Identity Issues in the stories of ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer

Introduction

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and The Ant of the Self are the stories from the book written by the African American author ZZ Packer. The stories feature two young African Americans who are trying to find their standing in the white society. In fact, they come from the new generation of African Americans who got more opportunities and better social standing than their parents. Thus, they are experiencing a process of transition from the old world of suppressed powerless African Americans to the new world where black Americans are fully-pledged citizens. Such a contradictory situation makes the heroes question their true identity and place in the modern world.

The first story Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is about Dina, a black girl originally from Baltimore, starting her first year in Yale. During one of the group class activities, Dina associates herself with a revolver, which shocks her professor and fellow students. Consequently, Dina found herself under the scrutiny of university authorities and becomes the outcast of the elitist society of Yale. However, at Yale, she falls in love with Heidi, a white girl, which dramatically affects her realization of self and sexuality. Second story is about a black teenager called Spurgeon, who takes his father from the jail and drives with him to the Million Man March in Washington, where the father tries selling exotic birds to African centric people. In fact, Spurgeon is an intelligent boy, a diligent student and a debates champion. However, he appears to be a child of the oblivious and ignorant parents, one of whom is a religious fanatic and other one is a criminal. While it seems that the first story is dealing with a dramatic love story, and the other one is about a family drama, both stories have a common theme. They both depict the stories of two African American trying to demolish their ethnicity burdens and find their place in the white society. In particular, the main characters, young African Americas, are straddled between the two worlds and have to deal with the issues of identity and race awareness.

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To begin with, in both stories, the main characters are trying to discover their true identity. In the Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, the narrator and main character, an African American college fresher Dina, comes as an honor-roll student to Yale. However, she tends to spend time by herself in the dorm room and avoid contacts with other students as she thinks she has failed to fit in the local society, which mostly consisted of white people. It should be said that Dina is not discriminated or bullied for being black. In fact, she is treated as other students despite some random inoffensive remarks regarding her skin color. However, Dina still does not see herself as a member of the local university community. On the other hand, she does not feel attached to her family as well, in particular, her father. From the memories Dina is telling to the counsellor, it becomes obvious that she is trying to escape the place she originated from, her neighborhood with chattered windows and food stamps. Moreover, she rejects bonding with few other black students in Yale. Surprisingly, developing a close relationship with another college outsider, a white Canadian student Heidi, gradually changes Dina’s perception of herself and her sexuality in particular. After being friends for a while, Dina questions her friendship feelings to Heidi. In fact, she confesses to herself having romantic feeling for her closest friend: “I think I began to love Heidi that night in the dish room, but who is to say that I hadn’t begun to love her the first time I met her?” (Packer). However, the following realization just exacerbates the identity issues of Dina and makes her reject Heidi. Thus, Dina is experiencing an identity crisis as she does not feel like she belongs to any world. Although she is trying to escape her old background, she does not feel comfortable with the new environment. In the end, she succumbs to her fears and returns to the place of her origin, black neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Similarly, the main character of the second short story The Ant of the Self , Spurgeon, is experiencing the issues of identity and race awareness. He is the only black child in the white school, where he is successfully participating in the debates. Spurgeon is an intelligent and smart student like Dina, and he also feels like an outsider at school. For example, the children from school jokingly call him Little Man. The story focuses on the relations in the Spurgeon’s family to denote how heavily they affect his identity issues. In fact, the relationship between Spurgeon and his father are broken and very complicated. From one side, Spurgeon has a realistic image of his unsuccessful father and his misdeeds, and obviously, does not have much respect for him. The parent has growing problems with alcoholism, police, law, and money. Spurgeon is separating himself from his father, who is regarded as the ethnicity archetype that Spurgeon tries to escape. However, he perceives his simple father as “a cross he has to bear” (Packer). Thus, he helps the parent and takes him out of the jail using the money Spurgeon won at the debates to pay the bail. Moreover, father’s words clearly affect Spurgeon, in particular when father is calling him a “pussy” for being too soft or sentimental (Packer). Spurgeon, similarly to Dina, does not tend to form bonding with other African Americans even though he is the only black child in the white school. Notably, he is barely interested in the Million Men March as he states that it was like a vacation for him to be among black people for a change. He finds the demonstration’s claims about atoning illogical and being cliché. Spurgeon argues that “Atoning for one’s wrongs is different from apologizing. One involves action, the other words” (Packer). Thus, he does not feel any connection with the previous generation of African Americans, including his parents. Similarly to the first story, The Ant of the Self does not have a happy ending. Spurgeon finds himself without money at some train station away from home.

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To conclude, the short stories Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and The Ant of The Self explore the theme of identity issues and race awareness. Both stories feature educated and intelligent African American characters trying to find their place in the white society. They are not oppressed because of their race: they go to the prestigious university, white school, and even win the school debates. However, the burden of the origin and the ethnicity stereotypes does not let them accommodate in the new environment. Therefore, Dina tries to escape her black neighborhood and family in Baltimore; she is frightened that anyone like a young man with nice shoes or Heidi will see where she lives. Spurgeon, the only black child at school, shows very good results at school and debates but has to miss an important tournament because of his criminal parent and use the prize money to pay the bail. Therefore, both Dina and Spurgeon struggle to find their place between two worlds, their original background and the new environment. Moreover, the complicated family relationship and romantic feelings greatly contribute to the identity issues that Dina and Spurgeon are experiencing. From one side, they cannot escape and totally reject their origin and blood, which Spurgeon called “a cross to bear”. From other side, being unable to realize their true identity makes them feel uncomfortable in the new environment. Consequently, it provokes the identity issues as they try to find the balance between the two contradicting worlds. It should be said that the issue is not resolved in the book as both stories finish with a sad ending. Dina rejects Heidi and returns to her neighborhood in Baltimore, while Spurgeon finds himself penniless and lost on the other part of the USA.

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