Zora Neal Hurston's heartfelt essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928) presents the experiences of a young girl as remembered by an adult black woman in the early 20th century. Her narrative is simultaneously disarming and sad, because the good cheer and humor seems to belie justified resentment toward white American society. She presents an image of cheerful acceptance of racial inequality and the persistent social exclusion and discrimination more than half a century since slavery was abolished. Her tone when relating heartbreaking memories is reminiscent of the "everything happens for a reason" mentality and it seems to be concealing repressed resentment.
A more self-perceptive example from the same genre is Just Walk on By, by Brent Staples (1986). The author obviously encountered many of the same types of social experiences as Hurston, and, like her, he used metaphorical humor very effectively to convey recollections of painful memories and realizations. The actual social dynamics that Staples describes as a professional journalist are not substantially different from those detailed from the perspective of a child and a young woman. Where Staples and Hurston might differ the most is that Hurston seems to deny her hurt and her anger whereas Staples acknowledges throughout that the social circumstances (still) substantially dictating the lives of many black Americans are part of the very serious social problem of racism and prejudice. Staples accepts his situation, and does so with humor, grace and charm, but he also uses each of those approaches to express his rightful indignation about racism.
The two pieces of literature present different types of "inside" views and different responses of the two authors to the same general challenges and insults. Both pieces detail the biased, often cruel ways that African-Americans have been treated by a predominantly white society, throughout the entire 20th century. The subtle differences in perspective convey the painfully slow progress of the growth of racial equality in the United States. At the time of Hurston's work, relatively few black people ever had the opportunity to pursue advanced education and professional careers. She lived in an era when there were nearly insurmountable obstacles in that regard and in which a black person could be thankful just to have any regular job and avoid persecution or racial violence at the hands of racist whites and without any realistic hope of protection or assistance from the authorities. In her time, the Ku Klux Klan was actually a powerful political organization that could conceivably have gained considerable influence over the national political landscape (Goldfield, Abbot, Argersinger, & Argersinger, 2005). Racism permeated virtually every aspect of government and commerce without any recourse available against race-motivated denial of services, employment, or housing.
More than a generation later, Staples's work conveys certain directions of social progress and continuing racism in more benign forms. By the 1980s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade the overt racism experienced by Hurston and earlier generations of black Americans (Edwards, Wattenberg, & Lineberry, 2009; Goldfield, Abbot, Argersinger, & Argersinger, 2005). Federal law ended the outrageous excuse of "separate but equal" that had permitted white America to continue to deprive the descendants of the Africans dragged across the oceans in chains to be enslaved and worked to death of any reasonable opportunity to achieve the same real freedoms and benefits of life in America. Affirmative Action programs made a reasonable attempt to provide assistance, and racism had substantially, if not completely, been eliminated from most major aspects of ordinary life, at least in so far as behavior capable of being regulated formally by law. Unlike Hurston, Staples could not have been denied employment or housing by posted signs reading "Negros Need Not Apply" or required to sit in the backs of busses or denied service in public facilities. Staples undoubtedly enjoyed opportunities and protections that Hurston would have greatly appreciated, such as the opportunity to work as a professional writer for a mainstream magazine or as a journalist for a newspaper with a circulation beyond the black community.
However, Staples's work conveys a different type of insult that frequently confronts black people in America that to a substantial degree, still persists today, nearly three decades later. Specifically, he describes the manner in which he is reminded almost continually in everyday life that mainstream America does not trust him or respect him because of his race. He is so acutely aware of the degree of suspicion and fear that is evoked merely by his skin color that he develops purposeful adaptations to try to avoid being treated like a criminal. He learns to allow a much greater distance than should be necessary between a white person (especially a white woman) walking in front of him in the street to avoid the predictable assumption that he is following her with malicious or criminal intent. He discovers that whistling classical music helps convey to white people that he is not a threat, despite his skin color, because his musical knowledge advertises that he is "one of the safe" black people since robbers, rapists, and murderers typically are not cultured enough to know classical music.
Significance of other Literary Sources and Experiences
In Hurston's time, black men (especially) had to have serious concerns about angering white people, particularly in the former Confederate states and could be subjected to vigilante "justice" in the form of beating or of being murdered by lynch mobs, often with the tacit approval of the local authorities. In many instances, even the law enforcement authorities and local governments in southern states were infested with Ku Klux Klansmen (Goldfield, Abbot, Argersinger, & Argersinger, 2005). At the time that Staples authored his essay, life had become much safer for most black Americans and formal laws provided some protection and relief from any provable instance of racism in most areas of ordinary life that were entirely unheard of and unavailable in Hurston's time. Today, black Americans and other minorities enjoy even greater safety and protection. However, any empirical study of the way criminal justice is administered in the U.S. In relation race (Dershowitz, 2002), or of the economic obstacles faced by black Americans simply by virtue of being black (Ehrenreich, 2009) proves that race and color are still, unfortunately, predictors of success and failure and degree of opportunity in America in virtually all of the same respects as was true in Hurston's time and in Staples's time.
More specifically, author Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book, Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) Getting by in America provides a detailed explanation of the continuing link between race and economic status in contemporary America. According to Ehrenreich, the net worth of black Americans is still significantly lower than white Americans even after adjusting for all of the relevant independent variables, such as education level and geographic region. The author explains that the principal determinants of social class and economic wealth in America are the social class of one's parents and the amount of wealth and property inherited from parents. Since virtually all black Americans living today are the children or grandchildren or great grandchildren of people who lived through the pre-Civil Rights era, the current economic disparity evident between white and black America is directly traceable to racial inequality. That is an especially important point in light of the contemporary arguments against the continuation of Affirmative Action programs and the suggestion that America is no longer a society where race matters. In fact, race still matters tremendously in America.
Larger Implications of the Core Concepts in Relation to the Literary Sources
Today, eighty-five years after Hurston published her work and nearly three decades since Staples published his, relatively little has changed, especially in terms of the differential in opportunities available to blacks and whites in America. The often-suggested claim that the election of an African-American to the presidency necessarily means that we live in a "post-racial" America today is easily refuted by the everyday experiences of most black Americans. Black people are much more likely to be confronted by suspicious police, convicted of crimes, and to be sentenced to long periods of incarceration (Dershowitz, 2002; Kennedy, 2006). Employers and landlords no longer discriminate against black people in ways that can be easily identified, but numerous studies prove that the resumes of job applicants with names conveying or suggesting African-American heritage are less likely to be forwarded for further consideration, and phone call inquiries from individuals with an identifiable black affect or dialect are less likely to be returned by employers and landlords (Ehrenreich, 2009).
My black classmates all confirmed the degree to which many of the same fundamental experiences shared by Hurston and Staples still hold just as true for them today as they did for those writers almost a century ago and nearly three decades ago, respectively. Hurston (1928) describes how being black in America in her time meant that "… for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame." Eighty-five years…