A comparative study of three African-American writers.
How It Feels To Be Colored Me
By Zora Neale Hurston
Narrative of Frederick Douglass and
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
The childhoods of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass were vastly different from Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood, yet they each learned lessons as to what it meant to be Black. These lessons included relationships and status in life. Some lessons on what it meant to be Black were harder both mentally and emotionally. Unlike Zora, for Douglass and Jacobs it meant being a slave for life, subjected to cruel harsh treatment, living in ignorance, and not knowing their families like white children did. Zora, on the other hand, did not have any of these issues to deal with and seemed to have had a more positive view of life as a black person. However, all three came to a point in their lives that the colour of their skin had meaning to society.
For Douglass, to be black meant to live as a slave with no knowledge as to how old he was or how to read and write. Douglass states, “A want of information concerning my own [age] was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquires of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of the slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can come to this from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.” He could not understand why he was deprived of knowing his own age just because he was a slave, but some how he knew it was an unfair advantage even at a very young age.
So based on the colour of Douglass’s skin he was forced into mental darkness and ignorance by his white slave owner. However, he was intelligent enough to figure out what his approximate age was with what little information he overheard one day when he was seventeen.
As for learning to read and write, the law forbid slaves from getting an education, and some masters even believed it would ruin a slave for work. Douglass said his master once caught his mistress trying to teach him how to read and write. The master quickly informed her that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read, adding that it would make Douglass unhappy and unfit to be a slave. At that point he realized his ticket to freedom and despite his master preventing him from getting an education Douglass thought of a brilliant plan to learn how to read and write. After he learned to write he knew he could write his own pass to freedom.
Although he did not receive the physical abuse as much as other slaves, he did see others had it far worse than he did because they were slaves. He saw other slaves whipped until the blood ran down their backs and the white man took their will to defend their own dignity, but what troubled him most was how the female slaves were treated.
There were two slave women in the city that concerned him the most, because they appear to have no self-esteem or self-value due to the mistreatment they received. One was about fourteen and the other was about twenty-two. He described them as mangled, emaciated, and with sores on their scalps because their mistress hit them on their heads. There was no way Douglass could help them being a slave himself nor did the two girls have any rights by law because they were slaves. The two girls had lost all self-esteem due to the abuse they had received and if they had been white, the law might have helped them. As was, Douglass knew that the two women were helpless, non-individuals, with no self-worth due to their position in life.
Another woman, who was fifteen or sixteen years old, suffered a far worse fate than the two female slaves that lived in the city. Her mistress had ordered her to care for the slave owner’s infant. Suffering from extreme exhaustion and fatigue due to lack of sleep, she did not hear the baby cry in the middle of the night. The mistress heard the baby crying and instead of taking care of the child herself, she took an oak stick to the slave woman. In the process, the girl’s nose and breast bone were broken. Her young life ended soon afterwards and the mistress got away with murder because the victim was a slave. Douglass realized that if the person murdered was a white and not a slave the mistress would have faced murder charges for killing the young woman.
Jacobs dealt with nearly similar abuse, but hers was more sexual and emotional in nature. Her master would whisper foul words into her ear when she was fifteen as an attempt to seduce her. Because she was a slave she knew she had no recourse to get him to stop and the slave owner threatened to kill her if she told her grandmother. The mistress was no help to Jacobs either, even though she knew what her husband was doing. The mistress only retaliated with jealous rages toward the slave women her husband was involved with sexually. So Jacobs realized that because she was black she could not get help from anyone and therefore was scared into helpless silence.
Jacobs learned at an early age not to trust men and she equated beauty in a slave woman with rape and for the white woman beauty meant admiration. She had internalized this idea so much that when she saw two little girls playing happily she turned away from the sight. All she could think about, at the time, was the white little girl would grow up to have a happy future and the slave girl would grow up to “drink from the cup of sin, shame, and misery that her persecuted race are compelled to drink. Unlike the little slave girl she saw, Jacob comprehended that the girl would have a life of misery just because she was a slave and not a white person.
Jacobs was furthered enlightened about being black when she put her faith in another white man in hopes of escaping slavery. She thought he loved her and would give her freedom. Instead, she had two children by him, but he never bought her and her children or helped them to get freedom from her oppressive master. She remained a slave and her distrust of men grew as well as gaining more knowledge as to what it meant to be a slave.
