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Identity studies in African-American literature, over time, have depicted the interaction between black and white Americans and the connectedness of black Americans to their root. This study has explored the theme of identity as influenced by the milieu to represent the place of African-Americans within the larger American society in relation to racism, segregation, culture, migration and social equality. However, most of the analyses of the theme of identity in African-American studies have examined identity either in relation to racism or as a reconnection to the African root. This study analyzes identity from another dimension. It explores identity as an inevitable imposition, an obligation made on the individual by forces, societal or supernatural, which are beyond their control and from which they have no power of escape, thus, making the individual a pharmakos of a destined self. In analyzing Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me By My Rightful Name and Richard Wright’s Native Son, this study, therefore, based on discourse analysis and identity theory, sets out to investigate how social structures impact on the structures of self, and the internal dynamics of self-processes as these impact on social behavior in the micro and macro units of action within the texts and its representation in language.




African-American literature is dominated by the attempt of writers of African descent to represent in narratives, the historical experiences of African-Americans in a color-coded American culture. It represents experiences spanning the period of traumatic slavery, through the harsh Jim Crow racial segregation law, to the black exodus to Africa initiated by Marcus Garvey and some other black activists. African-American literature, therefore, depicts the interaction between black and white Americans and the connectedness of black Americans to their root. It explores themes that are influenced by the milieu that gave rise to it. Such themes include the place of the African-Americans within the larger American society, racism, segregation, culture, migration and social equality. Also, within the African-American discourse, the issue of identity has become a recurring problem for individual American, African-American and the American nation at large. Thus, DeSaulnier et al assert that:

the American national identity is constructed by race and the American experience is shaped by the boundaries set, and reset, by Americans since the very first colonists arrived. Historically, for African-Americans, the color‐line was drawn legally, socially, and culturally, so that they would be excluded from the American experience that many others would enjoy. (2)

Hence, different periods in the history of American society has experienced numerous crises as a result of the prejudice of a color-coded world, segregating between the blacks and the whites in America. Africans in America became victims of double displacement, being neither Africans nor Americans.

As an aspect of African Diaspora Studies, African-American literature explores greatly the issue of identity. This was as a result of the Civil Rights Movement era of 1940s, ’50s and ’60s which motivated black writers to address the issue of denial of identities prevalent in America. Many African-American writers of the time like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison wrote stories and essays examining what it was like to be of any of the identities not accepted by the American culture of her time, such as black, homosexual, female. And since the early 19th century, according to DeSaulnier et al, African Americans have been forced to reconnect with their ancestral homeland, both figuratively and literally in response to the prejudice of a color-coded culture. However, most of the analyses of the theme of identity in African-American Studies have examined identity either in relation to racism, as a struggle for a voice and as transcending individualism and maintaining the collective mind of the Negro, or as a reconnection to the root.

This study analyzes identity from another dimension. It explores identity within the texts under study as supernaturally and naturally imposed, an obligation made on the characters by forces beyond them, from which they have no power of escape, thus, making the individual a pharmakos of a destined self. In analyzing Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me By My Rightful Name and Richard Wright’s Native Son that are heavily loaded with intrinsic poetic features that mark them out as classic literary texts, the study carries out an analysis of the diction and structure of these texts in other to establish how language and imagery have been used to represent the protagonists - Otis Hampton and Bigger Thomas - as inevitably taking another self under pressure. The research studies the internal consistency of the representations in the two texts, whereby the linguistic and structural movement of the texts develop on their own momentum, to reflect a force which compels the main characters to respond and accept their individual identities - Otis as a black African identity and Bigger as a labeled and stereotyped black nigger. Otis cooperates with the force he cannot fight to define himself and claim his identity while Bigger though resisting but inevitably responds and takes the identity given him.

Bigger, therefore, can be said to fit perfectly into W. E. B. Du Bois’ history of a human heart in his tale of a black boy who is presented as struggling with life that he might know the world and know himself, who met three temptations of Hate for the culture which imprisons him from realizing his dream; of Despair that he is losing grip of identity actualization, becoming what he truly desire to be; and of Doubt perplexed at who he finally turns out to be at the end. And one who crosses the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadows of Death (Du Bois, The Soul of Black Folk 133). For Otis Hampton, even though he passes through the same crucible, does not finally cross the Valley of the Shadows of Death because he cooperates with the supernatural force that led him to the discovery of a self he is at home with.

