"Past Experiences Shape Identity " Many believe that whatever situations have happened in the past should be left in the past. To others, the past holds a special place in their hearts because it has helped in shaping the person they have become today. One should always appreciate his or her ancestors and the struggles they have gone through throughout history such as slavery in order to bring us to where we are today. Though negativity can affect past experiences one should not dwell on it, but learn to move forward and look for the positive aspects of life. Without the past there wouldn't be any great myths, any personal memories, and nothing for our future generations to learn from.
Past experiences also helps people to learn from their mistakes in the past so they will know not to repeat them. One should also remember the good memories that the past has brought forth and should learn to appreciate them and the people who helped us to gain them. (Maya Angelou, author of the excerpt "Mary", Zora Neal Hurston, author of the essay "How it feels to be colored me", Gwendolyn Brooks, author of the poems "Sadie and Maud" along with "We Real Cool", and Annie Proloux, author of the essay "The half Skinned Steer", proves that through past experiences, whether negative or positive, the memories or struggles that people have encountered influences the way that people live their lives in the future and helps in shaping the individuals identity.) In the excerpt "Mary", Angelou recalls her poverty-stricken childhood and the struggles she went through while growing up in the racist south, post-slavery. Angelou remembers how she thought that white people were strange and had developed a negative attitude towards them. Though only ten years old, Angelou worked as a kitchen servant to a woman by the name of Mrs. Cullinan (Angelou 4).
She remembers how her identity was taken away when Mrs. Cullinan and the white women that would visit Mrs. Cullinan. These women changed Angelou's first name from Margaret to "Mary" without her consent because they felt that her name was too long to say (Angelou 5). Margaret and many other African Americans of her time felt that being called "called out of his or her name" in the south was considered to be as insulting as if they were being called "niggers, spooks, blackbirds, crows, or dinges" (Angelou 6). Maya had also encountered being called "dumb" by a white woman because she was shy and didn't say much (Angelou 5). No child should ever have to go through being called a name such as "dumb" because it could affect how they will view themselves when they become older. This was their way of degrading Margaret as many white people did to the African Americans in the south post-slavery.
Mrs. Cullinan never cared whether or not Margaret liked the name given to her. Though it took away part of Margaret's identity, Mrs. Cullinan only cared whether it benefited her sake. She made it seem that since Margaret was an African American, she wasn't important. By changing her seem that since Margaret was an African American, she wasn't important. By changing her name, Mrs. Cullinan may have felt that it was her way of controlling Margaret and saying that Margaret belonged to her.
Deeply affected, Margaret gets revenge on Mrs. Cullinan by breaking her glass dishes. Margaret then gains back the respect of being called Margaret (Angelou 7-8). Experiences like the experience with Mrs. Cullinan changed Angelou for the better. Using the negative experiences she encountered as a child has helped her to move toward a positive life.
Writing about her experiences while growing up in the south has shaped her into becoming a famous African American writer and poet. Some past experiences only prove that although things may get tough and there is negativity around, one can still look at it in a positive way and still be proud of their identity even though others like them may not see it that way. Like Angelou, Hurston remembers growing up as an African American female in an all black town of Eaton ville, Florida at a time of racism when African American people were known as being called "colored people or negroes" (Hurston 152). She recalls how she would hardly ever feel inferior to white people.
She felt that she was not "tragically colored" and just because white people felt that she couldn't do as much as them she didn't let it stop her. Hurston knew that she could do as much as the white people could because she was comfortable with who she was (Hurston 153). She believed that the white people differed from her only in that they rode through town and the timid black people would peer out from the curtains, but Hurston would go out on the porch and watch them pass by (Hurston 152). In her eyes she was only considered colored to others when she is thrown up against a sharp white background (Hurston 154). Although she was a child with all the racism going on around her, she was able to keep a positive attitude. She says that there are certain times when she has no race and she is just herself (Hurston 154).
Though there were many times when she was discriminated against, it did not make her angry. She felt that it was the people who discriminated against her loss because they were denying themselves the pleasure of her company because she knew that people were missing out on a lot of other great people because they were so concerned with race (Hurston 155). Though Hurston had a racist childhood she was able to look past it and realize that no one could ever make her feel inferior. She knew that she was just as important as the white people were and because of that, she was able to walk with her head up, do anything she wanted, and kept a positive outlook on life. Like Angelou, Hurston also took these experiences and wrote about them in many books and essays also causing her to become a famous writer of her time. Although a decision in a person's past might not seem like a positive one at the time it's made it could possibly shape a person into a legacy in the future.
