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  • Leila E. Cole

Stereotypes: Seemingly Bound By, To, or Proactively Free From?

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” she confronts the skewed perceptions of reality and possibility that result from one-sided or limited awareness of various aspects of life, and the larger world. “Adichie challenges us to consider the power of stories to influence identity, shape stereotypes, and build paths to empathy” (The Danger of a Single Story, 2021). Simply put, stereotypes are problematic, and do not paint a comprehensive and just illustration of the subject. According to the definition by Els Rommes, shared on Stanford University’s Gendered Innovations’ website, a stereotype is a widely held simplified and essentialist belief about a specific group. Groups are often stereotyped on the basis of sex, gender identity, race and ethnicity, nationality, age, socioeconomic status, language, and so forth. Stereotypes are deeply embedded within social institutions and wider culture (Stanford). For the purpose of this piece and the written works I will consider, race and ethnicity, sex, and socioeconomic status, are the nexus for the stereotypes exhibited. In Zara Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, and Yuri Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World”, respectively, the authors challenged, reinforced, and attempted to eradicate stereotypes in their work.

Zara Neale Hurston, was a key contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, among the likes of Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois. Her work celebrated Black folklore and culture. The Harlem Renaissance was a phase of large Black movement that emerged in the early 20th century and in some ways ushered in the Civil Rights movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The social foundations of this movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to suburban spaces and from South to North; dramatically rising levels of literacy; the creation of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, “uplifting” the race, and opening socioeconomic opportunities; and developing racial pride, including pan- African sensibilities and programs (Hutchinson, 2023). The movement challenged stereotypes of what Blacks were said to be, and not to be. In a mainstream way the Harlem Renaissance recognized Blacks as more than the incompetent, illiterate, barbaric, labor-intensive-able bodies whites plucked from the African continent and saved from themselves; rejecting this notion that African Americans were incapable of seeking more for themselves —better. As the aforementioned description of the Harlem Renaissance outlines, one of the factors that heavily contributed to this renewal of culture was the wave of Blacks moving North, to cities like New York City, Minneapolis, and Chicago —for just that, a better life. To interject a dose of scientific proof, it is evidenced by the excavation of African Americans and enslaved Africans at the African Burial Ground site, right here in New York City, that there was a higher rate of malnutrition and disease in the remains of the African Americans, compared to Africans who were enslaved and taken straight from the African continent (Blakey, 1998). This indicated a higher quality of physical life among the Africans —shattering the narrative that Europeans did Africans a favor or saved them.

The caliber of talent that surfaced during the pivotal cultural movement, also known as the “New Negro Movement”, led to affirmation and the inspiration of racial pride among Black Americans (Iowa Department of Human Rights). Depicting a particularly male dominated time, “Sweat” concludes, with hardworking, mistreated and abused wife, Delia Jones, being deservedly; although through unexpected means, vindicated against her husband, Sykes. I would be remiss to not mention the irony in Sykes being resentful at the fact that Delia washes the clothes of whites; who oppress and dehumanize them, meanwhile he is stereotypically oppressive, demeaning, and outright awful to her. “He snorted scornfully...You ain’t nothing but a hypocrite...come home and wash white folks clothes on the Sabbath” (Hurston 2). He seeks to hold power over Delia, whose income they are reliant on. Socioeconomic status and existing race tensions, at least in portion, contributed to Sykes’ insecurity, and underlying feelings of emasculation —which manifested into rage, torment and abuse. Delia, the wife, is the one with a job. A shift in the narrative occurs when Delia stands up to Sykes. She recognizes that her labor is what provides for them. The tables turn in the end and Sykes is bitten by a rattle snack. Having had every intention of leaving Delia, Sykes in fact does, but not in the way he had planned. Delia is now free from the oppressive confines of their marriage. Hurston challenges society’s expectation of gender roles, particularly between husband and wife —in this case with the woman prevailing in the end.

