The United States is commonly referred to as a “melting pot” blending different races together. However, not all races find themselves “blending” so easily. In her essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston discusses what it’s like being an African American female living in the United States. While Hurston didn’t always feel black, she did feel her color during certain instances in her life. In a similar way, Brent Staples speaks on his experiences as an African American male in the United States in his essay “Black Men and Public Space.” Although both Staples and Hurston share common experiences as “colored” people in the United States, they use the power of music in very different ways. While Staples whistles pieces from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to create a sense of ease for other city night-walkers, Hurston feels her “color” during a jazz concert with her white friend.
Music serves different functions for Hurston and Staples, even though they both are initially unaware of their “blackness.” In Staples’ essay “ Black Men and Public Space,” he explains how other people became afraid of him on the streets because he was black even though he “a softy.” During Staples’ first days as a graduate student in Chicago, Staples encountered the way other people viewed him as a threat simply because of his color. While he was taking a nightly walk to fight his insomnia, he noticed a white woman running away from him. Staples explains how “it was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into-the ability to alter public space in ugly ways.” For Staples, this instance served to show him what he had become to other people and how he would have to accept “the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect.” Even though Staples came from a black neighborhood, he never became a troublemaker but remained “ a shadow-timid, but a survivor.” Being an educated man, Staples didn’t understand why people were afraid of him being that he was too scared to even use a knife to cut a chicken. Therefore, in order to ease people’s assumptions about him, he began whistling classical pieces during his nightly walks.
Similarly, Hurston also didn’t understand what it meant to be colored. In Hurston’s essay “ How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” she recalls the first day when she “became colored.” Growing up in a colored town like Staples, she only saw white people passing by. Therefore, she never quite saw herself as different just because she was black. In opposition to Staples, Hurston was not timid but loved to sing and dance for her hometown, Orange County, visitors who gave her tips. During this time, she “belonged to the nearby hotels [and] county,” but all that changed when she moved to a new school. Similar to Staples who first noticed that he was “colored” as a graduate student, Hurston first encountered her “blackness” when she began going to school in Jacksonville. She says when she “disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville… she was not Zora of Orange County [but] was now a little colored girl.” Even though Hurston felt she was colored when she moved, she states that she didn’t always feel colored. However, while attending The New World Cabaret “ with a white person,” Hurston states that her “color comes” again.
Although both Hurston and Staples are black citizens living in the United States, their personal experiences differ through the way they use music. While Hurston sang for the white people passing by her childhood hometown and accepted the difference in her color through listening to jazz with a white friend; Staples used whistling to ease the people passing by him during his nightly walks. Both authors didn’t define themselves as colored because they both came from black neighborhoods. While Staples was timid and Hurston was outgoing, both authors understood the effects of their color through their personal experiences and used the power of music to defy barriers. Through Staples “ tension-reducing melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi,” he was able to show others who he really is away from his superficial color. Staples mentions that sometimes people would even join him in whistling similar to the way in which Hurston and her white friend were able to enjoy music together despite their color differences.