Both Douglass and Jacobs learned that they would not have families as white children did as long as they were slaves. There were children separated from their mothers at a very young age because they were slaves. Others, like Douglass, not only had masters, who separated children from their mothers before a year old, but also the children could not acknowledge their fathers nor would their fathers claim them because they were only part white. His master separated him from his mother as an infant, never to see her again except for four or five more times in his life and his father was a white slave owner. So, he never really developed a closeness to his mother as white children did and he even as much as said so when he wrote, “For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection towards its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.”
How Douglass realized that having no parents to develop an attachment to would hinder development of healthy relationships probably came from his close observation of noticing the differences between being black and white along with the consequences of being one or the other at the time. Even Jacobs mentions this plight of separation, if one was a slave, in her story. Her uncle was sold at ten years of age so that the profits could be divided among the late slave owner’s decedents. Even her mother was whined at the age of three months old so that the mistress’s babies could have more nourishment. To Jacobs being black meant being chattel, which meant the possibility of being sold or taken from a love one, could happen at anytime.
Jacobs also worried about who would care for her and her little brother when her mother died. Unlike Douglass, she was rather lucky because her master allowed her to see her grandmother, even after her mother died. She developed a bond with her grandmother even though she spent most of her time caring for her mistress rather than at home with her grandmother.
In contrast, Zora Neale Hurston’s life seemed less depressing and more optimistic. She had her family, was not abused, capable of getting an education, and she had self-esteem. Her description of her life showed healthy self-esteem throughout her story. She danced and sang for tourists who past by her home and was not afraid to smile and greet complete strangers. Zora did not worry what others would say, think, or do. It never occurred to her that being Black was an issue until she started school in another town.
Zora even remembered the day she became ‘coloured’. She had lived in an exclusive Black neighbourhood until she was thirteen. When she and her family moved to a new town she lost her individuality and suddenly became just another coloured person. Zora said, “I left Eatonville as Zora. When I disembarked from the riverboat at Jacksonville, she was no more.” Now she was ‘that coloured girl’ instead of Zora.
Still she did not let that change how she felt about herself. Zora continued to have pride and self-respect as seen in her statement, “But I am not tragically coloured. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all.”
There is even a sense of humour along with her pride. Her humour comes out strong when she says she is too busy sharpening her oyster knife to worry about her colour. She knows she is black, but she feels she has more choices in life than her ancestors did. Even with reminders that her ancestors were slaves, she does not get depressed. Somehow she sees the past as being a race and now she is the one who gets to run in it. She said, “The terrible struggle that made me American out of a potential slave said, ‘On the line!’ The reconstruction said, ‘Get set!’ And the generation before said, ‘Go!’ I’m off to a flying start…” She appears to have nothing but enthusiasm for life, pride, and optimism. Another optimistic statement she made was “No one on Earth ever had a greater chance for glory.”
In fact she seemed so optimistic that she saw the position of her white neighbours more difficult. For her, it was more exciting to try to get something than it was to try to keep what she had and the world was her ‘oyster shell’. This optimism about her future was what kept her from getting depressed about the past. Why look back and be unhappy, when you have a bright future ahead all thanks to your ancestors who helped you get where you are today?
This attitude probably helped Zora retain her self-esteem and individuality throughout her life. She was still Zora with a sense of humour, talent, and a zest for life. She seemed to have no feelings of malice, contempt, or distrust, unlike Jacobs and Douglass. It is as though she felt she had more opportunities and a better future then her ancestors did, most likely because she had a nurturing family, access to an education, and other opportunities.
Zora’s childhood was a stark contrast to Douglass and Jacobs’s childhood. Unlike the two of them, she had family, trust in others, self-esteem, optimism, and was free of despair. She received an education, did not have to struggle for freedom, and did not worry about her own well-being as Douglass and Jacobs did, because she had loving parents. She never had the concerns of bodily harm nor did she develop distrust of others as Jacobs did. All three lived different lives and dealt with different issues. The issues for Douglass were gaining mental knowledge and freedom. For Jacobs it was getting freedom from emotional and sexual abuse, but for Zora it was being happy with what she had and trying to get out of life that she could while staying an individual. So, the consequences of being black were very different for all three of them as well as the circumstances in which they realized it.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick.
Jacobs, Harriet. Life of a Slave Girl.
Hurston, Zora Neale. How It Feels to Be Colored Me.