James Baldwin, although not a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was moved, literally and figuratively by a desire to be recognized as more. Leaving the states at the age of 24 to plant roots in Paris, Baldwin didn’t want to be seen as “merely a Negro; or, even merely a Negro writer” (Baldwin 171). Similarly, Jean Toomer, expressed similar sentiments. He resisted being labeled as a Negro writer, and instead leaned heavily into his identity as an American. “What [Baldwin] wanted was something larger, bigger, wider: completeness” (Larson 12, 38). An older brother’s commitment to his mother’s last, and most heartfelt request —that he always look after his younger brother, Sonny, was the foundation of Baldwin’s, “Sonny’s Blues”. From the very beginning the story unfolds with the news that Sonny has been “picked up... in a raid” (Baldwin 17). A common Black stereotype, realized. The involvement of drugs in the situation further reinforces an often expected denominator among minority populations and communities. The narrator is met by the boy, who as far as we can tell is likely in his late 20s. It’s diminishing to refer to a man as boy. Taking another look at this work —a deeper look— through the lens of stereotypes, I can’t help but find Baldwin’s lack of identifying the narrator by name, reminiscent of the way enslaved Africans and African Americans were often stripped of their names during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and subsequent years of enslavement.

The narrator obviously plays a significant role in the story, yet, we as readers have no idea who he is, in terms of his name. What did his mother call him? The emphasis put on final conversations with his mother and the reliance she placed on him to watch over Sonny, makes it especially apparent that the exclusion of his name throughout the entire story, was an intentional choice by Baldwin. Although I find that Baldwin enforced a number of stereotypes in this work, there was also a clear attempt by Sonny to break out of stereotypes, by moving out of Harlem. The narrator’s father’s suggestion that there’s no place that’s safe, stems from seeing his musician brother murdered in the South, during the Great Migration. Leaving the racial violence in the South, only to watch his kin die in the North, rocked him. This revelation left the narrator leery of his own brother, Sonny, pursuing the newer type of jazz music he was interested in — which at the time was associated with a bohemian lifestyle and drug use. Adamant that he doesn’t want to go to school, and set on pursuing his dreams of becoming a musician, Sonny comes and goes but is powerfully portrayed among other minstrels in the final scene of the story. Even in this final scene, Baldwin’s continued focus on struggle as the plight of this Black family in Harlem, seems to deduce that one’s destiny is unavoidably centered around suffering.

Our initial impression of the scene set by Yuri Herrera’s, “Signs Preceding the End of the World” is post-apocalyptic. Defined by Merriam-Webster as, existing or occurring after a catastrophically destructive disaster, this literal and figurative disruption of the foundation is happening right in the very first chapter. On the very first page.

“I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by.” (Herrera 8)

In a metaphorical sense this theme reverberates throughout the entire novella, particularly in its final pages. In this story, we follow the journey, or errand, of the female protagonist, Makina. Sent by her mother, Cora, to deliver a note to her brother, Makina ventures off in search of him. Cora would rather not send her daughter, but as she concedes, “who else can I trust it to, a man?” (Herrera ch.1). In a seemingly advantageous position, because of aid her mother provided to Mr. Double-U years back, Makina solicits him and a few other top dogs, for a hand with her trip. With his central character defying the odds and setting off on a perilous journey, Herrera makes quite the departure from your typical story; usually boasting a feat such as this embarked by a man. This gender stereotype is further shattered by the way Makina carries herself on this archetypal odyssey. Refusing to be preyed on or victimized, she consistently holds her own in the face of boys, men, top dogs, strangers and coyote. We are forced to recognize the push and pull factors attributed to the migration of large numbers of people from Mexico to the US. Leaving their home with no choice, because of reasons like fear and poverty, to seek freedom and opportunities elsewhere. By not specifying an exact town in Mexico, Herrera can fluidly embody many different places.

