A Critical Analysis of Adelaide Casely-Hayford’s “Mista Courifer”: Reflecting Identity Struggles in the Latino Community
by Reina Garcia
The oppression of people of color has been a raging issue throughout history, resulting in minorities developing a negative self-image and rejecting their culture. In “Mista Courifer,” Adelaide Casely-Hayford addresses how European influence caused African people to hate themselves, thus sabotaging their ability to push for first-class citizenship. Through Mr. Courifer and his daughter, Keren, she presents the harmful effects self-hatred can have on the individual. However, she uses Mr. Courifer’s son, Tomas, as an example of a self-respecting, proud, African man, whose rejection of his father’s self-hatred and embracing of a positive self-image helps him to gain the respect of his white boss. With all minority groups at risk of becoming vulnerable to white supremacy, there is one specific group that this story closely parallels. That is the Latino community in the U.S. Self-hatred among Latinos in America strongly manifests itself in stances on immigration, the validation of negative Latino stereotypes, and the effort to conform to European standards to fit in. This self-hatred and internalized racism, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, can manifest itself in the engagement in criminal activity and the lack of socioeconomic progression. Although society has made much progress since this era, a positive self-image and cultural pride are integral components in combating the systemic racism and prejudice that still lingers today, especially as it manifests in poverty, domestic violence, and high incarceration rates.
Immigration is an issue that has generated much debate over the last decade. It has also generated hateful rhetoric and negative stereotypes against Latinos. These stereotypes portrayed immigrants as being criminals looking to take jobs from the American people and take advantage of the system. Although some concerns regarding immigration are valid, most are racially charged and based on myths, rather than facts. This propaganda contributes to the internalized racism in the Latino community and negatively affected how they view each other (Padilla). It has been proven that “undocumented immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits” (Padilla). However, by choosing to believe in fallacies alluding to Latinos being a burden on social services, not only are they denying the contributions immigrants provide for this country, they are denying that it is possible for immigrants to be just as productive and successful as every other American. In the story, Mr. Courifer dislikes doing business with other African people based on the stereotype that all Africans do not pay their bills or they do not pay them in a timely manner. “They demurred, they haggled, they bartered, they gave him detailed accounts of all their other expenses and then, after keeping him waiting for weeks, they would end by sending him half the amount with a stern exhortation to be thankful for that” (Casely-Hayford 89). This is the same attitude exhibited by Latinos who are conditioned to believe in the negative perception conceived by the oppressor to prevent them from progressing in society, which negatively impacts their ability to be involved in a constructive discussion regarding immigration, which leads to Latinos, themselves, being supportive of unreasonable and inhumane laws and punishments regarding immigration.
Self-loathing Latinos try to put as much distance between themselves and their heritage as possible so they appear as American as possible. This internal struggle of balancing heritage and patriotism can result in the abandonment of cultural all together. This is most prominent in the group, Latinos for Trump. Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump is known for his hateful rhetoric against Latinos, calling undocumented immigrants “rapists” and “criminals” and refers to them as “bad hombres” (Moreno). These remarks were absurd and offensive, yet, comments with the same racist undertone are made by Latinos about Latinos. For example, the founder of Latinos for Trump, Marco Gutierrez said, “My culture is a very dominant culture. And it's imposing, and it's causing problems. If you don't do something about it, you're going to have taco trucks on every corner” (Wright). The way he denigrates his culture and assumes that only acknowledges it as being problematic exposes his vulnerability to white superiority. Like Mr. Courifer, who alters his lifestyle to match that of the Europeans, does so at the expense of his comfort and identity. Just as Mr. Courifer believed “everything European to be not only the right thing, but the only thing for the African,” Latinos like Marco Gutierrez share the same mentality (Casely-Hayford 86). By spreading hateful rhetoric within the community that depict Latinos as nothing more than poor, unintelligent criminals, it stunts the advancement of Latinos as a whole. Individuals engage in unhealthy behavior because they hate themselves. In 2007, Latinos comprised forty percent of sentenced federal offenders (NAACP). In conjunction with social and economic isolation, negative perceptions of the culture portrayed within the Latino community can discourage Latinos from breaking the cycle of violence that surrounds them. They do not believe they can succeed in a White dominated society, nor do they believe they will be accepted and viewed as equal.
