There is Confusion: It Does Matter if You are Black or White

It doesn’t matter if your Black or White - Michael Jackson
This song lyric from Michael Jackson’s 1991 music video represents the basic belief of Joanna, the main character of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion. Joanna begins the story with the thought of “I’ll be great too” (Fauset 14). Her belief in the equality of the races, however, is eventually proven to be a falsity. The belief is merely a result of her age and the fact that she is unable to comprehend the reality that she is an African American will hinder her strive towards greatness. The hindrance of racism becomes evident in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s story when we investigate the themes of Joanna’s drive for independence, the American melting pot, and the prejudice towards Joanna.
Joanna’s character embodies more of a male characteristic when contrasted to that of feminine characteristics. Constance Borab defines the feminine and masculine characteristics in her essay “Freeing the Female Voice: New Models and Materials for Teaching”. Borab writes, “boys’ identities are formed by separation from their parents, especially their mothers” (Borab 77). Whereas, Borab counters, “girls continue to identify with their mothers as they develop their identities, all along being taught that connection is important and that cooperation and maintenance relationships are key to their (good) natures” (Borab 77). Constance Borab’s idea also applies to Joanna’s character. Joanna rarely, even as a young girl, request advice from her mother on how to be successful. Instead, she turns to her father for advice on how to be great. Her father, in return gives her advice on black female role models who have similar characteristics. For example, Joel gives Joanna names of black women such as “Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatly, [and] Sojourner Truth” (Fauset 14). These women won freedom by adopting the male characteristics by wanting their independence from slavery. This independence, Borab believes, is part of the “logic of domination” (Borab 78). The aspect of logic of domination is part of Borab’s further definition of the masculine character. Borab writes that the masculine characteristics also encompass the ideas of value-hierarchical thinking, value dualisms, and logic of domination” (Borab 78).
Joanna’s character also embodies these masculine characteristics. Joanna’s value-hierarchical thinking and value dualisms become evident when we contrast her difference in attitude towards Maggie and Peter. Joanna tends to look down on Maggie because she considers Maggie to be inferior to herself. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in the letter that Joanna writes to Maggie regarding the possible marriage of Maggie to Joanna’s brother Phillip. The value-hierarchical thinking is exemplified in the letter by this line: “that only people of like position should marry each other” (Fauset 86). Joanna continues on in her letter to Maggie to say that she (Joanna) hardly thinks “that would be true in the case of you [Maggie] and Phillip” (Fauset 86). Therefore, Joanna thinks that Maggie, because of her family’s low social status, “would only be a hindrance to [Phillip]” (Fauset 87). This inferiority is easily contrasted to Joanna’s view of Peter. Joanna considers Peter to be an equal to herself. Therefore, she treats Peter with respect and optimism. Joanna notes that Peter and her both have similar ideas of becoming great. For example, after class Peter and Joanna tell each other about their own futures. Peter explains to Joanna, that he wants to be a surgeon. However, he doubts his plans of becoming a surgeon based on the colour of his skin. He even mentions to Joanna that her ideal of being a great singer is flawed because “colored people don’t get any chance at that kind of thing” (Fauset 45). Joanna, despite coming into contact with her first sense of prejudice, responds that African American people can do anything just as well “as anyone else” (Fauset 45). In fact, Joanna counters, that Peter will “be famous, too…a wonderful doctor” (Fauset 45). This dual value-hierarchical thinking and value dualism between Maggie and Peter show Joanna’s masculine characteristics.
Joanna’s logic of domination is also reflected in her relationship with Maggie. Joanna dominates Maggie’s attitude towards Phillip by insisting that Maggie is more of a hindrance for him, and that Phillip is socially to good for Maggie. This belief is also transferred to her belief in Joanna’s independence. Joanna’s logic that nothing will stand in her way in becoming a successful dancer and singer dominates her mind. However, this logic is flawed because Joanna lives in a society that is riddled with prejudice. This prejudice will eventually force Joanna to realize that her dream of becoming a dancer is impossible to attain.
The concept of the American melting pot furthers the prejudice that Joanna encounters on her flawed journey towards greatness. Lewis Gannett’s idea of the American melting pot explains the prejudice in which Joanna finds herself trapped in. Gannett’s belief that:
Anglo-Saxon Americans…do not want to be fused with to her races, traditions, and cultures. If they talk of the melting-pot they mean by it a process in which the differences of the immigrant races will be carried away like scum, leaving only the pure ore of their own traits. (qtd. in Levine 110).
In other words, Anglo-Saxon white Americans want everyone to conform to the American cultural traditions and leave their own foreign cultures behind. The white Americans believe that they are the iron of the United States, whereas, the coloured people are the scum.
