Content of Their Character

In Ian’s post, “The Theme of Outcasts in African American Literature and Societal Views on Persons with Disabilities,” he addresses the process and impacts of social othering. He uses Big Machine to illustrate some of the forms that “outcast” has taken in our literature, including the homeless man on the bus, the Unlikely Scholars, and those working on behalf of Solomon Clay. The post then transitions to the language surrounding disability and how it functions to other people with disabilities. Then he states, “A good practice to remember to introduce people by their qualities and their relationship to you instead of by what makes them unique.” I believe that people’s qualities and what makes them unique are somewhat interchangeable, but Ian’s intent seems to be asking readers to consider character before aspects of identity.

This is of course highly reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ever-prominent quote, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” These words find a home in popular films, on the pages of U.S. history textbooks, on posters hung in elementary classrooms, and in the memory of many Americans. We have repeated these words across decades. And yet, I wonder if there is potential for revision.

When considering Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, my mind first goes to Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” The short story describes the homecoming of Dee, a young African American woman who has gone away to college. Upon her arrival, Dee tells her mother that she changed her own name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. She also wants to take artifacts from the home, including a butter churn and a quilt, that make her feel connected to her African American roots. As she holds each item she says things like, “‘Didn’t Uncle Buddy whittle it out of a tree you all used to have?’” and, “‘These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this stitching by hand.’” In class discussion, many people expressed frustration with Wangero’s character for the way she treats her family and acts as though her childhood home is a museum exhibit. We discussed whether she is appropriating her own culture. Regardless, I think that Wangero’s character represents a growing population that seeks to celebrate and draw attention to racial identity. Especially by changing her name, which is the most basic symbol of identity, Wangero is announcing her racial identity to the world. I think that Wangero would want people to see her for both the color of her skin and the content of her character.

In order to be a respectful and responsible human, one must consciously choose to understand how people self-identify and to use action and language to respect that identity. If someone wants the people around them to acknowledge their race, gender, sexual-orientation, etc. when forming an understanding of who they are, then that’s fine. If they want to be judged solely by character traits, then that’s fine too. Respecting people like this will, to borrow a phrase from Big Machine, “Invite them back in.”

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