'An eye for an eye' - Interethnic Confrontations in John A. William's "Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light"
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 15 Pages
2. Interethnic Confrontations in “Sons”
2.1 The Struggle between Black and White
2.2 Interethnic Encounters between Italians and Blacks
2.3 The Jewish Attitude towards the Blacks’ Cause
If we justly consider the United States as a country of immigrants, it has been a place of cultural encounters and clashes ever since the first pilgrims got off the ships from Europe and met with the original inhabitants of the country, the Indian tribes (cf. Tindall: 12-28). Although the first immigrants to America were mostly English, there have been many cultural groups following their paths and building up their existence in the “New World”. Germans, Dutch, Italians or Jews are just some of the many people who escaped from their home countries to start a new life in the United States. Their arrival in the new country often led to conflicts. If they were not physical then at least on a verbal basis did the immigrants face the mistrust and often even the hate of the American people. (cf. Tindall: 716-723)
With the growing industrialization and the need for new, free labor, Africans were brought to the United States against their wills. Thereby, the problem of interethnic or interracial conflicts was even further complicated. Some consider this racist policy of “importing” people for work purposes as the basis for American prosperity until today. The resulting discrimination of Blacks, however, remains a discussion topic even nowadays and is the source of many conflicts in American history, let alone the main reason for the last war that was fought on American territory – the Civil War in the 1860’s (cf. Tindall: 487-492).
One century later, during the 1960’s, African-Americans were tired of their legal and personal oppression and started to demand the rights promised to them by the Proclamation Declaration but that had not really been practised in reality. The emergence of the Black Power movement, mainly by the Black Panthers, marked an important step in the Black people’s emasculation from the chains of inequality. (cf. Tindall: 1160-1164). Nevertheless, segregation (the legal separation of Black and White) was still prevalent and not even in 2004 can we speak of equal opportunities for both races in the USA.
With “Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light”, John A. Williams, an Afro-American author, tried to present an attempt of how to change circumstances for Blacks in America. His novel, first published in 1969 and envisioning America at the beginning of the 1970’s, may not have had a lot of critical acclaim, but in my opinion is a valuable source for interpreting the multi-faceted interethnic encounters in the United States of the late 196o's. This paper then shall argue that the interethnic confrontations in William’s novel represent a complex picture of multiculturalism in America. Moreover, “Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light” stands as an accurate example for the Blacks’ struggle in that time period and gives valuable insight into the prevalent discrimination and racism existing then.
2. Interethnic confrontations in "Sons"
John A. Williams' novel undoubtedly abounds with interethnic encounters. Similar to his other works, with Eugene Browning the author presents us a black protagonist who suffers from “physical and emotional affliction, at bottom a symbol of interracial relations in the world'' (Fleming: 497). These relations are multi-faceted and include some major ethnic groups of American society.
There is at first the main topic of the Blacks' struggle for rights and recognition in the United States. Williams surely did not choose the beginning of the 197o's as a setting for his novel out of mere chance: 1969, the year of the novel's first publication, can be considered as the peak of a "remarkable and traumatic era" (Yarborough: 8). The enduring American involvement in Vietnam lead to increasing protests at home and together with the assassinations of President Robert F. Kennedy and especially Martin Luther King, one of the most prominent African-Americans during that time, in 1968 the tension in the country was brought to a new height (cf. Tindall: 1160-1164). These historical occurrences set the tone for the novel. Its subtitle, "A Novel of Some Probability'', stresses the probability of the described events even more.
However, "Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light'' does not deal with the topics of race and multiculturalism in a one-sided way. Williams included the points of view of two more crucial ethnic groups in the USA: Italians and Jews, both important immigrant groups in the States. Not only is Itzhak Hod, the former Israeli freedom fighter, involved in a business contract with the Don's Italian Mafia, both ethnic groups also comment on the relationship between Blacks and Whites. Additionally, they become even more involved when they begin to compare Browning's selective violent act with their own people's history and struggle in their separate homelands. The following three chapters of this paper shall investigate into the roles and opinions of these three ethnic groups in the novel.
2.1 The Struggle between Black and White
The main event John A. Williams' "Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light'' revolves around is the revenge for the killing of a black kid by a white policeman. The novel's main character, Eugene Browning, an Afro-American and former history teacher at college now employed at the "Institute for Racial Justice'' (IRJ) in New York, decides to hire a hit man to kill the unpunished white cop. This single shooting eventually leads to interracial war all over the United States and Browning realizes:
"The simple, selective violent act, calculated to deliver a message, had become magnified. All the black populace he had been trying to save from slaughter looked like it was being slaughtered after all'' (Williams: 269f)
But what exactly were Browning's intentions? What were his aims, what message did he want to deliver and what was he dissatisfied with? We find many remarks on this throughout the novel and its literary criticism. In general, Browning is more than discontented with the current situation for Blacks in the United States. As Bryant puts it, Williams' topic throughout all his novels is “race, and his themes reflect the most advertised concerns of the revolution: the economic and psychological emasculation of the black man by the white, the struggle of the black man to preserve his manhood, the black will to survive and the enduring strength that brings liberty'' (Bryant: 81f).
This is also what Browning considers important. Conscious that Black and White need each other (cf. Williams: 12), he has nevertheless unmistakably realized that "segregation is still as effective as ever'' (55). His work in the Institute for Racial Justice may lead to some minor improvements but nevertheless will not bring full civil liberties to Blacks. The interrelations between Blacks and Whites frustrate him and he "leaves his protected class environment to become a political activist and eventually avenge the boy's death'' (Ramsey: 218). Determined to bring about change, the former college teacher states that "it would always be open season on blacks until blacks opened the season on whites'' (23). For him, assassinations are therefore just another political weapon (cf.: 159ff) and well suited to short the "wrong in American society with simplicity'' (101). In the first chapter, his points of view are summarized:
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- Interethnic Confrontations John William Sons Darkness Light Oberseminar American Literatures