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Identity and Self-Esteem: A Look at Self-Verification in African American Literature

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Individuals are born into families, races, cultures, and countries, but have little awareness of their individuality as very young children. The psychological sense of being separate individuals from their families or caretakers appears to be of little importance until they recognize themselves as separate selves. This is true for all human beings in all cultures, but for races or cultures who have been marginalized, having a separate identity and gaining self-esteem appear to play an even more important role. This essay will look at African American literature from a psychological perspective. From Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to Zora Neale Hurston's Delia in "Sweat" to James Baldwin's John in Go Tell It On the Mountain, group and individual identity, in conjunction with a high level of self-esteem, are critical factors in determining the successes achieved by individuals and literary characters in the African American literary tradition. Without this sense of group identity, individual identity, and self-esteem, the African American character becomes like Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas and can not survive.

Self-esteem is an important component of human growth. Abraham Maslow's psychological theory argues for a hierarchy of needs composed of a pyramid of five levels. "Beyond the details of air, water, food, and sex, he laid out five broader layers: physiological needs, needs for safety and security, needs for love and belonging, needs for esteem, and the need to actualize the self, in that order. " (Boeree)

Maslow argued that few reach the highest level of self-actualization. According to his research, only about 2% of the population reach that level, and most of those were historical figures-Albert Einstein, Ab...

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Douglass, Frederick. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W.
Norton, 1997. 302-368.

Drake, Kimberly. "Rewriting the American self: Race, gender, and identity in the autobiographies of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs." Melus. Winter 1997. Vol. 22, Issue 4, p. 91. Full text article.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl: Written By Herself. Ed. and Intro. Nell Irvin Painter. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Parsons, Richard D., Stephanie Lewis Hinson and Deborah Sardo-Brown. Educational Psychology: A Practitioner-Researcher Model of Teaching. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001. 80-81.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998.

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