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The Representation of African Americans and their Position in Society by Washington and Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston and Booker T. Washington were two African American writers, whose works revealed the truth about the life of average African Americans in the chauvinistic, racist American society of the slavery time. Both authors conveyed their life story in their autobiographic books. At the same time, in spite of obvious similarities determined by the similarity of the socioeconomic and cultural environment, in which they lived, Washington and Hurston still have substantial differences in their works. In this respect, it is possible to refer to their autobiographic books “Up from Slavery” by Washington and “The Eatonville Anthology” by Jurson, where the authors reveal not only their personal development and life but also uncover the life of the American society and interracial relationships which were characterized by oppression and discrimination, although the authors reveal these trends in different ways stressing that discrimination and oppression of African Americans as minority was the unique tragedy for each representatives of the African American community.

In fact, both writers depict their life in the American society, when African Americans were oppressed by the whites and when slavery was still a norm. In this regard, Washington describes his personal experience of the life as a slave, where he felt just like other slaves, although his life was difficult, if not to say unbearable: My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings (Washignton, 663). In this regard, his story resembles the story of the narrator of “How It Feels to Be Colored” by Hurston, where the main character also lives in the African American environment. In such a way, both authors stress that all African Americans were alike in their oppressed position. They were inferior to the whites and suffered from the permanent discrimination from the part of the whites. The whites, in their turn, held the total control over the life of their slaves and African Americans could not feel being absolutely free, even if they had managed to escape from slavery.

However, unlike Hurston, whose narration reveals the fact that her experience was quite different because she lived in the African American community but did not feel inferior to the whites at first. Both Hurston and Washington lived among African Americans and felt being a part of the African American community. At this point, Hurston stresses that she lived in the African American community and did not bother about her racial background. She just took her race for granted and did not worry about her difference from the whites. In stark contrast, Washington stresses that he felt the oppression of African Americans from the beginning of his life. In such a way, the author attempts to reveal the full extent to which slavery was terrible and dehumanizing. African Americans were treated as mere brutes and facts Washington draws in the first chapter of his book reveals this fact and provides the audience with detailed description of the oppression and abuse of African Americans by the whites.

At first glance, the childhood of Hurston seems to be better because she reveals another side of the life of African Americans, the life in African American communities. To put it more precisely, Hurston uncovers the life of African American communities, which rather resemble a ghetto than free communities. African Americans lived in communities, where they lived in isolation from the white communities. In such a way, the society suffered from severe segregation for African American communities were remote from white communities, while children like Hurston were even unaware of their position and they were unconscious of the fact that they lived in a sort of ghetto. In fact, Hurston was unaware of her actual position until she went to school located in another city, where she finally came across interracial conflicts and the unfair attitude of the whites toward African Americans.

The second chapter, “Boyhood Days”, reveals the importance of education for Washington: “I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers” (Washington, 669). Similarly, Hurston also started to attend school but she did not have such a strife for learning as Washington did. Education was a sort of adventure and new experience for her, as she describes her learning in “How It Feels to Be Colored” but, similarly to Washington, the author reveals that learning helped her to reveal the wide gap between the whites and the blacks. In fact, the narration of Washington and Hurtson reveals the importance of education because it was the education that helped both authors to reveal the truth about their inferior position.

At the same time, it is important to distinguish substantial differences education had brought to Hurtson and Washington. To put it more precisely, Washington reveals the fact that African Americans were deprived of a possibility to receive good education. In fact, his dream of learning how to read books is quite naïve and reveals the full extent to which educational opportunities for African Americans were limited. In this regard, the experience of Hurtson backs up the message conveyed by Washington, although Hurtson revealed limitations of education for African Americans in different ways. Unlike Washington, who was eager to learn and to obtain education, Hurtson did not really think of education as an important part of her personal development but it was education that helped the author to understand her inferiority and to learn what racism actually is. In such a way, both authors reveal the inferiority of African Americans and their limited access to education. Even though African Americans could have different attitude to education like Hurtson and Washington did but it is obvious that education was the key to enlightenment of African Americans and to the rise of their social consciousness, the consciousness of their right to be equal to whites. In such a way, the society depicted by Hurtson and Washington prevented African Americans from obtaining education to keep them obedient and ignorant of their rights.

