Comparison is made when there are points and issues for comparison and when something is common between them. While comparing, it goes without saying that what is not similar about them, the essential differences, need also to be told. Presently, the comparison is between selections from The Best American Essays of the Century: 'How It Feels to Be Colored Me' by Zora Neale Hurston (pages 114-17) and 'Notes of a Native Son' by James Baldwin (pages 220-38).
Both are African-Americana writers. The essays are personal narratives. They are autobiographical and coming from the pens of two powerful individuals possessing passionate writing skill, they immediately become attention-demanding. Both have walked through the torching black path of the American life, as applicable to the Negro race. The effects of their ideas and writing, becomes enduring for the readers on account of the devastating effects they create in the minds. The narrations are based on facts and suffering of the black race.
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'The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,' Baldwin writes, 'or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a pretty story; the story of a people is never very pretty.' Baldwin's essay, "Notes of a Native Son" is full of ire (and wit), as observed and experienced by him in the life of American Society. The white Americans, though they wear the long and attractive coat of modernization, haven't been able to comprehend what it is to be a black and his inner vibrations, and how his heart beats like the muffled drum in a white-dominated society. The assumption of the white is, "that the black man, to become truly human and acceptable, must first become like us." The highlight of this essay is that it is the moving eulogy for his stepfather. It gives an account that sends shivers through the reader's spine as it describes Baldwin's near-suicidal attempt to protest against Jim Crow rules in New Jersey.
If Baldwin says it like the sharp critic, Zora Neale Hurston says it in the tone of a philosopher. She has transcended the feeling of hurt being a black. As things stand today in the American Society, she tenders her considered opinion, that black and white are the alternative beats of the same heart! She says, "Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said 'On the line!' The Reconstruction said 'Get set! -and the generation before said 'Go!' I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization." The difference is in the approach-the mild confrontation of Baldwin vs. the soft reconciliation of Zora.
Baldwin still has strong complaints against the white-influenced American Society. His "Notes of a Native Son", expresses his justified rage. But he has the capacity to laugh at the mind-set of the society and in relation to himself. His humor has an undercurrent of tensions based on realities. The story offers his stirring insight, without losing the essential balance and dignity of writing. But his aggressive style can be experienced in the story under discussion. He is a visionary as well.
Not so with 'How it feels to be colored Me,c by Zora Neale Hurston. Even through the conflicting situations, she sees a way out for co-operation. She is willing to bury the sharp and painful memories of the Negro suffering for centuries, for the years of peace so recently acquired. She doesn't wish that some one should pity her for being a black! She doesn't wish to be condemned either on that account and she defends her position like a lioness. Yet she is spiritualist to the core. This is what she has to say about herself. "I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong! Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me."
As Literary Giants, both are brilliant among the brilliants. The respective stories are the witnesses to their greatness. The mentioned stories exhibit their outstanding ability of prose-writing. Zora writes her prose with a poetic heart. Baldwin knows the exact purpose of writing as per the demands of the situation. He is prepared to hurt, when the purpose of writing is served by hurting the intended section of the reader. Not for the sake of joy of hurting-but by the process of hurting, he wishes to drive home his points as for black-white psychological conflicts. It is not a conflict of the bygone era for him. He is willing to forgive, but unwilling to forget. His writing as viewed from the subject matter of the story under review has historical and sociological perspectives. ''Baldwin's method is to reach consciences by way of minds.'' Zora's method is to reach the same through the heart. It is very difficult to say which story or which writer is better. If one of them were white, to make a decision would have been slightly easy. If there is a first prize, the prize would be shared by both. Such a decision can be termed as acceptable-even the Nobel Prize has been shared sometimes! As a piece of literature, "How it feels to be colored me," is not some thing more superior to "Notes of a Native Son."
It is not less superior either!
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