Suffering for African Americans in How It Feels to Be Colored Me

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Oppression: Then, and Now

Oppression is prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control over someone. It is something that has been a constant movement throughout generations. Some examples of oppression in today’s society would include lower education and job opportunities. My two pieces of work, How it Feels to be Colored Me and Underground, together, deeply show how there is a continuation of oppression. In Zora Neal Hurston’s How It Feels to be Colored Me, she speaks more on her realizing her “coloredness”, but there is a specific part in the story where we can tell when she’s feeling the societal oppression. In the WGN television show, Underground there are so many more incidences where you can see oppression happening. This show is about the lives of slaves. Slaves have dealt with more “in your face” oppression than any other generation but that is because during those times, there were no laws to give African Americans rights. As you continue reading, you will begin to see how African Americans were and still are oppressed in society.

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How It Feels to be Colored Me and Underground are both related because they both in some way portray the life of blacks. Underground is a bit more elaborated in the sense that it has a stronger story line and comes from multiple point of views, while on the other hand, How It Feels to be Colored Me is told from the point of view of a young girl that does not even realize she is different until she has to leave her normal neighborhood and is amongst the “sharp white background”. These two pieces of work show oppression in a few ways. Hurston shows it when she steps outside of her neighborhood and is exposed to the real world and the slaves in Underground are treated poorly and live very oppressed lives.

A famous line from Hurston’s How It Feels to be Colored Me, “I feel most white when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (Hurston p. 1) is a very powerful line because it helps describe oppression. The following lines, “For instance at Barnard. “Beside the waters of the Hudson” I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and over swept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” (Hurston, pg. 1) help explain and give a visual of oppression. When Hurston is alone or amongst people that look like her, she feels no difference. However, once she is around white people, it is their actions and society forms that help bring out the emotions and harsh reality of living in oppression. In today’s society there is something called _____. This is when the government works in a way that it subliminally contains African Americans to a specific area of town and make it hard for them to leave. Therefore, not allowing for many of the blacks to succeed in life. Some Caucasian Americans live thinking by the stereotypes of blacks and prefer not to live around them, this helps segregate the area.

Back in the day, living the life of a slave was not easy. You were constantly being told that you were someone’s property and that you were not even considered a whole person. In “I Don’t Believe in Doctors Much”: The Social Control of Health Care, Mistrust, and Folk Remedies in the African American Slave Narrative by Jennifer Bronson and Tariqah Nuriddin they have said, “The social control of human labor during slavery made it difficult if not nearly impossible for enslaved Africans in the Americas to lead both healthy and fulfilling lives.” (Bronson/Nuriddin, pg. 1) This is very true because the demand for slaves was so high in the south, every plantation owner wanted one. They would house their slaves in the worst of conditions. They wanted to keep their slaves alive but barely. Just enough so that they could do the work they were assigned to do. This would consist of feeding them nasty, almost animal like food with hardly any of the nutrients they really needed. With low self-esteem and hardly any food in their systems, they were not living to their fullest potentials. They were not being taken cared of enough that Bronson and Nuriddin say in their paper that, “Results indicated that formerly enslaved African Americans participated in an array of health practices including the elaborate use of herbs, roots, and potent elixirs to prevent and treat illnesses with or without the consent of their owners.” (Bronson/Nuriddin, pg. 1) The owners never really cared if their slaves got sick because they could always go and get another one. Most slave owners really treated their slaves like they were replaceable property.

Don Elligan and Shawn Utsey have composed a case study and wrote a paper on it afterwards called Utility of an African-Centered Support Group for African American Men Confronting Societal Racism and Oppression. This paper focuses on men in today’s society that are dealing with the way they are oppressed. A very shocking quote from this paper is, “African American men suffer from the chronic stressor of living in a racist and oppressive society. This condition has historical roots dating back to enslavement and deportation from Africa to America.” (Elligan/Utsey, pg. 1) This is a key quote because it helps illustrate that even though slaves were taken from their home and brought to America years and years ago, not a lot has changed from these living conditions. We are still not afforded the same opportunities as the white men are and this has led to a psychological issue for African American men. Elligan and Utsey states that, “Some of the psychosocial stresses that are indirectly exacerbated by societal racism and oppression directed against African American men include unemployment, poor education, and discrimination within the judicial system and incarceration.” (Elligan/Utsey, pg. 158) From the beginning of the slaves’ days over in America, they were not allowed to read and write so this left a lot of the slaves clueless on things that were going on and also different laws and things alike. Unemployment is something that you can reflect back on because even though slaves technically had jobs and were working for their masters, they were not getting paid and they really didn’t have a choice whether they wanted to work or not. This is not a life that slaves wanted to live.

Priscilla Wald wrote a piece on Hurston’s story and really focused and keyed in on Hurston’s famous “thrown against a sharp white background” line. Wald says, “Under the direction of Franz Boas, an early proponent of “cultural relativism,” Hurston learned to confound the categories of observer and observed and to examine the means by which culture shapes subjectivity.” (Wald, pg. 1) Huston talks a lot about how she didn’t feel “black” at all until she was around the white community. She was able to look at being black from two different viewpoints. Hurston is saying throughout her story that she can deal with the hurt that she feels and that she won’t warrant prejudice to demolish her character and personality. She says that she is not “tragically colored” and that she has no “great sorrow” springing up inside her. Hurston gives herself a chance to be presented to the world as opposed to restricted it to by prejudice.

Another piece of work that I am including into this paper is a piece by Kristin Shutts, called Young Children’s Preferences: Gender, Race, and Social Status. In this journal article, she says, “Research on children’s social categories reveals that gender-based social preferences emerge earlier than race-based preferences. Recent studies also show that children are attuned to social status, and the association of race with status differences could explain why race influences children’s social preferences.” This piece really helps us understand How It Feels to be Colored Me. Because this story is about a little girl we can understand that her age is a huge factor in her not really realizing that she is black, or even has a difference between the rest of the world except for the fact that she is a girl. Once she is exposed to the rest of the world, and can see the status difference that is when the realization comes out for her.

Overall, we can see that oppression is a thing that is intertwined amongst a lot of time but it’s nothing that we can just look over act like it does not happen. We see that it has happened to slaves, and people today. From young children to the oldest of adults, there is no mercy for redemption from oppression. These two pieces work really well together to help give a visual on this topic. Who is to say if things will ever change? The one thing I can say however, is that this will only make for more heartache and suffering for African Americans. Oppression is something that is meant to keep people down, but as generations continue, I think it will only start to fuel the drive for more self-appreciation in younger generations.

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