The use of the term Native American, whether in the open or in private mirrors the ancient and modern systems of ethnic classification in the American society. As a definite descriptor, the term comprises of diverse segments in the American population commonly referred to as Americans of Black origin.
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The Native Americans have also used this term as a depiction of their individuality, authority, boldness, pride, and clamor for human rights. For a long time, there has been a heated debate between non-white and white Americans over the status of the Native American in the society. This debate can only be understood by looking at various texts written on this subject over the years.
The best depiction of race in early American writing is perhaps found in Benjamin Franklins’ Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America. These “Remarks,” which Franklin wrote down in the last quarter of the 18th century mainly consist of diverse Native American practices such as those dealing with the treatment of visitors, as well as descriptions of interactions between Native Americans and whites.
By referring to “Savages,” many people may be led to think that this is another racist attack on Native Americans but in reality, Franklin remarks are designed to challenge the use of the term.
In the opening statement Franklin says, “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility. They think the same of theirs” (Franklin 1). In this statement, Franklin observes that whites think Native Americans to be an uncivilized lot.
In order to disapprove this theory, he goes ahead to suggest that all cultures show signs of “civility and rudeness” and in the paragraphs that follow, presents several portions of evidence showing that Native Americans’ behavior is often civil and logical. While attempting to do so, Franklin openly presents the whites as the uncivilized and illogical lot by the manner in which they receive visitors.
Apart from presenting the Native Americans as civilized people, Franklin cleverly presents them as obedient compared to their white counterparts. This is seen when he says, “there is no force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment” (Franklin 2).
This could only be used to mean that whites are the disobedient lot, which apparently needs prisons and law enforcers to punish the offenders amongst them. It is indeed ironical to note that the whites treat Native Americans as though they are insolent people who are bound to cause problems given a slight opportunity. When an Indian goes to Albany to conduct some business, his host treats him in a hostile and cold manner.
This hostility is also evident in the members of the local church where the Indian goes with his host who apparently refuses to discuss anything business on the day when they “meet to learn good things.” It is indeed ironical to note that while Hans had initially agreed to give four pounds for the Native Americans’ Beaver, he changes his position after the meeting and says that he can only offer “three shillings and six pence.”
According to the Native American, this does not come as a surprise to him since it only comes to “confirm his suspicions” that the meeting where the white people are supposed to learn good things is indeed held to “consult how to cheat Indians in the price of Beaver” (Franklin 6).
In the above narration, it is obvious that there is a deep sated mistrust between the whites and the Native Americans with each side adopting a “holier than thou” attitude. The whites obviously want to present the Native Americans as “Savages” but in the end, it becomes evident that the whites are the real savages. Just before the close of the text, Franklin gives a narration of how whites are welcomed by Native Americans.
He says, “If a white man, in traveling through our country, enters one of our cabins, we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, and give him meat & drink that he may allay his thirst and hunger, and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on.
We demand nothing in return” (Franklin 9). In contrast, if an Indian goes into a white man’s house and asks for something to drink, he is asked, “Where is your Money?” and if he has none he is told, “Get out, you Indian dog.”
This according to Jefferson happens despite the fact that Indians do not have to go to school since they are taught about these little good things by their parents while still young. Indeed, this leaves the reader with no doubt as to who is the real “savage” between the white man and the Indian.
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Another example of how race is depicted in early American writing is seen in Olaudah Equianos’ Narrative of the Life. In this autobiography, Equiano narrates his suffering at the hands of his white masters. Although Equiano is taken as a slave first in his home country, he explains that he “always found somebody that understood me till I came to the sea coast” (Equiano 43).
Despite the fact that he had been taken into slavery by his fellow blacks, Equiano says “in honor of those fable destroyers of human rights, that I never met with any ill treatment, or saw any offered to their slaves, except tying them, when necessary, to keep them from running away” (Equiano 44).
This shows just how considerate the black people were towards their fellow brothers. This is was in contrast to white settlers who thought that black people were barbaric and dangerous and were to be avoided at all cost.
All through being taken from one African country to the other, the narrator is treated well and in his innocence has no idea about the cruelty of human beings. In fact, it is while in a ship heading to the West Indies that the young Equiano witnesses cruelty for the first time in his life.
He says “the white people looked and acted…in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves” (Equiano72). This is in a sharp contrast to the black slave masters whom we encounter earlier in Equiano’s narration.
Although this might be interpreted to mean different things, what is obvious even to a novice is that the whites treated blacks in a bad manner. It is also obvious from Equiano’s description that the whites treated each other badly.
This apparent lack of love can also be seen in an incident where the whites had caught excess fish and after eating to their fill “to our astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea” (Equiano 78).
There is also an instance where a white man is beaten to death for failing to obey orders. In fact, the mistreatment was so much to a point where Equiano believed that the white people were going to “eat them” due to the savage manner in which they were behaving.
Another writer who depicts the state of race in early American writing is Phillis Wheatley. In her short poem titled On Being Brought from Africa to America, Wheatley begins by appreciating her slavery as something helpful since it made her adopt Christianity. In Wheatleys’ words, the white people “view our sable race with scornful eye” (Wheatley).
It is obvious from the passage that the whites viewed the blacks as inferior and powerless since they had conquered and brought them to America as slaves. By claiming, “Mercy brought me”, Wheatley is openly downplaying the power of her captors and rather crediting every occurrence in her life to God.
By using the word “sable” to describe her race, she is affirming that no matter what the whites thought of black people they were still precious, at least before God. This is captured in her last line where she says “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley).
It is obvious that Wheatley uses the word “remember” purposely to depict the status of one who is in authority or a place of command. This rubbishes the “master” status that the whites have placed on themselves and reminds them that under God’s jurisdiction all people are equal despite their race.
In the text, Wheatley uses the representation of Cain to refer to her dark complexion. According to the Bible in Genesis, Cain, who was a farmer killed his brother after the Lord refused to accept his offering of the first fruits from his farm. Due to this, the Lord sentenced him to be a renegade and a vagrant on the face of the earth. Cain laments that anyone who comes across him will kill him.
The Lord tells Cain, “Not so! If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord put a mark on Cain (most likely his blackness), lest any who came upon him should kill him.” By following this context, Wheatley seems to be reminding her white audience that Cain despite his mistakes is still a child of Adam and Eve and is protected by God.
By using the verb “remember” in the last sentence, she is alluding that she is in agreement with her reader and just needs a little reminder for both to agree on that particular point (Wheatley). This definitely demolishes any thoughts of superiority that the white man might have over the black person and proves that they are both answerable to a higher authority.
The relationship between whites and Native Americans has not been a smooth one. For long, white American settlers viewed Native Americans and Black people in particular as brutal and aggressive. However, reading the works of most of the early American writers diffuses this notion and presents the white Americans as brutes who could go to any length to defend their status.
Clearly, an imagery of the horrors and sufferings encountered by black people helps us to generate a complete idea of who the white people were in reality. For anyone who is keen on doing so, one soon realizes the irony behind the white settlers’ claims since the Native Americans emerge as very sensitive and caring people who are willing to accommodate divergent views.
Equiano, Olaudah. Narrative of the Life. New York: Hanover Historical Texts, 1789. 45- 88. Print.
Franklin, Benjamin. Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America. New York: Eakins Press, 2005. 1-10. Print.
Wheatley, Phillis. On being brought from Africa to America, 2011. Web.