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks takes a different approach by writing a poem about other people in order to show how the past shapes a positive identity through the negativity around them. In her poem "Sadie and Maud", Brooks talks about two sisters, Sadie and Maud. While Maud went to college, Sadie decided to stay home and focus on exploring her like ("She didn't leave... all the land"). While Maud focused strictly on education, Sadie bore two babies unwed. Though her family was ashamed at what she had done, Sadie felt that there wasn't any need to be ashamed because she was proud of her children and the decision she made to have them ("Sadie bore two... died of shame"). Though her past was thought of as a negative one by her family, in reality it truly wasn't.
Sadie ended up eventually growing up and dying with no regrets because she lived her life they way she wanted by exploring every part of it and not leaving anything untouched. She also had a family of her own unlike her sister Maud who ended up living in an old house alone ("Maud, who went... this old house"). What Maud thought was the positive approach on life actually had a negative affect on her because she didn't have that chance to explore every part of her like. Sadie's so-called "negative lifestyle" had helped her to become a legacy to the many people she knew. In addition to the poem "Sadie and Maud" Brooks also created a poem called "We Real Cool".
In the short poem "We Real Cool", Brooks also shows how negative decisions that may have seemed like good decisions at the time can take a turn for the worst in the future. In the poem Brooks talks about people who thought they were so cool that they didn't have to go to school or do anything else with their lives ("We real cool... We left school"). They would stay out late, drink and do other things that could be considered sinful to others ("We lurk late...
We thin gin"). Though it may have seemed "cool" to them at the time it really wasn't. They grew up to become nothing in life and died without anything in life because of something they started when they were teens and couldn't stop as they had gotten older. ("We jazz June...
We die soon") Reflecting on ones childhood can bring fond memories or even regret. By reflecting on his childhood while living on a ranch, Mero, the character in Proloux's "The Half-Skinned Steer" realizes that even with his wealth and his Cadillacs, without the good things that happened to him in the past makes him the unhappy person that he is. His reflection also makes him feel the guilt of not going back to visit the ranch in over sixty years (Proloux 22). During Mero's childhood he recalls how "became a man" he learned about the female body after an anthropologist taught him about the vulva on a female (Proloux 28). Shortly after this experience with the anthropologist, he had his first interest in women and later married many times (Proloux 21, 27).
He remembered how a kind man named Bob Banner would invite him in when he was younger for some java and a hot biscuit. Mero also reflects on how people told each other crazy stories that may not have been true, but still haunts him to this day. These are types of memories of the kind people in that community that Mero wished he had never left, because the people who were involved in his pleasant memories. Without the ranch, Mero wouldn't have all the fine things he has. His memories have also made him realize that without all of the things he has missed on the ranch over the years, he has lived an unhappy life. In concluding, past experiences, whether negative or positive definitely has an affect on the people we have become today.
These memories help in shaping our identity in the future. Though past experiences may be hard to deal with sometimes it is ones job to change it for the better so the mistakes won't happen again. If one has positive memories of his or her childhood, then they should try to continue to do whatever they are doing in life in order to have more positive memories in the future. Though people try to bring each other down it is ones job to show them that no matter what other people may think one can be anyone he or she chooses to be in life or do anything he or she wants to do. No matter what the circumstances are, never let anyone tell you otherwise. Angelou, Hurston, Brooks, and Proloux have definitely proved that it's all up to the person going through these circumstances to change what will happen to them and how they view things in society dealing with the negative and positive aspects to life.
Through these authors we learn that there can be a positive future from a negative past.
Angelou, Maya. "Mary". Literacies. 2nd ed. Ed. Terence Bruno et al. New York: Norton, 2000.
3-8. Brooks, Gwendolyn. "Sadie and Maud". 1945.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. "We Real Cool". 1950.
Hurston, Zora Neal. "How it Feels to be Colored Me". Essays and Articles. 152-155. Proulx, Annie. "The Half-Skinned Steer". Close Range: Wyoming Stories. New York: Scribner, 1999.