During the early 20th Century, both Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde write about their experiences as strong African-American young women facing extensive racial discrimination, recounting similar but very different stories in their essays. These accounts are diverse in the management of their plight but typical for the voice of the generation and an unfortunate but accurate reflection of historical times. They both employ figurative language and bright imagery, taking the reader on a colorful journey through their childhoods.
A young Hurston was originally raised in an all-black community located in Eatonville, Florida.
When she was there, she describes moments when she sang, danced and greeted neighbors in the streets and observed her community from a comfortable and safe spot on her front porch. At that time, she was “everybody’s Zora,” without the feeling of alienation or difference. She “felt her race” when she was thirteen after her mother passed away and she had to leave home to attend a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida.
This is where she immediately became “colored”. After that, she went to New York and attended Barnard College, where she felt like a “a dark rock surged upon, over swept by a creamy sea.”
Lorde was born and raised in New York City to Caribbean immigrant parents where she realized that she was “different” when she traveled to Washington DC after her eighth-grade graduation (the trip was a present to both her and her sister, Phyllis, who graduated high school at the same time). Similarly, Lorde describes her experience as “everything white”.
While her family was trying to get a little something to cool off at Breyer’s (ice cream and soda fountain), her white waitress at the white counter refused to serve her white ice cream to escape the white heat on the white pavement, where she wasn’t able to appreciate the white stone monuments offered by the city. She also repetitively uses the words, “colored”, “black” and “negro” to define herself and others like her. By use of these labels, it is apparent Audre sees that her innocence is diminished, and that the world is nothing more than black and white.
These women have different points of view, however. Zora Neale Hurston explores the discovery of her identity and self-pride through the extended metaphors she writes and does not consider herself “tragically colored”. She says that African-Americans have had to minimize their racial identities to force others to treat them as equals or to lessen the discrimination they suffer. From all of her hardships endured, she emerges stronger whilst she “sharpens her oyster knife”, getting ready for the world – rather than weeping for it. Zora acknowledges racial differences, nevertheless, when she describes a moment she had in The New World Cabaret (a music club), marking further distinction between colors. While the jazz harmonies begin to play, her soul is engaged and she feel “like she is in the jungle, living in the jungle way”, whereas her white male friend sits motionless, smoking a cigarette. She remarks, “he has only heard what I felt”.
Alternatively, the inherited superiority of white people has scarred Audre Lorde, and she understands that she is not equal – according to her essay. She struggles with her classification and identity, separating American citizens into different categories. Since racism is very prevalent, her newfound adulthood coincides with her revelation that America is not the country she thought it was. She feels exposed to the realities of life; from a child to a woman. What was once a thought of a perfect country is spoiled by injustice and racism as she faces discrimination and oppression.
Hurston makes sense of her experience by running towards rather than away from her African-American identity. She uses a metaphor for people as different colored bags, all of which are filled with the random contents that make up life. If you were to dump out the pieces and then refill the bags, none would differ greatly – regardless of the color of their bag (skin). She does not engage in self-pity but takes difference and racial discrimination in stride.
The change between childhood and adulthood is quickly felt for Lorde as her family is denied service at that ice cream parlor in Washington DC. Without protest, they quietly get down from their stools, outraged, as if they “had never been black before”. Her parents felt they could have avoided the situation had they anticipated it. When the true racist America is revealed, the tone of her tale quickly shifts from excitement to disappointment. Her parents and sibling do not feel the waitress’ act is anti-American but Audre is so moved that she writes an angry letter to the President of the United States (all by herself), disappointed and sickened by the graduation gift she received.