Student Question

Compare and contrast Brent Staple's "Just Walk on By" and Zora Hurston's "How It Feels To Be Colored Me".

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Staples and Hurston both describe themselves as ordinary individuals who one day awoke to the realization that, to white people, they were not simply "people" but "coloured". This realization marks a "before" and "after" stage in their lives.

Staples's realization comes after an encounter with a woman on the street. It is nighttime; he is walking behind her. She is frightened of him and breaks into a run. Staples says:

I was twenty-two 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.

Hurston's realization comes when she leaves her small town and goes away to school in a big city. She does not elaborate on the way in which her blackness is made known to her but implies that it is a sudden and immersive experience rather than a single incident:

I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town . . . During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there . . . But changes came in the family when I was thirteen, and I was sent to school in Jacksonville . . . When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville . . . 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. 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.

While both Staples and Hurston experience a kind of awakening to their blackness and its many implications within a predominantly white society, the awakenings are very different. Staples says:

I was surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed all at once. [The woman's] flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny. It also made it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto.

To Staples, his blackness and his maleness suddenly combine to make him inadvertently menacing. Although he describes himself as "a softy" and "timid," this is not at all how others see him, and there is a sharp, painful disconnect between Staples's sense of himself and the way he is perceived by others. He goes on to describe other encounters—with pedestrians, with a jewelry store owner, with the manager of the building where he works—in all of which the others see Staples as a threat, or even a criminal, while Staples himself is doing nothing more than walking, or browsing, or going to work.

Staples learns that his blackness signifies aggression, danger, and ill intent. He goes to some pains to counter that impression, saying "I now take precautions to make myself less threatening." He wears business clothes, he is "calm and extremely congenial," gives "a wide berth to nervous people," and whistles snatches of classical music.

Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.

Having been identified by the wider world as a black man, Staples must work constantly to undo people's fear of black men, lest he be victimised by that fear.

Hurston, by contrast, does not feel her blackness to be problematic:

I am 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.

Hurston embraces her blackness and the vibrant culture African Americans have forged for themselves in the midst of white society. She sees her heritage as a tremendous impetus to do more, do better, seize every opportunity, and revel in the astonishment of white onlookers:

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. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory . . . It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.

Hurston states that she often ceases to be aware of her blackness, and that she "[feels] most colored when [she is] thrown against a sharp white background," but unlike Staples, these moments of racial contrast do not cause Hurston embarrassment or dismay. She is puzzled by the inability of a white friend of hers to understand the wild beauty of jazz music, but she feels a kind of pity for him, more than anything else—sad at his deafness to the riches of black culture:

He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored

When Hurston has experienced discrimination, she is not angry but "merely astonishe[d]" that anyone would "deny themselves the pleasure of [her] company." Her sense of self is not threatened or shaken by feeling the otherness of white people:

Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself.

Unlike Staples, Hurston does not feel like "a hiker . . . in bear country" needing to signify to other hikers that she is not dangerous. Consequently, she is able to truly embrace her blackness without the cognitive dissonance Staples experiences. She is not ashamed of her color and is often able to live her life as if color is not a factor.

Staples, by contrast, lives at a different intersection of race and gender, and as a black man he is unable to live any other way. In moments where he has forgotten his blackness and his maleness, the world swiftly reminds him that he is both of these things and that the combination of the two marks him as a threat. He must constantly seek to put people around him at ease, even other black people:

At dark, shadowy intersections, I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver—black, white, male, or female—hammering down the door locks.

The sum of "black" and "man" is "danger," a mental arithmetic Staples must factor into any encounter he has with anyone. He does not have the luxury of forgetting his race, and he must always see himself as other people see him so that he can soothe their anxieties in advance. He seems almost to resent his blackness and the burden it has placed on him; he cannot relax into it and simply live as a person who happens to be black. To the other "hikers in bear country," Hurston may be a hiker, but Staples is a bear. Their experience of life is very different as a result.

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