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Friday, July 29, 2011

Essay on August Wilson's Jitney

Background on the Social and Political Situation
It is very ironic that a country known for its advocacy on liberty, promotion of the ideals of democracy and protection of the sacredness of human rights had at one point in its history tolerated racial discrimination.  It is sad because going back further in this history, United States once accepted institutional slavery as a way of life.  In fact, slavery had become so accepted that a person’s social standing then was measured in terms of the number of African-American slaves each family had.  The more slaves a person had, the higher a person’s status is in the society. 

Even with the formal abolition of slavery after the Civil War, equality was never attained and discrimination continued against African Americans.  A study was conducted on the impact of slavery and discrimination against African Americans.  It showed that African American children were so affected by institutionalized slavery and discrimination that they would choose white dolls over black ones which is an indication that they disliked or even hated themselves.   

The American Civil War ended in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy and the overthrow of slavery.  It was expected by the African Americans that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable, rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” will finally become a reality.   

Several amendments to the US Constitution had been ratified which not only accorded legal protection to the newly freed slaves but also confirmed the abolition of slavery.  These were the Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment.  

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was finally ratified in 1865 which confirmed the abolition of slavery by providing that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed which accorded legal rights to the newly freed slaves by granting them due process and equal protection by providing that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.... nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”   

In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified which protected the rights of the newly freed slaves to vote by providing that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

These Amendments meant that all rights and privileges given to white Americans will finally be conferred upon the African Americans.  Despite the abolition of slavery and these amendments to the constitution, the institutionalized racial discrimination continued even during the period of Reconstruction and for several decades after.  It seemed that the rights granted to the African Americans have all been limited to paper and have never been actually implemented.  African Americans were often treated differently than the whites in almost every part of the United States.  Laws were passed by state legislatures that legalized and even mandated the segregation of races. 

As proof of this mind-set is enactment of several Jim Crow Laws which legalized provision of equal but separate facilities to the White and the African Americans.  Jim Crow is not actually a person, rather, Jim Crow is the representation of the legalized segregation that was implemented and practiced throughout the country after the end of the Civil War.  Jim Crow is said to refer to a character in the minstrel show which covered his face with charcoal and performed a dance that resembled the movements of a crow.  Jim Crow was associated with black inferiority which was often the subject in these shows.  Before the end of the 19th Century, meaning of Jim Crow had evolved to include the legalized racial discrimination by way of segregation of races in common areas such as schools, buses, restaurants and theaters.  Jim Crow laws therefore refer to the laws that were passed after the end of the Civil War which banned African Americans in public places such as restaurants, hospitals, parks, schools and barber shops.  These laws resulted in the eventual creation of separation public facilities for African Americans and for the white. There were other acts of discrimination that were given the semblance of legality such as the urban renewal and development during the 1960s and the 1970s. 

These were the situations before and during the 1970s.  These were the situations which August Wilson wanted to portray not only among the white Americans but even the African Americans

Jitney by August Wilson

During the 20th Century, the same state of affairs continued.  The Jim Crow Laws however have been abolished.  The Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that the Separate but Equal principle is unconstitutional and illegal. In the 20th Century, new legislations were likewise enacted such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans Against Disability in Employment Act, Pay Discrimination Act, Age Discrimination Act and other employment legislations seeking to give more rights to the African Americans.  However, despite the abolition of this doctrine and the enactment of various legislations promoting equality, nothing substantial has been attained by the African Americans.  No substantial changes in the treatment of African Americans have been made. 

This is the setting of the play Jitney.  Set in the year 1970 where African Americans have long been promised equal treatment not only in employment but also in the exercise of civil and political rights.  With the Amendments in the United States Constitution and the enactment of new legislations designed to promote equality, it would seem that the African Americans were forgotten people in the mainstream society.  According to director Kathryn Hunter-Williams, the 1970s was the forgotten time.  “After the civil rights, movement, after Martin Luther King, there were al promises of the Civil Rights Act but not many had come to fruition.  The old world was gone, but the new one new one really hadn’t arrived yet.” 

Her statements reflect the concerns of many African Americans.  Slavery was a thing of the past.  Jim Crow Laws and the Separate but Equal doctrine had long been discarded.  Yet change has not come to America.  African Americans still continue to struggle against discrimination.  Inequality was still widespread.