This study, therefore, sets out to analyze the texts – Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me By My Rightful Name and Richard Wright’s Native Son – based on the two directions in which Identity Theory has evolved over time, namely how social structures impact on the structures of self, and the internal dynamics of self-processes as these impact social behavior in the micro and macro units of action within the texts.


Identity studies and analyses in African-American literary studies abound, but while some researchers approach it by way of thematic analysis, others do same in relation to racism. This work, however, deviates from the rest of the researches done on identity and on the two texts - Okpwho’s Call Me By My Rightful Name and Wright’s Native Son. Besides analyzing the social problems of identity as related to the texts, it analyzes identity in the texts as compelling on the protagonists. It further analyzes the discourse that informs identity in the texts as imposed by examining the choices of clauses, phrases and words made in the particular texts.

Hence, in African-American literature, hardly has there been any research known to the researcher on the pressure underlying the assumption of identities by characters. This research intends to fill that gap by analyzing the characters in the selected texts as victims of excessive identity pressure as suggested by the language of the text. It also intends to fill a gap in knowledge by comparing the two texts Call Me By Rightful Name and Native Son which have not been studied together nor compared before now, especially on the question of identity.


The primary intention of this study is to establish identity in Call Me By My Rightful Name and Native Son as basically an inevitable compulsion on the protagonists, and to explore the contributions and response of the characters to identity imposition. This will be achieved by a critical analysis of the texts and their discourse. The study will also overlook the sociological bases - such as racism, segregation, inequality, memory, and return to roots - upon which these texts have been formerly studied by several researchers in African-American Literature.


This study basically will operate within the ambience of the primary texts - Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me by My Rightful Name and Richard Wright’s Native Son - in relation to the representation of identity as an inevitable compulsion which other researchers have hardly captured. The choice of works from an African-American author and African author, respectively, is intentionally made to buttress the universality of literature. The primary texts are also chosen considering their common formation as African-American literature and knowing full well of the identity imposition discourse inherent in the texts, where what seem like minor and inconsequential external influence leads to an overwhelming self-disclosure. In addition, it will, where the need arises, make reference to the other texts written by the same authors, and to other works dealing with identity in order to establish the distinctiveness of its study.

Analysis of the construct of imposed identity in the texts will also be approached by way of a critical look at particular contexts within the text and examination of the language and the images symbolic of what is being analyzed. This analysis will also be hinged on the theories of identity. Identity theory will be pertinent for this analysis since the theory looks at the ways people are tied to social structures and the consequences of these ties on their identities. The theory argues that individuals internalize and act out expectations attached to roles given by the social structures to which they are tied (Stryker and Burke, 289). The text, therefore, explores the expectations not just made on the major characters, but by implications of the language and images in the text (discourse) are overtly or covertly compelled on them and which must consequently be acted out. It also examines the forceful impact the social structures make on the structure of self of each protagonist.

Furthermore, in analyzing the discourse of imposed identity within the text, the research will be limited within Fairclough’s approach to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). Fairclough’s framework of Critical Discourse Analysis involves the analysis of the two interwoven functions in the text – ‘the identity function (text in the constitution of personal and social identities) and the relational function (text in the constitution of relationship). For Faiclough, ‘the analysis of these interwoven meanings in the texts necessarily comes down to the analysis of the forms of the text, including the generic forms (the overall structure of, for instance, a narrative), their dialogic organization (in terms, for instance, turn-taking), cohesive relationships between sentences’ (134). Therefore, as regards CDA, this research will restrict itself within the scope of the identification of the social problem of identity being addressed within the text, the examination of the context within which the problem occurs, and the analysis of the language and images used within these contexts as well as the form and organization of the text.

In all, the scope of this research includes a focus on the primary texts under study and any other texts that reference can be made to, based on the theories of identity as related to the construct under study, and in the discourse which includes the language and ‘texture’ (Fairclough, 4) of the text.


This research adds to the existing body of knowledge by offering further explanation on the issue of identity as formally analyzed in most African-American literary criticism; thus it highlights identity not just - according to Stryker and some other identity theorists - as the natural impact of social structures on the structure of self which invariably impact on the personal behavior, but mostly as compelling on the structure of self and invariably manifested in personal behavior.

