Racism has been in existent for a very long time in the history of human interaction. Race is often equated to skin color which implies that one can be categorized into certain dimensions because of being black, white or of mixed blood. A writer creates works that are closely connected with his or her life and which reflect some aspects of reality. A comparative analysis of the works of Phillis Wheatly (before 1865) and Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s Baby (after 1865) will reveal that despite the difference in the time and the races of the two authors, there was no significant change to the notion and practice treating race and identity as two sides of the same coin.
As a black person who was subjected to slavery and racism, Phillis never forgot her roots. This is evident in many of her poems which allude to Africa and to the ethnic roots. Although she became a Christian she never lost her identity as a black person and was active in the American Revolution. Her poem, “To the University of Cambridge in New England” compares her life with that of Harvard University students of her age and concludes that she was disadvantaged threefold: as a black, a woman and a slave (Smith and Carroll 124). In "To the Earl of Dartmouth," she recounts her experience of leaving Africa as a slave and her quest for freedom. She talks of being “snatched” from her motherland and considering this letter was about the freedom of the United States, she must have been advocating for emancipation of slaves.
Despite this, she seems to have accepted her identity as a black person and a slave and decided to move on to the point of seeming to hate her own race. She had subscribed to religious teachings that depicted Africa as a lost land that needed Christianity to be saved. This is evident in “On Being Brought from Africa to America” Where she ascribes her movement from “Pagan” Africa to the US to God’s mercy. She even describes Africans as ‘black’, ‘negroes’ and compares them to Cain while concluding that they black race can also be cleansed and become Christians. In a way she wants to escape the limitations of her skin color and racialized denigration by embracing Christianity. To this extent, one can see a slave who is not proud of her roots. However, this does not negate the fact that Phyllis advocated for the freedom and better treatment of black people.
On her part, Kate Chopin also reveals a strong link between race and identity in the period after 1865 through the short story “Desiree’s Baby”. Chopin was born in 1850 St. Louis Missouri and was a respected prolific novelist and short story writer. Her story was written in 1892 and revolves around White land owners and their black and colored slaves.
In the story, race relations reveal that one’s identity is determined by racial orientation and being white is considered a privilege. White people like the Valmondes and Aubignys dominate other races, own land and slaves. Moreover, Armand assumes that Désirée is white because of the color of the skin and wants to give her a name of honor. The whites despise other races and that is why Armand does not accept his child when he realizes the latter is black. Armand is cruel to his slaves and they have forgotten what happiness means. The mixed race fares no better as indicated in the title of the poem. Desiree’s baby is rejected by the father because of being of mixed race. Armand blames his wife Desiree for the colored baby telling her that she was not white, as he (Armand) had expected when he had married her.
The relationship between gender and identity is complementary. One means the other. Black people are slaves and therefore of a lower class. Whites are land and slave owners and are not supposed to intermarry with blacks. A light complexion like that of Desiree makes one be regarded as white and therefore of a privileged class. But when the color changes, like that of Desiree’s child then he loses his identity as a white, becomes colored and therefore inferior.
There are therefore similarities between the perception of the link between race and identity before and after 1865. Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and Desiree’s Baby reveal that race was used for identity purposes in both periods. Both authors talk about slaves in their writings. Slaves have no rights and can be bought and sold. Slaves are discriminated upon and Phillis only escapes the ravages of slavery because she is talented but remains legally enslaved until her master dies. The slaves that serve Armand have no rights either and do everything he says because he owns them. Although Phillis gets a chance to participate in The American Revolution and gets emancipated her poetry still reveals discrimination. Moreover, despite not mentioning the mixed race in her poetry it is evident that the situation in Phyllis’ time would not have been any different for such a group of people as compared to the one in Chopin’s story. In essence being black means one is inferior and a slave. On the other hand, being white implies that one is superior and in charge of other people from the rest of the races. Race and identity are therefore synonymous in the two periods as revealed by two writers of different races and generations.