Sidney Smith’s 1820 short reading Who Reads an American Book introduces us to a new perspective on people’s interpretations of America’s first. According to Sidney Smith, a British writer, America has not introduced anything worth honoring or naming; instead, they are doing quite the opposite: taking the identity of others. Smith writes, “The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton” (Smith). Although America was still a freshly established country when this written work was released in 1820, its ties to England were still strong. Smith admits this by assuring readers that people like Shakespeare have a significant influence in this country. However, is Smith wrong? Shakespeare’s work is regarded as the father of literature in America when we look at the famous literary canon. Shakespeare’s works are mentioned frequently in the K-12 curriculum. Even in colleges, there are classes dedicated solely to Shakespeare’s works.
Smith’s words are regarded as factual because they include the names of well-known British authors. He asks, “Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans, their Windhams, their Horners, their Wilberforces?—where their Arkwrights, their Watts, their Davys?—their Robertsons, Blairs, Smiths, Stewarts, Paleys and Malthuses?—their Porsons, Parts, Burneys, or Blomfields?—their Scotts, Campbells, Byrons, Moores, or Crabbes?—their Siddonses, Kembles, Keans, or ONeils—their Wilkies, Laurences, Chantrys?” (Smith). Smith’s words reveal what I believe is part of the ugly truth in the United States; what are those names we choose to use concerning our history and discoveries. The concept of stolen identity is spread throughout Smith’s writing; we celebrate the work of Shakespeare but not of Maya Angelou; we celebrate George Washington as a hero but consider Malcolm X a criminal. But Smith’s questions in the year 2022 still stand, who are the people that make America honest and noble?
As a Black woman who has seen and experienced racism, discrimination, and sexism and is a first-generation American, I am solely witnessing America’s hatred towards people of color. Sidney Smith writes, “Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow creatures may buy and sell and torture?” (Smith). Sidney Smith’s work is essential in understanding who he considered important within his knowledge of honoring writers. When mentioning names such as Campbell, Paleys, Wilkies, etc., he says the names and honors those who have left their mark. When ridiculing the United States, his discussion upon enslavement is essential in grasping what I believe should be the United States’s need to say people of color’s names. Enslavement occurred in this nation because of the need for control and power; people of color experienced enslavement in ways that can not be put into words. After enslavement was “abolished,” a new form of terror was constructed known as lynching. Lynchings were violent public acts done by white people in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily in the South, to intimidate and subjugate Black people. Lynchings are often associated with images of Black men and women being hung from trees, including torture, mutilation, mutilation, and humiliation. Some of the victims were set on fire. Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropel and performed by Billie Holiday, depicts lynching as “Southern trees bear a strange fruit blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” (Meeropel, Holiday). This piece is a haunting protest against racism’s inhumanity. Those strange fruits hanging from those trees were the lives of Black folks who were often wrongly accused by white people.
Saying the names of the Black lives that have been taken from their families was an element of Percival Everett’s resistance and honor in his novel The Trees. The reality of the murder of Emmett Till is infused within this text is what captivated my attention. For instance, most of the main characters were of color, and through their reactions to the day-to-day events found in the novel, it became clear to me why saying people’s names is revolutionary. Everett writes “Granny C stared off again, “About something I wished I hadn’t done. About the lie, I told all them years back on that n***** boy” (9). Readers are unaware of the issue Granny C was alluding to when they read this scene. The phrase used to characterize the individual is discriminatory and demeaning, while also othering the individual. However, this particular section exemplifies a comparable aspect of Smith’s criticism of the United States. As he previously stated, this is a country where Black people were regarded as objects and exclusively property. Names are the weapon for visibility, recognition, and respect, it is only after the novel’s narrative twist that I was able to realize the novel’s significance. Everett writes, “Long time ago. It was their daddies who killed Emmett Till back in the fifties” (78). Emmett Till’s name has enormous significance because it reflects the harsh truth of the United States and its ongoing ramifications. Emmett Till was only 14 years old when he was murdered in the state of Mississippi by two white men. Many Black Americans were inspired to join the Civil Rights Movement after his death. Percival Everett was able to respect Emmett Till through his choice of words by not hiding his identity or the events that occurred to him. Saying his name was a noble act of resistance.
Saying someone’s name is highly significant, especially in the Black community. During enslavement, enslavers would modify and give enslaved people new names to which they had to respond to. Enslaved people were frequently marked with an enslaver’s last name to signify who they were forced to labor for. I was struck by Everett’s work because of the respect he paid to the victims of lynching. His work prompted me to see the default America has when it comes to honoring their successes and how the inventors are people of color who rarely receive credit for their work. For instance, Daniel Hale Williams was an African American surgeon and was the first surgeon to perform successful open-heart surgery. African American nurse Mary Van Brittan Brown, created a home security system in which the makeup is similar to those being used today. These are just a few examples of the way people of color have contributed so much to our society but are usually not recognized. By naming people like Dale Hale Williams and Mary Van Britan Brown, I am honoring those who came before me as well as those who are distinctive and deserving of recognition.