The desire to be accepted in society is prompted by the belief that “Whiter is better” (Padilla). By desperately trying to Americanize every aspect of one’s culture, they are operating under the control of the oppressor. They are no longer their own person. They become a carbon copy of the European standard, by doing things, such as eliminating the use of Spanish to avoid being viewed as a “foreign threat” or by going by “Joe” rather than “Jose” to appear more American and trustworthy. This is also a form of self-hatred, denying one’s heritage in hopes of attaining White privilege. The idea that conforming to the European standard is the only way to ensure success teaches children that who they are is not good enough. This internalized racism creates a divide in the Latino community. This is most prominently displayed in education. In 2012, only nineteen percent of Latinos enroll in college and only nine percent graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher (Krogstad and Fry). This could be attributed to the lack of resources and support, or the lack of interest in pursuing higher education. There is a stigma associated with going to college in the Latino community. This decision is viewed as a “White” thing to do and that Latinos do not belong in college because they are not as smart or rich as White students. The discouragement of education contributes to the stagnancy of the socioeconomic status of Latinos. Thirty-two percent of Latino children under the age of eighteen live in poverty. This is the third highest percentage among minority groups. By condemning education and convincing children they do not belong, these children are likely to remain living in the poverty in which they were raised. Keren’s struggle is similar to that of these children because she believes she is not of much worth. On page 87, Casely-Hayford describes, Karen as viewing herself as “not at all attractive.” She continues that “Keren was that type of little individual whom nobody worshipped, consequently she understood the art of worshipping others to the full.” Karen is the example of how children who internalize their parents’ self-loathing eventually perpetuate that self-lathing from generation to generation. If children are not taught to have self-worth, they will never be able to liberate their minds from the psychological oppression, continuing to perpetuate the endless cycle of teenage pregnancy, embracing of gang culture, high incarceration rates, and poverty.
Ultimately, through the character, Tomas, Casely-Hayford displays what an empowered minority should be. He has enough self-respect to defy his boss and demand equal treatment. “Tomas remained silent for a moment or two. He summoned up courage to look boldly at the stern countenance of his boss” (89). Because Tomas has an unshakable, positive sense of self, he is able to gain the respect of his oppressor. Unlike his father and sister, Tomas does not conform to the White standard. He is confident in whom he is and from where he comes, rejecting his father’s attempts to mold him in self-hatred. When his father attempts to force him to wear European clothing that his ordered directly from England, Tomas refuses to wear them, adding “Well, sir, if I try till I die, I shall never look like an Englishman, and I don’t know that I want to.” Tomas chooses to wear “pantaloons and the bright loose over-jacket of a Wolof from Gambian,” chooses to marry “a pretty young bride the color of chocolate,” and chooses to live in a “mud hut” rather than the type of English-styled house his father builds for the family. Refusing to accept the treatment of a second-class citizen allows him to become happy and successful. Latinos can emulate his approach by understanding that embracement of one’s heritage is essential to developing a firm sense of self. This is not to say that it will deflect the racism and prejudice already engrained in certain individuals towards racial minorities, but it will demonstrate their belief that they are not subordinate to white people and refuse to be treated as such, which will give them the ability to fight against the psychological and physical oppression of white supremacy. Additionally, minorities, like Tomas, will have the intellectual ability and psychological confidence to create their own institutions, allowing their people to become sovereign beings rather than continuing to beg and rely on their oppressor to save them.
In “Mr. Courifer” Casely-Hayford shows that psychological oppression is actually more powerful than physical oppression. As such, oppressed peoples must do as Frantz Fanon suggested, which is to liberate themselves by destroying the oppressor of their minds. As such, the Latino community can combat the internalized racism only by developing, embracing, and sustaining a positive sense of self. The security with one’s true identity and pride in heritage are the foundation for true psychological freedom from the oppressor. This freedom allows them to pursue their goals and aspirations in life because they know they deserve the opportunity for happiness and prosperity, just like everyone else. A positive sense of self also creates hope. With the hope of succeeding in society despite the systemic racism that plagues it, the engagement in problematic behavior is reduced and progress can be made, reducing the communal ills of teenage pregnancy, gang violence, domestic violence, poverty, and high incarceration rates.
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