It is a well-known fact that racial oppression has been one of the key issues in the African American literature. Many writers of African American origin created narratives that aimed at opposing racism and help their fellow African Americans gain the sense of unique cultural identity and self-pride. So did Zola Neale Hurston and Brent Staples, the two African American authors who lived in different historical times, but wrote about similar problems. THESIS STATEMENT: Although they bear some superficial differences, the similarities between Zora Neale Hurston and Brent Staples’s essays are pronounced.
The first and probably the greatest similarity is the overarching theme of racial discrimination explored in the two essays. In particular, Zora Neale Hurston approaches this theme from a perspective of a young African American girl who learnt to live with her black ancestry and tried to value her cultural identity no matter what. Racial discrimination arises in the story as an artificial thing, something that was unnatural both for narrator and the very essence of the world. Specifically, the narrator underlines that she has become aware of her otherness as soon as she turned thirteen and was obliged to leave her black town in order to study in Jacksonville, where she felt as “colored” because of being “thrown against a sharp white background” (Hurston 141). Yet, Zora Neale Hurston’s exploration of the theme is invested with positive meanings and generally positive attitude to the white community. Such wise attitude has come as a result of the positive experiences in childhood, when the narrator, grown up in the “little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida,” had a wealth of positive interaction with passing by white people. Those whites “gave […] generously of their small silver” for the narrator’s singing or “speaking pieces” and were glad to exchange compliments with a black girl (Hurston 139).
Likewise, Brent Staples focuses on the theme of racial discrimination, with the focus on how he has learnt to overcome the unpleasant moments related to his African American origin. The essence of the narrator’s negative experience about interaction with the white people was the same: they instantly identified his ethnic and cultural identity and acted with prejudice. For example, the narrator says, “On less traveled streets after dark, I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the other side of the street rather than pass me” (Staples 295). However, just like Zora Neale Hurston, he was able to devise a special strategy for managing to live with this and overcome any unpleasant feelings associated with the discriminative experiences. If Zora Neale Hurston’s rule has become “I do not mind at all” (Hurston 140), Ben Staple simply accepted the white people’s fear of him as a potentially dangerous person and invented his own way of dealing with the issue. That was his taking precautions strategy in order to make himself less threatening. To illustrate, the narrator describes how he learnt to “move about with care, particularly late in the evening”; “give a wide berth to nervous people on subway platforms during the wee hours” or “whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers” (Staples 297). These examples show how hard-working and serious the narrator has been in the issue of solving the problem of racial bias he has suffered from.
Moreover, the two authors’ experiences have been quite similar in that neither of them places himself or herself in opposition to the white community, but tries to come to grips with the white’s perception of black people in a friendly manner. Specifically, Zora Neale Hurston writes about her various encounters with white people, where her “color comes,” but instead of making negative inferences of such encounters, he finds mostly positive things. For example, she describes, “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult. No brown specter pulls up a chair beside me when I sit down to eat. No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed” (Hurston 141). These examples have been used to show how white people’s discriminative attitudes to African Americans spoil their own lives instead of doing greater harm to those they regard inferior. Similarly, Brent Staples writes about his learning “to smother the rage [he] felt at so often being taken for a criminal” (Staples 297). His friendly attitude to whites becomes evident when he describes how he recognizes their fears of him as a young black male and learns to help them overcome their fears through a variety of tricks. As a result, “even steely New Yorkers” forget about their prejudice and may “even join in the tune,” apparently to support the African American’s kind attempt to free from their fear (Staples 297).
Still, there are some differences between the two essays. First, the essays were written in different time period, especially with regard to the status of the African American people in the U.S. society: Zora Neale Hurston’s narrative was finished in 1928, whereas Brent Staples’s was finished in 1986. It means that the two authors were writing from different position: a black woman living in an officially segregated society and a young man living in an officially equal society. Second, the narratives were written from different perspectives: in Hurston’s essay this is the perspective of an oppressed (the girl was made to feel she was “colored”) whereas in Staples’s essay this is the perspective of the oppressor to some extent (the black man makes white people afraid by his physical fitness and race). Third, the essays describe different periods in the characters’ lives: if Hurston’s essay focuses on the period of adolescence mostly, Brent Staples’s essay focuses on the times he was a graduate student or later, with only a brief story of his childhood experiences.
In summary, if to compare the number and nature of similarities and differences between “Black Men and Public Space” by Brent Staples and “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” by Zora Neale Hurston, it turns out that there are more similarities than differences, especially in the essays’ key themes and messages. Those few differences that have been identified are mostly not so important, with focus on the secondary characteristics of the works.
- Staples, Brent. “Black Men and Public Space,” pp. 294-297. Print.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” pp. 139-143. Print.