Popular and internationally well known African American author and poet Maya Angelou included the poem “Coleridge Taylor” in the anthology of poems entitled “I Shall Not Be Moved.” Angelou (born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928) has published six autobiographies which includes experiences of growing up in a segregated White supremacist southern town (Stamps, Arkansas.) In the poem “Coleridge Jackson” she has captured the pathological effect that living under a White supremacist system has on African American families. Coleridge Jackson’s violent behaviour towards his family after being subjected to his employer’s White supremacist taunts - for several hours of every day - is something even he cannot understand. Angelou writes of Coleridge Jackson’s and even the African American community’s reaction to the violence unleashed on the Jackson family: “Everybody, even Coleridge, wondered (the next day, or even that same night)” However Jackson’s employer knew exactly what was happening and why: “Everybody but the weasly little sack-of-bones boss with his envious little eyes, he knew. He always knew. And when people told him about Coldridge’s family, about the black eyes and the bruised faces, the broken bones, Lord how that scrawny man grinned.” Coleridge Jackson’s employer/tormentor delighted in keeping his employee in a state of anxiety and torment apparently enjoying the Jackson family’s plight and the power he wielded over their lives. “And the next day, for a few hours, he treated Coleridge nice. Like Coleridge had just done him the biggest old favor. Then, right after lunch, he’d start on Coleridge again. “Here, Sambo, come here. Can’t you move any faster than that? Who on earth needs a lazy ni—er?” And Coleridge would just stand there. His eyes sliding away, lurking at something else.”Coleridge Jackson’s reaction to the White supremacist baiting to which he was subjected daily was to become violently abusive to his family. In many cases when someone is subjected to abuse their reaction is to in turn abuse those over whom they have power. Angelou’s Coleridge Jackson although fictional could be based on an actual person or a composite of several such men. Witnessing human nature and reaction to certain situations can be fascinating and sometimes scary. There are various reactions to the kind of oppression to which Coleridge Jackson was subjected. Some people fight back, some turn their anger and shame into violence against those who cannot fight back while others succumb and internalize the abuse. The late South African freedom fighter Steve Biko is credited with this statement: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” The results of at least two experiments have demonstrated the effect of continued abuse on the psyche of the abused.
Beginning in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (April 4, 1968) a White elementary school teacher in Iowa conducted an experiment with her students which powerfully demonstrated these effects. Although elementary school teacher Jane Elliot intended to teach her students the effects of racism on African Americans there were some “side effects” of this experiment. Elliot divided the third grade class of all White students along eye colour and ascribed negative traits to children based on eye colour. First the brown eyed children then the blue eyed children. The reaction was the same for both groups when their eye colour was designated the “undesirable” colour. The children who up to that point were fairly well behaved, co-operative and friendly with each other were fighting and bullying each other depending on which eye colour was considered superior or inferior. All this happened within a few hours of the experiment. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bWlTZZN3DY&feature=related Since then Elliot has conducted this experiment with adults with the same results (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viRxQ_X3igU&feature=endscreen&NR=1).Many people take on the role that is assigned to them by society. The other experiment that demonstrates this is the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo. With 24 male university students who were paid $15.00 a day the experiment began on August 14, 1971. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oC5hl1BLUiw&feature=related In less than a week the experiment had to be abandoned because even though the students were mostly White middleclass males they very quickly internalized their roles. Two of the “prisoners” were emotionally traumatized in a very short time and the “prison guards” very quickly became sadistic bullies. Some of the “prisoners” became rebellious and fought back and the entire experiment degenerated as these University students bought into the roles they were assigned for the experiment. Like Angelou’s fictional character Coleridge Jackson, the third grade students in Iowa and the university students in Zimbardo’s experiment some of us who immigrate to this country internalize the roles this society ascribes to us. We need to resist internalizing the roles that are ascribed to us in this culture, this society. We know who we are and must resist the dominant culture which includes the media redefining us. And most importantly, especially for our young people, never live down to the lowered expectations!