most published poems, was written because he loved Negroes and his father did not. He could not understand why, and out came the poem, clearly portraying the pride of African culture flowing like rivers through time, yet the experiences at these rivers are the shameful memories of slavery. Lines 2-3 show the underlying conflict of pride and shame, "Iíve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of / human blood in human veins." In a memoir about his poem, he writes, "how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage." But ironically in times of freedom to go down a river would none other but epitomize the feeling.
Claude McKay wrote along the same lines as Hughes. In a sonnet called "Like a Strong Tree," he portrays the spreading of African culture not through rivers, but through the roots of a tree. Instead of extirpation, the tree grows stronger yet, and the roots grow longer. "Like a strong tree that in the virgin earth / Sends far its roots through rock and loam and clay." Roots that can pass through rock, loam, and clay parallels the African culture which had passed through bondage, capture, and slavery.
Ruby Bridges, another change agent, was probably the bravest of them all. As a six-year-old, she crossed an invisible line and entered an all white school. "On Rubyís first day, a large crowd of angry white people gathered outside the Franz Elementary School. The people carried signs that said they didnít want black children in a white school. People called Ruby names; some wanted to hurt her" (Coles 8). She stuck through a year of injustices and at the end, there were more. The lesson she wanted us to learn, when she spoke to us, was that there are always going to be injustices, but if we just get to know people, prejudices will no longer exist. There are enemies in every race, but there are also the protagonists. Her brother was shot eleven times in the head by people who looked just as he did; one cannot assume that just because he was black, whites killed him. No race is perfect, but every race is good.
There is another six-year-old that has been forced into a situation he understands nothing of, a situation he did not ask to be in. He is EliŠn GonzŠlez. "Prodded to draw a picture, EliŠn drew a boat and some waves and explained his mother had not drowned and gone to heaven but had washed ashore and lost her memory. As he floated for two days in his rubber tube, EliŠn recounted, he was protected from the sharks by friendly dolphins" (Contreras, Thomas 27). His story is not one just about coming to America and escaping captivity. It is also a story about the already edgy relationship between Cuba and the US. EliŠn has forced us to look at other governments, other rulers, and other beliefs. He is a change agent, and like Ruby Bridges, he has no idea what is happening. He might as well believe it is Mardi Gras.
All these change agents are challenging injustice in one way or another, through literature, poetry, or speech. Every little thing they have done is something to be proud of. Anything we can do is also something we should be proud of. They have tried and we should try for civil justice for all, and not just a legislation that says we are all equal. Promises mean nothing, and can easily be broken, but true justice shall withstand.
Additional Resources (Not Appearing on Sheet)
Wright, Richard. Black Boy (1937). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1966.
Contreras, Joseph, and Evan Thomas. "The EliŠn Endgame." Newsweek 10 Apr. 2000: 27.