At the same time, the revelation of the inferior position of African Americans occurred in different ways. For instance, Hurtson in her “How It Feels to Be Colored” the author depicts her experience of becoming ‘colored’ at the age of thirteen, when the narrator went to school, where she got acquainted with segregation and with her difference from the whites. However, the narrator does not feel she is inferior, although her new environment pushes on her and forces her to be inferior to the whites. In such a way, Hurtson came to the point, when she understood that she was different and inferior to the whites. In this regard, Washington’s experience was totally different because, in spite of the fact that he lived in the African American environment, he learned perfectly that slaves are mere commodities in hands of their white masters. Nevertheless, both authors reveal that their acquaintance with interracial relationships in the American society, which could occur sooner or later depending on the environment of an individual, revealed the inferiority and oppression of African Americans by the whites.

Remarkably, Hurtson did not notice she was colored because she lived in predominantly black community. Therefore, the author felt quite comfortable as she was in her community because she felt being a part of the African American community and no one stressed her inferiority and difference. Therefore, the author shows that African Americans needed to feel being equal to the whites. Otherwise, they could not feel comfortable in the American society. In this regard, Washington enhances the message of Hurtson stressing the importance of education and struggle of African Americans for their rights. If Hurtson’s discovery of her inferiority is intuitive, then Washington’s discovery occurred through hardships he had experienced since the beginning of his life. Moreover, Hurtson feels the unfairness of the existing social order, whereas Washington views education the way to enlightenment of African Americans and beginning of their struggle for their rights.

Furthermore, Washington places emphasis on the fact that African Americans live in poverty and they have little opportunities to improve their position in the society and to reach success: One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success (Washington, 682). In such a way, Washington reveals that African Americans held the low position in the American society and lived in poverty, whereas Hurtson reveals that poverty of African Americans were almost innate. At this point, it is possible to refer to her “Gilded Six Bits”, where the author shows that people are profit-driven but whites are in a superior position compared to African Americans, whereas African Americans fear even touching money, while white take money possession for gratned. “Well, he tole us how de white womens in Chicago give ‘im all dat gold money. So he don’t ‘low nobody to touch it at all. Not even put day finger on it. Dey told ‘im not to. You kin make ‘miration at it, but don’t tetch it.” (Hurston, 1705). In fact, Hurtson depicts an African American couple, which has a strong belief that wealth is unattainable for African Americans because wealth belongs a priori to the whites, while African Americans should live in poverty.

In “The Atlanta Exposition Adress”, Washington stresses that the whites and African Americans hold different social standing and they are separated by unsurpassable barriers. According to Washington, the whites can reach success and wealth, while African Americans are doomed to live in poverty and the society maintains such social order: “To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbour, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”—cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded” (Washington, 685). In such a way, Washington supports the idea of Hurston that wealth and money are unattainable goals for African Americans. Instead, African Americans are doomed to live in poverty. At the same time, wealth is available to the whites only.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is important to place emphasis on the fact that both Washington and Hurtson reveal the inferior and oppressed position of African Americans. Even though the authors had different experience in their life but they both suffered from oppression and discrimination. They learned at different stages of their life that African Americans are inferior to the whites and the whites exploit severely African Americans. As a result, both authors reveal the unfairness of the existing social order and they stress the importance of changes and elimination of inequality in the American society.

 

Works Cited:

Hurtson, Z.N. (2009). “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” In The Eatonville Anthology. New York: Random House.
Hurtson, Z.N. (2009). “The Gilded Six Bits,” In The Eatonville Anthology. New York: Random House.
Washington, B.T. (2010). “A Slave among Slaves,” In Up from Slavery. New York: Random House.
Washington, B.T. (2010). “Boyhood Days,” In Up from Slavery. New York: Random House.
Washington, B.T. (2010). “The Atlanta Exposition Address,” In Up from Slavery. New York: Random House.