Race and Identity as Functions of Societal Labeling and Expectations
Two pieces of 20th century literature exemplify the alienation felt by African-Americans in the United States. One of those works, authored by Zora Neal Hurston in 1928, is the essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me, which vividly illustrates the degree to which the identity of a black person in the pre-Civil Rights era was defined by white society. More importantly, Hurston's work also illustrates how much of a conflict and perpetual struggle African-Americans experienced internally if they tried to maintain their own self-identity. Whereas many blacks of that era bought into the expectations foisted on them by white society, others resisted this artificial identity that was imposed on them. Hurston clearly was shaped by this dynamic and bitterly resisted the self-identity that she was expected to have accepted and reflected to get along in her society.
One of the mechanisms that black people used to cope with racial stereotypes was, apparently, to downplay their ties to their African-American heritage. Hurston makes a reference to this when she writes that she could "offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief" meaning that it was commonplace for blacks to present themselves as part Native American to escape some of the racism against blacks. The author recalls the "very day that I became colored," when she was first sent to school in Jacksonville: she writes that she "left Eatonville, the town of the oleanders, a Zora." But when she "… disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more; I was now a little colored girl." Obviously, the author had not "changed" during the trip to Orange County; nevertheless, the influence of external perceptions and characterizations about her because of her skin color were so important that she says, "I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown -- warranted not to rub nor run." By that, Hurston means that she realized that she was now perceived not as just a thirteen-year-old girl named Zora; now, she was, more than anything else, a colored person. The reference to being warranted not to rub or run means that there was obviously nothing that she could possibly do or say to overcome the overwhelming significance of her skin color as the predominant aspect of her as a person that defined the way that others regarded her.
Later, she writes that "Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said 'On the line!' The Reconstruction said 'Get set!' And the generation before said 'Go!' I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it." That passage suggests that the author is reminded at all times that she is, more than anything else that could possibly define her in the eyes of others, colored. The implication is that some people remind her of her heritage to keep her from hoping for too much out of life while others may remind her of her heritage to remind her of the anger she should rightfully own. She resists both suggestions, preferring to consider herself fortunate to have benefitted from the progress achieved by her ancestors while, at the same time, not allowing her racial heritage to define who she is in her own mind, nor, more importantly, allow it to limit her goals and aspirations in life.
Ultimately, Hurston would live her life simultaneously resisting the negative influences of those who expected nothing of her by virtue of her race and the influence of the anger toward mainstream white America that she had every right to experience. In another similar passage, Hurston writes that she is "… not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in 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 but 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 of less. No, I do not weep at the world -- I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife." In other words, she refused to allow the injustice and inequity that characterized the lives of black Americans of her era to ruin her optimism and sense of purpose in life. She would not use her disadvantage as an excuse for low expectations; nor would she allow her justifiable anger to define her life, either. She acknowledges that "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me." This reflects her acceptance of the obvious factual truth of the way that her race dictates her role in society in the minds of others while at the same time expressing incredulity that this is, indeed, the case.
Still, the author reveals that one of her greatest comforts is forgetting that she is black and that her race defines who she is to the outside world. In her mind, she is just a person, an adult who was once a little girl named Zora. She obviously misses that time in her life when she was completely unaware that her race defined who she was to others. She writes, "I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." Later, she expresses the same idea, writing, that "At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads." It is her fantasy to be perceived for who she is instead of for her skin color.
The other important literary work is Just Walk on By, written in 1986 by Brent Staples. He describes his profound awareness that his skin color defines who he is in the minds of others and typically instills fear among white people who assume only the worst about African-Americans. Writing about a typical encounter with a white woman in the street, he says, "I was 23 years old, a graduate student newly arrived at the University of Chicago. 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. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse." His sarcastic reference to "the ability to alter public space in ugly ways" describes how the assumptions about him in the minds of others are so strong that he can "alter public space" merely by his presence amongst others.
Despite the fact that the author is a well-educated and cultured professional journalist, he realizes that to most white Americans, he is defined only by his blackness and that it is something that makes others afraid of him. "In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the language of fear. At dark, shadowy intersections in Chicago, I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver -- black, white, male, or female -- hammering down the door locks. On less traveled streets after dark, I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people who crossed to the other side of the street rather than pass me. Then there were the standard unpleasantries with police, doormen, bouncers, cab drivers, and others whose…