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Hurston and Hughes
The United States has a history of racist policies towards African-Americans and other minorities. The predominant ruling class of this country has always been wealthy white Christian men. In order to sustain this position of power, all other minorities whether those be based on skin color, gender, or religion have been marginalized and classified as other. This othering has engendered a feeling in those people of the marginalized groups a feeling that in the United States, particularly in the first one hundred years of the nation's history, those othered people have minimal importance and are inferior to the people in power. Writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were both part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and their works reflected the mentality of the oppressed African-Americans living in the United States at a time when they were still a marginalized people. Using her short story "How it Feels to be Colored Me" as well as Langston Hughes poetry, it becomes clear that the pieces actually work as a dialogue between two authors describing their own position as other in the United States of America.
In Hurston's story "How it Feels to be Colored Me," the narrator, who is presumably Hurston herself as she calls the child "Zora," is telling the story of how she realized that she was a part of this othered population. She grew up in a small town where everyone was black, just like her. The southern whites would pass through the town, but they were not anomalous. The people of the narrator's town of Eatonville, Florida would watch come out of their homes and observe white northerners who happened through the town. "The Northerners were something else again. They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. The more venturesome would come out on the porch to watch them go past" (Hurston 1). Up until the age of thirteen, the narrator has been relatively unaware that she is part of a marginalized group. Instead she and the people who look like her are guilty of marginalizing and gawking at another group. By taking the position of power away from the white people and instead labeling themselves as majority, the people of Eatonville are subconsciously changing the stature of otherness in the country. In Langston Hughes poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" he, unlike Zora Neale Hurston, clearly defines himself as well as his narrator, as a member of the marginalized group. He writes:
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the Pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
Went down to New Orleans (lines 5-9).
Hughes narrator relates to the African people and to the slaves of history more than to present people of a different race. Therefore, it becomes an ascertainable fact that the process of othering can be performed not just by the country majority but by any society wherein one group is the accepted population and a group that looks or behaves in a different manner is considered outside of that main population.
After Zora enters the larger world, she begins to understand that it was not the white northerners who are predominantly othered, but her own race of black people. However, having been in the position of power to label another group as other, she is more easily able to step into a role where she herself is given that moniker. Instead of resisting marginalization, she accepts the new role that the society at large bestows upon her. She states:
I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow damned upon my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world -- I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife (Hurston 1).
Unlike many African-American people who blame all the miseries of their lives on the fact that they have been oppressed by the majority race, the narrator instead understands that marginalization and othering is a part of the world. Whoever is in the position of majority will have a hegemonic relationship with the group that is in the minority.
An example of the effectiveness of labeling is exemplified in several of Langston Hughes poems where his narrator takes the position of an angry member of the marginalized members of society. In the poem "I, Too," Hughes' narrator is a young person speaking with the vernacular of the lower classes. The narrator complains that there is no chance for him or other people like him in a society where the white men are in the positions of power and African-Americans are placed in the position of other. Hughes writes: "I am the darker brother. / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes" (lines 2-4). Even as a member of a family unit, the African-American man is marginalized by his race and relegated to the back rooms, a literal representation of being singled out as different. It is only in the last presidential election have the people of the United States elected an African-American man to the presidency of the United States. Writing almost a century ago, Hughes's narrator did not see any potential for a black man to rise into the office of the most Powerful Man in the World because of the intrinsic racism of the white majority. All this particular narrator can see is a world in which the qualities of justice and fairness are not equal for everyone. The color of a person's skin is the only thing that matters in the world. It is still common today for members of any marginalized group to point back to offenses done to their ancestors and blame that injustice for a lack of ambition or determination in their present. Hughes repeats this sentiment in the same poem. That narrator states:
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then (lines 8-14).
Instead of overcoming the desires of those who wish to keep a person inferior, these members of the othered group blame that position of marginalization on all the delinquencies in their own actions. They will overcome the prejudices of the white majority only through aggressiveness. Hughes uses the phrase "Nobody'll dare" send the narrator to the kitchen, showing that this man will do whatever is necessary to achieve his perceived deserved position.
Hughes's narrators blame the world for their own visions of limitations. On the other side, Hurston admits that there are times when she feels the intent of her would-be oppressors and when she understands herself to be a part of the group labeled "colored." However, most of her life she spends without allowing herself to dwell in otherness. "At certain times I have no race, I am me" (Hurston 1). Her mentality is primarily that of an individual rather than as a member of the others. The thesis of this piece then is not the experience of the marginalized individual, but whether or not those labeled as other will allow themselves to be emotionally affected by that labeling. Hughes, on the other hand, clearly label themselves as "colored" because that is how they have been labeled by those who othered the group. In "I, Too," for example, Hughes's narrator…[continue]
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