Richard vs. Zora: A Race for Identity

Richard vs. Zora: A Race for Identity

By Jordan Steele

Throughout African American literary history, the search for identity, specifically a ‘Black’ identity, is a familiar theme amongst the most well-known authors. Dating back to Phillis Wheatley’s early works and all the way through the Black Arts Movement and modern 21st century literature, identity has been a pursuit of interest for readers and authors alike. Identity represents one’s own persona, who they are and how they move about the world, and often the identity of Black people in America was forced onto the Black individual and race as a whole through events such as enslavement and the Jim Crow era, as well as forced through ideologies like white supremacy. Prominent authors and activists aimed to discover and define what it meant to be Black by way of creating a Black aesthetic and developing Black nationalism to clearly separate the Black identity from whiteness and American culture. Of course, not all the Black literary figures thought alike, delving into and expanding on their own iterations of Blackness. Two writers of the early 20th century, Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Wright, had different ideas of Black identity, which are explored in their works How It Feels to be Colored Me and The Ethics of Living Jim Crow respectively. While Wright embraced and maneuvered within the Black identity that white American society forced onto Black people, Hurston rejected it in a way, creating her own identity outside of the constraints and construct of race.

In The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, Wright’s main character, Richard, formed an idea of Blackness at an early age with his mother’s guidance. One day, he was play-fighting recklessly outside with a group of White neighborhood boys. Richard and his group of friends were throwing black cinders that could, at most, create bruises, and the young White boys were throwing back at them broken glass bottles that could cause significantly more damage. Richard noticed the different modes of safety and cover that was afforded to both groups – the young White boys “hid behind trees, hedges, and the sloping embankments of their lawns” (Wright 133) while Richard’s group had no form of protection, having to run out in the open to safety behind the pillars of their houses. With the differences in their types of weapons and protections, Wright creates an understanding that the White boys had a remarkable advantage over the Black boys, a microcosm of society at the time. While running, Richard was hit by one of the broken bottles, creating a gash on the side of his head. Once his mother found out, she beat him for continuing to play with the young White boys instead of running away from them. She believed that, if it had to come it, it would have been acceptable for the White boys to kill Richard for fighting back and interacting with them on their level instead of cowering and hiding away.  Wright writes, “I was never, never, under any conditions, to fight white folks again. And they were absolutely right in clouting me with the broken milk bottle…She finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn’t kill me” (Wright 133). This experience and reaction from his mother instilled a sense of inferiority within Richard when it came to interacting with White people, and he continued to be reserved and submissive around them as he grew older, thus stripping Richard of any definable identity.

Throughout the rest of Richard’s life, with each job he acquired, he let White people run his life when he had to be around them. He always let them have the right of way and the final say. In a way, he used his Blackness, or the guise of it, as a shield. However, it also doubled as a target. With every job he had, he encountered petty, unfair behaviour and treatment by his White coworkers that was always overlooked by their bosses, as well as physical harm for simply being Black and thought of as less than. In two of his jobs, in sections I and III, Richard was berated and beat up by White men for not addressing them as “Mr.” and “sir.” They thought he was being disrespectful, and the acceptable punishment for him was bodily harm. In reality, Richard did address them properly; the men just wanted to get wily with him because they believed that they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it because they were White. Richard, however, took the beatings graciously, without fighting back, because in his mind he thought that “this is the way things are done.” He uses his Blackness as a shield in this way to rewire his brain to convince himself that he is deserving of what atrocities come his way from White people. He is keenly aware that his skin color puts him in unprotected and disadvantaged positions in America but has learned to maneuver throughout to come out as unscathed as possible.

In contrast, Zora, in Hurston’s How It Feels to be Colored Me, is a unique Black individual with a peculiar identity and definition of Blackness. Her identity and idea of Blackness operates outside of what writers and activists of the time tried to create for Black people in America. Zora’s first realization that she was Black was when she left her all Black hometown of Eatonville, Florida, and moved to a more mixed-race area in Jacksonville, Florida. While in Eatonville, Zora’s only idea of Blackness was that Black folks were the ones who lived around her, and Whiteness was something temporary that cordially drives past her home. Hurston writes about her experience with White people in Eatonville, “The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando…I usually spoke to them in passing…white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there” (Hurston par. 2, 3, 4). No specific personas or traits were attached to her understandings of Black and White at this time. She simply moved throughout the world, and Eatonville, as “Zora.”

However, when she moved to Jacksonville at age thirteen, she felt that she stuck out as a Black girl when amongst a crowd of White people, saying “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (Hurston par. 9). She quite extensively experienced this racial difference when she attended The New World Cabaret and sat next to a White person while they listened to the music together. While Zora felt the intensity of the stories and feelings the music portrayed as a full body experience, the White concertgoer simply commented that the performance was “good music” (Hurston par. 11, 12), seemingly unmoved by it as Zora was. Hurston writes about Zora’s realization of the difference in Blackness and Whiteness, “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” (Hurston par. 13). In that moment, Zora knew that her background and ways of experiencing the world were vastly different from White people’s perspectives. It described the prominent blockade between the two races that was impossible to overcome, forcing them to have separate experiences.

Even with this newfound information and view of the world, Zora kept to her peculiar identity, disentangled from the Black identity being pushed by mainstream artists and activists of the time. Zora didn’t separate her Blackness from her personal self, rather she viewed Blackness as just one part of her true, unique identity as “Zora,” writing, “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored” (Hurston par. 15) and “At certain times I have no race, I am me” (Hurston par. 14). Instead of focusing on her race as an identifying factor of her persona, Zora more relies on her gender to express her identity, saying, “I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads” (Hurston 14).

Zora and Richard differ in the way that Richard embraces his Blackness and relies on it as a crutch or cover while interacting with White people. He feels bound to it, unable to get away from the misfortune that it brings him while also using it to his advantage with his knowledge of how to move about the world in it. On the other hand, Zora does not necessarily recognize herself as a Black person the way America sees Black people, and she certainly does not let her Blackness hinder her movements in the world. She is completely confident in herself and fits in as just a person without the cloak of misfortune as Richard wears. While Richard’s Black identity evolves throughout his life, it changes in a more negative light. Once he realizes that he is Black and understands how Black people are treated, he does nothing to change the perception others have of him, namely White people, and allow them to continue to treat him as less than. Conversely, once Zora realizes her Black identity, she expands on it, adding it as a section of her complete persona as “Zora.” She does not let her Blackness weigh her down at all but uses it to her advantage as she learns more about it, evolving her identity with her understanding of Blackness.

                                                                                                       Works Cited

Wright, Richard. “The Ethics of Jim Crow.” The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Valerie Smith, W. W. Norton and Company, 2014, 132-140.

Hurston, Zora Neal. “How It Feels to be Colored Me.”

Red Rook Press