Human beings are social animals whose success in the evolutionary sweepstakes
is due to their highly developed ability to interact and cooperate with each
other. However, human beings’ intrinsic gregariousness is often governed by the unwritten rules of the group they belong to. These rules, which steer the social interactions between people, pertain to what constitutes an appropriate or inappropriate attitude, belief, or behavior. Social interactions are also distinguished by a set of disincentives for regulating individual behavior and thus for enforcing social norms. Stigma is one such. Stigma refers to the loss of status and the consequent discrimination that result from the display of inappropriate attitudes and behaviors by individuals in the group.
Interestingly, the word ‘stigma’ was derived from Greek and originally meant a mark or brand made on the skin of criminals and slaves to set them visually apart from the rest. The ‘stigmatized’ individuals were thus devalued of their status and shunned by the civil society. In the modern context too, stigma entails branding and shunning, though the branding is not physical but pejorative, and is based on negative stereotypes.
An individual may be stigmatized on one of the following counts: physical deformities
(for example, intersex people), physical illness (leprosy, HIV-positive), mental illness (personality disorders), differentness (illegitimacy, same-sex orientation), and anything that is considered socially deviant and morally repugnant (adultery, incest, cannibalism). Individuals may also be stigmatized based on their race, religious beliefs, ethnicity, and so on.
Stigmatization results in social ostracism, ghettoization, and harassment, affecting the individuals’ sense of physical, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing. Stigma thus leaves the victims alienated and depressed, often impelling them to take recourse to suicide to escape from the social segregation or to indulge in dysfunctional and antisocial behavior in retaliation against rejection.
One of the most enduring portrayals of stigma in American literature is when Hester Prynne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, steps out of the prison bearing in her arms “a baby of some three months old” and wearing a “rag of scarlet cloth” that “assumed the shape of . . . the capital letter A.” The reason for which she was ‘stigmatized’ thus: adultery. While the stigma attached to adultery, for example, is not as strident today as it was in the 17th century Puritan Boston, the same cannot be said of the stigma associated with certain physical illnesses like AIDS.
Pervasive stigma has surrounded HIV/AIDS since the human immunodeficiency virus was declared as the pathogen responsible for AIDS on April 28, 1984. Since then the AIDS pandemic has claimed millions of lives and billions of dollars in treatment and research, and currently, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) worldwide is estimated to be around 33 million. Needless to say, HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination prevent open discussion, encourage concealment, delay treatment, and fuel the spread of the disease, adding to the negative impact of the pandemic. Hence understanding the stigma as a social process and redrawing strategies accordingly are prerequisites for the successful mobilization of government, community, and individuals to respond to the threat posed by HIV/AIDS.
Identity theory suggests that PLWHA can develop “resistance identities” and use them to establish a new identity that redefines their position in the society. The resistance could be through mobilization of movements at the local, national, and global levels. Another method could be distancing oneself from the myths associated with HIV/AIDS and focusing on positive self-transformation, as Marvelyn Brown does. In the first paper, “‘HIV Is Not an Advocate’: Self-Love, Self-Respect, and Responsibility in Marvelyn Brown’s The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive,” Gokulnath A and Sathyaraj Venkatesan examine Brown’s memoir and show how Brown comes to terms with her HIV-positive status through “self-love, self-respect, and responsibility.”
“My deer dress is the way I felt, transformed by the power of ceremony,” says the grandmother to the girl, in Diane Glancy’s play The Woman Who Was a Red Deer Dressed for the Dance, and adds, “We’re carriers of our stories and histories. We’re nothing without them.” And this allegiance to her heritage is one of the motifs in Glancy’s writings. In the second paper, “Creating Possibilities for Voices and Stories: The Role of Memory in Diane Glancy’s Plays,” C Savitha shows how by consciously turning to their past, the characters in Glancy’s plays find the scope for healing and survival within their sociocultural context, thus paving the way for the emergence of various voices that are marginalized, with memory acting as a controlling force.
Comic strips often reflect the social atmosphere in which they are created, published, and read. The publication of the comic Is This Tomorrow: America under Communism, in 1947, which raised the specter of a communist takeover of the US, effectively defined the reconstruction of American identity in the Cold War era. McCarthyism, a political attitude that dominated the American discourse chiefly in the 1940s and 1950s, was an offshoot of this period characterized by personal attacks on the basis of unsubstantiated charges that invariably raised the communist bogey. In the third paper, “Oblique References: Popular Culture in the McCarthy Era,” Aju Aravind observes how McCarthyism and the publication of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, in 1954, led to the anti-comic book crusade and defined the popular culture and its response.
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on May 31, 2011, V S Naipaul replied in the negative when asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He felt that the woman writers were “quite different,” and their writings were colored by “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.” While not many would share Naipaul’s views, his disparagement underscores the challenges before female writers: gender stereotypes and bias. In the fourth paper, “The Journey of the Poets:
A Comparative Study of the Poems of Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Shanta Acharya, and Deepa Agarwal,” Tanushree Nayak compares four female poets—their thought processes, cultural contexts, worldviews, and their sensibilities as women—and shows that though gender is a component in their artistry, it does not limit their range of themes, evident from the variety and catholicity of their subjects.
One of the distinctive African-American voices in American poetry, Nikki Giovanni is often seen as a revolutionary, even militant poet. Commenting on this perception, Giovanni says, “I have been considered a writer who writes from rage and it confuses me. What else do writers write from? A poem has to say something. It has to make some sort of sense; be lyrical; to the point; and still able to be read by whatever reader is kind enough to pick up the book.” In the fifth paper, “Metamorphosis in Nikki Giovanni’s Poetry,” Candice Ann Sampson traces the evolution of Nikki Giovanni’s awareness and experiences—from her childhood to civil rights activist days to motherhood—through her poetry.
Characterized as their lives are by powerlessness, cultural alienation, and social isolation, African-American women are doubly marginalized—by gender and color. Their struggle is to survive as women in a male-dominated society and as African-Americans in a white-dominated society. In the sixth paper, “Maternal Bonds: The Celebration of Black Motherhood in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place,” Anurag Kumar and Monika Singh examine the portrayal of motherhood in the mentioned novels of Morrison and Naylor and show how the African-American mothers in these novels transcend the maternal stereotypes assigned by the white society by drawing inspiration from their African values and cultural practices.
-- R Venkatesan Iyengar