This contrasts to Joanna’s plight because people reject her ability to perform based on the colour of her skin. An example of this rejection can be found when Joanna searches for a manager. Joanna is given an opportunity to showcase her skills for a prospective manager. However, the manager cancels the audition by leaving a note saying that she is “expecting an old friend of mine and must keep the evening free. I shall try to arrange to have you call, just the same, not this month I’m afraid, but certainly in February” (Fauset 163). Joanna takes this cancellation as yet another swipe at her because of the colour of her skin. This is because the note can be translated into being a nice way of the manager saying to Joanna that she may be a good dancer, but because of her skin colour, the manager couldn’t accept her. The translation of the note from the manager is supported by Fauset when she writes, “it is true that [Joanna] had seen her own people hindered, checked in account of color, but hardly any of the things she had greatly wanted had affected her cause” (Fauset 163). Joanna, for the first time, had been hindered by the fact that she was black, yet she was surprised to see the racism despite the fact that other people of the African American race had been hindered in their progress towards greatness.
Joanna’s independence and logic domination are aspects of her masculine characteristics had never before let her “know how to envisage disappointment” (Fauset 164). Joanna’s logic domination only allowed her to see the positive aspects of the prejudice being levelled against her. Instead of viewing her separate dance class with Bertully as being as a result of her being black, Joanna viewed them as being due to the fact that “she would become a dancer on the stage” (Fauset 164). The sense of disappointment that Joanna felt in not being able to attract a manager because of her skin colour wouldn’t be her first. Joanna would continue to come up against hurdles that would constrict Joanna’s efforts in becoming a great dancer.
The prejudice against Joanna is based on the belief that the iron ore and the scum of American society should live separately. The segregation exists in order to ensure that scum does not contaminate the purity of the iron ore of the society. The concept of segregation is best described in Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg’s essay, “The Way We Do the Things We Do: Enunciation and Effect in the Multicultural Classroom.” Goldberg describes segregation as forming walls that limit the “spaces marked Your and Me, They and We, and never the twain shall meet” (Goldberg 157). In other words, segregation is the creation of walls that divide the American scum in order to protect the iron ore.
In Joanna’s case, the walls of segregation have forced her to learn how to dance in a separate class with Bertully, and forcing her to dance with independent shows and not for the large production agencies. The contamination of the iron ore is supported in Fauset’s story by Snyder’s attitude towards Joanna. Snyder, after rejecting Bertully’s offer to manage Joanna, says to Bertully “You’ll ruin your trade teachin’ niggers, Bertully” (Fauset 149). Snyder is telling Bertully to give up teaching African Americans hoping to be dancers because the ‘scum’ of society will contaminate Bertully’s image as a dance instructor.
At the end of Fauset’s novel, Joanna has decided to adopt the expectations that the American society has of her. Joanna’s role, according to American society, is to not interfere in the superior white culture and assume the role of a female. These expectations forced Joanna’s career aspirations to the sidelines. Joanna’s role in marriage as a feminine character forced her to assume the role as a maintainer of her relationship to Peter. This new role also says that Joanna must support her companion Peter in his striving for greatness in his endeavours. Joanna’s creed of greatness has evolved to fit her evolving role from independence and masculinity to companionship and feminine characteristics. Joanna’s new creed “calls for nothing but happiness (Fauset 297). This evolution from greatness to happiness evolved out of the Joanna’s realization that the forces of prejudice prevented her from achieving her goal of greatness. Joanna’s new creed of happiness will help her to ensure that both Peter and her children will have the support to attain their goals of greatness where Joanna failed. Joanna realizes that she will never achieve her goal of greatness as a dancer in a large production company, however, this should not hinder Peter’s goal of becoming a surgeon.
The prejudice of Joanna’s time is still evident today. The media portrays the African Americans as being the scum of society. An example of this, as Jane Skelton writes, in her essay “Multiple Voices, Multiple Identities: Teaching African American Literature”, is “most of the black people [we]…see and hear about through the mainstream media are the subjects of insidious ‘real-life’ crime shows, the products of broken homes, or single-parent families” (Skelton 55). Accordingly, our children, perhaps, will carry forth the prejudice that African American people are not equal to whites socially. Therefore, Michael Jackson was wrong because it does seem that it does matter if you are black or white.
Works Cited
Borab, Constance. “Freeing the Female Voice: New Models and Materials for Teaching.” Teaching African American Literature. Ed. Maryemma Graham, Sharon Pineault-Burke, and Marianna White Davis. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Fauset, Jesse. There is Confusion. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.
Goldburg, Elizabeth Swanson. “The Way We Do the Things We Do: Enunciation and Effect in the Multicultural Classroom.” Teaching African American Literature. Ed. Maryemma Graham, Sharon Pineault-Burke, and Marianna White Davis. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Jackson, Michael. Black or White, Sony Music, 1991.
Levine, Lawrence W. The Opening of the American Mind. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Skelton, Jane. “Multiple Voices, Multiple Identities: Teaching African American Literature.” Teaching African American Literature. Ed. Maryemma Graham, Sharon Pineault-Burke, and Marianna White Davis. New York: Routledge, 1998.