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, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt (Boeree). However, according to Dr. Boeree's understanding of the self-actualization level, this level includes "the continuous desire to fulfill potentials, to 'be all that you can be,' … [and] is a matter of becoming the most complete, the fullest, 'you' -- hence the term, self-actualization." If this theory is applied to some of the individuals and characters in African American literature, it could be argued that some manage to reach the level of self-actualization or at least the level of self-esteem, which is so important to identity, despite the denial of food and safety, and in the midst of prejudice, poverty, and/or slavery.
Before applying this theory to individuals and characters to be reviewed in this essay, however, it is worth considering another more recent theory about self-esteem in conjunction with Maslow's. Alicia D. Cast in "A Theory of Self-Esteem" argues the following:
[S]elf-esteem is an outcome of, and necessary ingredient in, the self-
verification process that occurs within groups, maintaining both the
individual and the group. Verification of role identities increases an individual's worth-based and efficacy-based self-esteem. The self-esteem built up...