Just like other playwrights and authors of his time, August Wilson wanted to speak out about the reality of the situation among African Americans.  The United States has not changed.  The bigotry still remains.  Through the “Jitney” August Wilson wanted to show the world the experiences of the African American during the 1970s.  He wanted to give voice to the masses of African-Americans. (Sandra G. Shannon, College Literature 3) He wanted to be their voice and to be the one to tell them about their untold stories.  He wanted to portray the intricate details of the daily struggle of African Americans just for them to survive.  He wanted to discuss the difficult but real relationship with the laws and the prevailing system that deny them opportunity to live a productive life. 

The story of Booster, Becker’s son, who was released from prison after serving his sentence for the murder of his White girlfriend, highlights the discrimination in the society.  At this time, interracial relationship was still not acceptable.  The rich father of Booster’s girlfriend persuaded her daughter to accuse him of raping her.  She was forced to oblige which led Booster to kill her for lying.    

The background of the operation of a semi-illegal cab service is in itself a declaration of the discriminatory treatment against African-Americans.  It bears stressing that at the time it was common for African Americans to be refused taxi ride.  In fact, the cab drivers’ refusal to give African-Americans a ride in their cabs was a fact of urban life. (“Cambridge Companion to August Wilson” 12) Even if an African-American was fortunate enough to be given a ride, he will still be denied access to the front seat by the cab driver.  This was the reason why the Jitney was created.  It represented an underground industry among African Americans used by them as a means of transportation to serve their fellow African Americans who were denied to service by cab drivers.    

More importantly, he wanted to tell the audience the richness and uniqueness of the African American culture which was neglected for so many Centuries. He wanted his readers to realize by portraying and re-enacting important events in black history the changes that were happening in the African-American culture.   According to August Wilson, he wanted to “to focus upon what I felt were the most important issues confronting Black Americans for that decade, so ultimately they could stand as a record of Black experience over the past hundred years presented in the form of dramatic literature. What you end up with is a kind of review, or re-examination, of history. Collectively they can read certainly not as a total history, but as some historical moments.” (Sandra Shannon 3)

The intergenerational conflict between Becker and his soon Booster brought about by their differences in their perspectives was one of the main themes in the play. Becker despite twenty (20) years has passed since the time his son Booster was convicted of murder remains angry at his son for having committed such crime and for disgracing him.  He may have blamed Booster for the subsequent death of his wife.  Becker was depicted as an old-fashioned African-American who upholds values. On the other hand, Booster represented the young generation of African Americans who had a different set of values and was consumed by self-hatred.  These young African-Americans were depicted as having a thug-like behavior and were willing to do almost anything for revenge.

The fact is that he could not understand the reason why Booster should commit such crime.  Booster, on the other hand, felt that his father did not understand him.  After his release, his return to his old neighborhood signaled the desire to reunite with his father but to no avail.  He later on informed him that the reason for murdering her was because she lied to him and accused him of raping her when that was not the truth as they were lovers.

Wilson also tackled the problem of materialism in the African American society.  One of the characters in the story was obsessed about giving a good life to his girlfriend.  He wanted to be good provider but there was no employment opportunity for him forcing him engage in illegal activities just for him to be able to provide for his future family. The values have been replaced by desire for material wealth which was mainly denied by the society. 

Another important theme in the story was the urban renewal which was common even during the 1950s until the 1970s.  In the play, though the characters in the story had their own issues and problems to deal with, they share the same common problem which was the intended demolition of their neighborhood. (Rose Lloyd 2) Urban renewal efforts during the 1970s were very common.  This meant that the government took efforts to revitalize aging and decaying inner cities.  This included massive demolition, slum clearance, and rehabilitation of neighborhoods.  These efforts were supported by legislations such as the Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation Act of 1941, the Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act of 1947, and the Relocation Act of 1947.  On its fact, the efforts meant improvement for the urban areas.  However, the urban renewal was often criticized by the African Americans and considered as acts leading to the “Negro Removal.” There was a common perception among African Americans that they received little benefit from the program compared to the white Americans. 

Jitney is a classic example of art imitating life.  It is an accurate reflection of the African American experiences not only during the 1970s but even decades ago.  It was an affirmation of the daily struggles that they had to endure as a race because of the discriminatory treatment they suffered.  More importantly it does not only communicate to the white Americans but even among African Americans that they are changing.  It reminds that they the values they once hold so dear are being lost in the midst of the materialistic desire and the discrimination they are experiencing. 

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