Furthermore, the tendency towards the application of the findings of this research outside the literary field, especially in the aspect of social practice, may not be overlooked since the issue of identity cuts across many disciplinary borders liike history, psychology, sociology, political science, and in fact, all humanities.

Moreover, this research in electronic or book format contributes to the diverse criticisms on identity that can be archived in the school and departmental libraries; hence, it will serve as a reference material for further researches.



The narrative tells the story of a young African American, Otis Hampton, who at his twenty-first birthday falls under the pressure of a supernatural influence to chant a text inexplicable in his environment. His disturbed family seeks help of a psychologist and a linguist, who record the text in one of Otis spasms, and come out with the result that Otis’ chant is a corrupted family chant from the Yoruba of Nigeria. The doctor advises a trip to that ethnic region. The family discovers that whatever is disturbing their son has absolute control of him and cannot leave him until he yields to its control and accepts the supernatural demand to take another identity, an identity that is in him but has waited for him to come of age.

The spiritual voice that has been summoning Otis finally brings him, after some alarming experiences in the journey from America through the Nigerian hinterland, to the very spot where the ancestor he reincarnated was captured over a century before. The recorded chant helps the search party to locate the surviving member of Otis’ lineage. After some inquiries, they discover that he must inevitably remain with his new community and be initiated into a cult. He must accept his transformation and complete the oriki which his ancestor, his reincarnation, was abruptly interrupted from completing when the slave raiders captured him and took him away to America. Otis willingly learns the language and culture of the place and joins in completing his ancestor’s rites. Armed with a recovered identity and a profound wisdom in African culture, imparted by the social standards of his newly found culture, Otis returns to the U.S. to play his part in the civil rights struggle of the time for black freedom.


            Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated, twenty-year-old black boy in the 1930s Chicago. Bigger grows up under harsh racial prejudice, burdened with a powerful conviction that he has no control over his life and that he cannot aspire to anything other than menial, low-wage labor. He gives in to his poor mother’s persuasion to take the job of a chauffeur gotten for him by the relief. He accepts this against his utmost dream of becoming an aviator.

            Bigger breaks up with his gang after a foiled plan of robbery and heads to accept the offer of the menial job in Dr Dalton’s house. During the course of his job, he continues in vengeful anger against his boss and his likes within his environment, who are landlords in Chicago’s South Side. He scorns them for effectively robbing the poor black tenants and covering up their wickedness by their benevolent philanthropies. In other words, they exploit poor blacks on one hand and turn around to donate money to black schools and offer jobs to ‘poor, timid black boys’ like Bigger. As the action in the novel climaxes, Bigger mistakenly suffocates Mary, the daughter of his boss, to death. To conceal his crime, he decapitates and burns Mary’s body in the Dalton’s furnace and uses Dalton’s prejudice dislike for communists to lay the guilt on Mary’s communist boyfriend, Jan.

However, Mary’s murder gives Bigger a sense of power and identity he has never known. And also triggered by an irresistible force, he kills his girlfriend, Bessie, for fear that she will expose him when she learns of his crime. Bigger rapes and kills her, striking her on the head with a brick. But later, Bigger is eventually captured and imprisoned. In the prison, he receives Jan’s forgiveness, but he could not be defended by the legal aids of Boris A. Max who argues that while his client is responsible for his crime, it is vital to recognize that he is a product of his environment. Max maintains that part of the blame for Bigger’s crimes belongs to the fearful, hopeless existence that he has experienced in a racist society since birth.

            The discourse of the narrative presents Bigger as devastated by the effects of the social conditions in which he was raised. He was not born a violent criminal as the opening scene presents his family and the docility in his younger siblings which is what Bigger should be. But he grows up to understand the place of the blacks in a hostile American culture, a culture that relates with the black people as stereotypes. A culture that stifles great dreams of the black and delights in seeing the good black end up as labeled – bad. He is compelled by a force he cannot control to embrace the identity he has been branded – ‘a nigger’ prone to robbing, rapping, and killing. And it comes to be as his mother warns him: ‘mark my words, some of these days you going to set down and cry ….But it’ll be too late then’ (39), and as his premonition prompts him to reveal to his friend ‘sometimes I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me’ (50).

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