Racism and Society -- Literary Comparison Zora Essay

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Racism and Society -- Literary Comparison

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.

There is a glimpse of the anger bubbling under the surface of cheerfulness when the author describes dancing "wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the
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mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue. My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something -- give pain, give death to what, I do not know." It suggests that while the narratives are brutally honest in terms of the human interactions they describe, the author's perception of her truest emotions and reactions to racism in her time may be less accurate than her factual recall.

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…

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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.

Examples would include Staples's first words, "My first victim was a woman," dripping with sarcasm given there was no crime and no victim. He describes making sure that he was not following a woman inappropriately close just sharing the street with her before ran away from him: "As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distance between us. Not so." His use of uninflammatory subtly suggests the viciousness of the prejudice about black men and white women. His "Not So" is another dry reminder that there is no acceptable distance behind a white women that a black man can walk comfortably without arousing fear and suspicion.

To express similar ideas, Hurston describes slavery as the price of civilization, but also as something that has provided a "chance for glory" and a "world to be won and nothing to be lost." She says "It is thrilling to think -- to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep." Staples would probably have written something like "affirmative action is helpful and well deserved; knowing that I'm the most likely person in my graduating class to be wrongfully arrested is not as helpful."

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