A Buddhist monk, famous among his peers for the calm and serenity he constantly expressed, received the visit of a young man one day. The latter had come intent on disturbing the monk's peace and reputation and began attacking the master with a conglomeration of verbal expressions that even the foulest of men would have bowed their head in shame. Each word that came out of the young man's mouth was one more colorful than the other. And no remark that he addressed to the monk had anything but a pejorative sense of direction. As the young man went on to gesticulate vividly in a body language that matched his most "candid" acts of expressing, the Buddhist monk did nothing but gently smiled, causing the young man to build up more steam. Exasperated and drained out of energy, the man finally gave up and asked the master about his secret. The Buddhist monk replied: "If someone comes up to me and offers me a present, and I refuse it, to whom does the present go then?" In other words, the hatred, aggressiveness, and venom returned to sender. The conclusion of the story is that the young man inflicted malice upon himself, by having to retain the venom of his behavior within him. The moral would thus be that, if someone tries to hurt another -- not including physical injuries in this context -- all that someone has to do is simply let the assailant assimilate his own venom. Otherwise stated, just as a rubber ball always bounces back from the wall, so would the harm directed unto another return to sender if it is not held on to and nurtured.
How does this story relate in any way to prejudice? Moreover, how does it relate to Brent Staples, Maya Angelou, Jamaica Kincaid, and Zora Neale Hurston's essays on their personal experience(s) with prejudice? The answer is that we are not all Buddhist monks. And because we are not all Buddhist monks, there can be no expectation that one is able to simply allow the effects of certain harmful situations to bounce back while being least if at all affected. Because the truth is, prejudice affects and it affects on a level that transcends momentums and conscientious affliction. Staples, because of others' impressions of him, felt compelled to develop coping mechanisms to "smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal." (2) Whistling "bright, sunny selections" as he strolled along the streets of New York at night became the regular habit because white women mostly, as he related in "Just Walk on By," took one slight look at him and instantly labeled him a "mugger." Staples realized that his warbling of classical music eased the tension in people when they met the tall, black, young man who appeared to them as threatening. Maya Angelou, listening to the white man's allusive speech at her graduation, felt crushed at the realization that people, who were neither black, nor red, nor yellow, but indeed white, expected no more from the rest than "to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense." (30) Jamaica Kincaid, having been instructed repeatedly and from as far back as she could remember, to regard England, the colonizer, with piety, in a manner similar to religious dogmatism, revolted against the country. She will not lose this impression even at experiencing England first-hand, years after her childhood faded and she visited the country herself. Zora Neale Hurston felt alienation for most of her adult life because, as she implied, music does not play the same for blacks and whites. Whereas "the great blubs of purple and red emotions" (3) infuse her spirit and make her feel as though she "is in the jungle and living in the jungle way," (3) the jazz beats leave no other impression on a white man standing beside her but that the music is "good." The white man in Hurston's essay, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," is in the proximity of Hurston's world but not exactly inside. Whereas he makes use of merely physical senses, Hurston lets herself be carried away by rhythms of the jungle and sensations transcending the realm of reality and she understands the gap because the man "has only heard what I felt." (3) The man is thus unable to experience the music in a manner similar to Hurston because, as she perceives, his world is different from hers. In a world where the color of the skin is judged, Hurston experiences intermittent contexts between feelings of proudness that she is "so colored" sometimes, at other times, feeling like she has "no race," and at the same time feeling "most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." (2)
"Just Walk on By," "Graduation," "On Seeing England For The First Time," and "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" are four essays not of personal lament. The authors do not seek sympathy for the sake of sympathy because sympathy alone will not end prejudice and this is clear to them. What these stories reflect upon is the bitterness of a simulated resilience which many black people have assumed throughout history because they felt powerless and defenseless before the white society. This is why, in relation to her resent towards the English, Jamaica Kincaid notes, "I may be capable of prejudice, but my prejudices have no weight to them, my prejudices have no force behind them, my prejudices remain opinions, my prejudices remain my personal opinion." (374) The power of prejudice is enforced thus when it becomes generic, when the situation is not that of an one on one fight, but that of a single individual standing exposed before an incommensurable crowd ready to point the poisonous arrows on command. And this is what Kincaid relates, that her prejudice is not as powerful as the one directed by a majority upon a group of fewer people. She wants the reader to understand that, whereas her prejudicial opinions are highly unlikely to turn into deadly weapons, a majority's behavior will inflict wounds upon an individual, leaving the latter taunting and tantalizing for the rest of his/hers life; because the effects of prejudicial behavior do not bounce back to sender but instead expand and gradually threaten to imbibe the privacy of an individual. Kincaid reveals how this happens when she recalls at the end of her essay, "At that moment, I was thinking, who are these people who forced me to think of them all the time, who forced me to think […] that I was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up because I was not English [?]" (374) Impregnated with other people's beliefs over England, white people's beliefs, since her early education years, Kincaid was unable to shake off the memory of her upbringing when everything around her was either "Made in England," came from England or was about England. She points to the mischievous ways of prejudices which, when enforced, can lead to personal feelings of blame and unauthentic righteousness. When "the sun shone with what sometimes seemed to be a deliberate cruelty," Kincaid, as a child, believed, "we must have done something bad to deserve that." (369) The four authors all centralize the pervading effects of prejudicial behavior. To none of them has prejudice ever been a bouncing back circumstance. When he published his essay in 1986, Staples was years past his first experience of being faced with other peoples' perception of him and still was confronted with similar situations regularly. When Angelou waited in frenzy anticipation the graduation ceremony of her class, even as a child, she was aware of the conditions of the times. Angelou knew that very few black high school graduates will have the opportunity to continue their education and, even those who succeeded this, the majority of them anyway, were happy to aspire "to be carpenters, farmers, handymen, masons, maids, cooks, and baby nurses." (23) When Donleavy, the spokesman giving the speech at the graduation, implies that this is the norm of things, Angelou's world shatters to pieces because she understands the simulated resilience at the audience. Angelou, the writer, tells the reader that prejudice crushes the spirit and dehumanizes, leaving he or she who is prejudiced to a mere state of existence and servitude.
Although, in each of the four cases, the authors appear to have experienced prejudice differently and to have dealt with different prejudicial effects, they all share similarity in that they are not intent on convincing the reader that prejudice is bad. To do so, it would mean they have moved beyond their purpose. Instead, they let the experiences related in the stories to speak for themselves, merely focusing on prejudicial effects while letting the reader choose the standpoint; providing the reader with the liberty to judge for himself the circumstances of prejudicial behavior and whether…