A story that speaks to the shadows of colonialism —“tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust”— we see a character like Makina’s brother, unwilling to settle, and driven to go after what he feels rightfully belongs to him. Herrera really honed in on the implicit biases that plague our world, in Chapter 8, when the policeman rounds up Makina, along with half a dozen men. He degrades them with his words and proceeds to humiliate one of the men by asking him to write another poem in the notebook he’s holding. When Makina steps in and writes the poem on his behalf, because the man is far too frightened to, the policeman is left deflated. “We who came to take your jobs,...who deliver your dope... We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We the barbarians” (Herrera ch.8) is a nod to the minimizing representations of Mexicans, channeled throughout the US. This chapter is a subliminal call to action, for us to recognize our own problematic ways of referring to people, places and things. An opportunity to think critically about how we ourselves can do better. Be better. Makina’s journey prompts the reader to begin their own self reflection. It’s powerfully deliberate in stirring one to take a closer look at how we interact, and how larger spaces around us do as well. Causing the reader to confront prejudices and bigotry that are in many ways uncomfortable and hurtful. Although Makina seems to be playing out her destiny in a mechanical way, she endures —with a sudden renewal of strength at the end, when she declares, “I’m ready” (Herrera ch. 9). It’s unclear what happens to Makina next, but her making it this far, despite challenges and resistance, is a testament to the strong-willed woman she is —aware of stereotypes but moving forward despite them.

Zora Neale Hurston’s work addresses the shortcomings of the modern, western, white world’s refusal to embrace the fullness of Black people’s lived experiences (Baldwin Hurston Lecture, 2023). As said by Anthony Burgess, “The downtrodden are the great creators of slang.” In “Sweat”, through the use of vernacular, and a strong portrayal of the dynamic between wife and husband, Hurston challenges conventional gender stereotypes. Delia’s hard work, resilience and pursuit of peace, is ultimately met by the liberation she previously lacked in her marriage. Coming up from the South, there were preconceived notions about who Blacks were. In James Baldwin’s, “Sonny’s Blues”, Sonny succumbed to common Negro stereotypes, like lack of self- control, due to his drug use. For someone eager to be seen as more than a Negro, Baldwin really highlighted the trials of Black life at the time, and in turn amplified negative associations. In Yuri Herrera’s, “Signs Preceding the End of the World”, here is a woman penetrating the rather discreet world of the top dogs —who represent a sense of political hierarchy. As we follow Makina, we see the remnants of colonization, effects of globalization and crassness of migration. On the way to her errand’s destination, she proves that her gender has no bearing on her capacity to rough it, nor does immigration warrant the vitriol society and politics spew towards it.

Works Cited:

“The Danger of a Single Story.” Facing History & Ourselves, 27 January 2021, https:// Accessed 13 May 2023.

Stanford University. “Stereotypes.” Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment, Accessed 13 May 2023.

Hutchinson, George. “Harlem Renaissance: American Literature and Art.” Brittanica, 31 March 2023, Accessed 13 May 2023.

Blakey, Michael L. “The New York African Burial Ground Project: An Examination of Enslaved Lives, A Construction of Ancestral Ties”, Transforming Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 1, 1998, p. 56.

“Harlem Renaissance.” Iowa Department of Human Rights, harlem-renaissance#:~:text=African%20Americans%20were%20encouraged%20to,D.C. %20between%201919%20and%201926. Accessed 13 May 2023.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Sweat.” Full Text PDF, 1926, p. 2.

Larson, Charles. Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer & Nella Larsen. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993, p.12, 38. ISBN 087745437X

Herrera, Yuri. Signs Preceding the End of the World. Translated by Lisa Dillman, And Other Stories, 2015, p. 8. ISBN 9781908276421

Herrera 2015, Chapter 1.

Herrera 2015, Chapter 8.

Herrera 2015, Chapter 9.

Baldwin Hurston Lecture, Spring 2023,



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