The hand me down life
It is written in Michael Hanchard’s essay on Afro-modernity that ‘Legalized segregation, the maintenance of separate and largely unequal institutions, meant that blacks, as a consequence of prejudicial treatment, received health care, education, police protection, transportation, and a host of other services only after those same services were provided for whites’. This was a prominent issue that followed the emancipation of slavery as, the prejudices against African Americans were still extremely prevalent. In turn, the delayed access to education, health care etc, created a cultural lag which largely affected the black community and their progress in society.
Frederick Douglas wrote in his work on ‘The Color Line’ that, ‘He has ceased to be the slave of an individual, but has in some sense become the slave of society’. Despite this being written in 1881, this idea of being enslaved to society has persisted well into the words of Hanchard over a century later. The African American community was forced into the cultural lag through societal structure, with no choice to remain there, resulting in their lives continuing on an eerily similar path to their ancestors who were explicitly enslaved.
I can easily transfer this idea of the cultural lag to Sing, Unburied, Sing due to the lack of justice that Ward has depicted throughout her use of young, black male characters. The ghostly figure of Given is narrated to life to by his sister Leonie and the reader learns about his tragic fate. As a young aspiring athlete, he was deemed to have a bright future due to his talented football playing. Yet, due to the cultural lag and unequal opportunities of society, he was unable to excel and reach his full potential. His father said to him, ‘they look at you and see difference son. Don’t matter what you see. It’s about what they do’. There is a clear outline of a black and white dichotomy with an explicit reference to the imbalance of power and the effect that Given’s white counterparts could have on his livelihood. Given ends up being murdered by a white boy when they are out hunting together simply because of Given’s superior hunting technique. The murderer exclaims to his family that, ‘He was supposed to lose, Pa’. His uncle scolds him and says, ‘This aint the old days’ yet, his white skin and links to the Sheriff’s office results in a quick three-year sentence, barely enough time to affect his future. Despite his uncle’s claim that, ‘This aint the old days’, there is a clear cultural lag in the treatment that African American’s receive in the criminal justice system. Maybe society hasn’t moved on since the old days after all.
In 1881, Douglas wrote that ‘They are negroes – and that is enough, in the eye of this unreasoning prejudice, to justify indignity and violence. In nearly every department of American life they are confronted by this insidious influence’. This is clearly a tradition established early on when writing the African American experience and Ward has made no effort to work against this or argue that there has been any significant change. Ward’s character Given excelled, yet the cultural lag in society didn’t allow him to move forward with his talents and overtake his white counterparts. In the eyes of the law and his white friends, he was just a ‘[negro]’ which was enough to ‘justify indignity and violence’.
It can be argued that the events I have just outlined were based on the second-generation characters and therefore less relevant to the modern day yet, Jojo’s experiences with the police highlight the relentless significance of the cultural lag. When stopped by the police on their Middle Passage, the ghostly figure of Richie warns Jojo that ‘They going to chain you’. This character is two generations older and due to the perceived societal progression in the black/white dichotomy, it wouldn’t be far fetched to assume he is out of touch with the police force. However, Jojo goes on to being treated by the police in the way that was predicted. Nicole Dib wrote that ‘Richie’s disquieting statement and the distressing action his body takes in the car signals the carceral anxiety that haunts him, even as a ghost’. Yet, I believe that the distress is less about his past experiences, and more about the fact that this is still a concern for African Americans. Richie is the voice of the past that is shocked and uncomfortable that modern day children are forced to endure his previous experiences, which ultimately exacerbates Ward’s intentions.
The cultural lag is highlighted not only by these similarities, but by Jojo being singled out by the police officer. The young boy is surrounded by adults, including a much older white man, yet the black child is the person whom the police officer sees as a threat worthy of arming himself. This pays homage to the endless number of black drivers who have been shot and killed on the road such as Sandra Bland. It’s important to note that Octavia Butler expressed a similar cultural lag in her comparisons of 19th century and 20th century North America. Whilst the Antebellum South depicts unimaginable extremities, Butler makes sure she presents her modern-day world as unjust. A co-worker refers to the couple as ‘chocolate and vanilla porn’, whilst Kevin’s sister said she ‘wouldn’t have [Dana] in her house – or [Kevin] either if [he] married [her]’. These examples span across different levels of extreme whilst one expresses a lower-level prejudice, one depicts a more violent level of racism and cultural lag. The colour of Dana’s skin prevents her from marrying freely and being accepted by her partner’s family. This is not dissimilar to the way the couple are treated in the 1800s as she is assumed his slave. As stated by Douglas, ‘They are negroes – and that is enough’.