This is a project created by Clare Shaffer for ENG 238 African-American Literature, Pre-1945 at Elon University (Spring 2015), taught by Dr. Crystal Anderson. It is a conversation between two African-American writers who discuss a contemporary issue. travelogue for a fictitious character that reflects the historical and cultural realities of the Atlantic world. This dialogue gives students an opportunity to engage in close reading and relate literary texts to contemporary ideas. The two authors that I chose to hold this conversation are Martin R. Delany and Zora Neale Hurston. I believe that conversation between these two writers would be interesting because of the different settings and time periods that their writing takes place in. Delany’s The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States is written before the Civil War, and describes the societal problems and the rampant discrimination, dehumanization, and abuse of African-American people in both the North and the South. Zora Neale Hurston was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Civil War has ended, and now racial discrimination and segregation is a common theme in the US. The Harlem Renaissance, unlike the pre-Civil War era, was a time for the development and celebration of African-American culture. My contemporary issue that I have chosen is the controversy of targeted brutality and racial profiling that has become a pattern among many, though not all, police forces across the country. I believe that both of these authors would be interested in this topic, but their different backgrounds could provide different perspectives on this issue. 1
Delany: The patterns of brutality and racial profiling among police forces across this country are further evidence of the hypocrisy and deprivation of equal rights that has been a characteristic of the United States for hundreds of years. In my narrative, I speak of these deprivations, “Denied an equality not only of political but of natural rights, in common with the rest of our fellow citizens, there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject”(Delany 201). Instead of making progress, black people are still subjected to the same kinds of torment and hate that they experienced hundreds of years ago. What has changed since the time of slavery? Racism and discrimination are still a constant theme of today’s society. The race-based wealth disparity in this country is at a staggering high, and African-American people of all ages are still being targeted in the streets of their own cities based on the color of their skin. Topics of race-based discrimination and white privilege are in the newspapers almost every single day! Why is this still a problem that has not been solved, a conversation that still needs to be had? Hurston: I hear and understand your anger and its source, but we need to examine the facts at hand. Despite your qualms about racism and discrimination in present-day society, we must address the fact that in our time, these themes would not be in newspapers. We would not be having discussions about them on news channels for millions of people to watch, and even if we did, people of our race would not be equally or accurately represented. Today, we have a black President sitting in the White House, doing his best to protect the interests of our people. Every time there has been a national instance of police brutality, he has made a comment deploring such acts, and launching the nation into discussion about how to inspire change. Comparing the status of blacks during our time with present day shows that though racism is far from its complete demise, progress has been undeniably made. 2 Delany: But can this issue ever be resolved? Can we ever move forward instead of this constant dance of moving one step forward and three back? I believe the answer is no. The United States, like so many ancient civilizations that have since risen and fallen, cannot function without the presence of racial oppression because it has been written into our history and founding. I outline this in my narrative, “…there will be little or no sympathy for the oppressed, the oppressor being left to prescribe whatever terms at discretion for their government, suits his own purpose” (Delany 201). Since you were never exposed to slavery, you cannot comprehend the source of this anger. You lived in a time of segregation and hatred, and for me, it is hard to see what progress has been made other than the banishment of “colored” bathrooms. What you must understand is that despite what looks like progress on the surface, the deeper issues of oppression and discrimination remain unsolved.
Hurston: Your frustration with prevailing patterns of racism is understandable, but you must address the progress that has been made. As you say, I lived in a time of segregation and hatred, but it was also a time when people were just starting to take pride in their race and create a new identity for black people in America through art.Today, black identity is a source of constant pride and the culture of our people persists in a way that enriches not just the black community, but every community in the United States. I state this sentiment (which was rather ahead of my time) in my autobiography, “I am not tragically colored…I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it” (Hurston 104). However, as you so aptly stated, slavery and systemic oppression is written into the founding and history of this entire country. Something so deeply rooted in a nation’s history, however awful it may be, still takes time to completely disappear, but that does not mean that it cannot eventually go away. 3 Delany: Look at the case of Eric Garner! How can it be possible that a black man can be murdered in the streets of one of the most “progressive” cities in the world by a white man, and not receive justice? And what about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, or the countless other black men and women that have been unjustly treated by the very force that is supposed to protect all the people of this nation? I find it the most troubling that something I wrote in my narrative over one hundred years ago still applies to our society today; “However unfavorable their condition, there is none more so than that of the colored people of the United States” (Delany 202). People wonder why blacks suffer from wealth disparities and high crime rates? Look no further than the prevalence of white privilege in today’s society. There are fewer opportunities, less advantages, more blacks living in lower-income neighborhoods, and lower life expectancy.
Hurston: I agree with you on the prevalence of white privilege in the context of race-based socioeconomic disparities because the statistics are impossible to deny. However, my point is that though these separate cases are heartbreaking in their respective contexts, the pattern of these instances has launched a larger, more global conversation that could not have and did not exist during either of our times. There now are people like John Stewart (a white man) arguing with another white man (Bill O’Reilly) about whether white privilege exists! In the 1960’s, a white man never would have argued so openly in favor of white privilege without fear of retaliation. Does this not represent forward progress? 4 Delany: The fact that someone is still arguing that the remnants of what people of our time suffered through are not perpetuated throughout society today is ridiculous. The fact that this same person is allowed to speak on television and poison the minds of the next generation is what sickens me. Media bias and the portrayal of African Americans based on stereotypes perpetuate the issues of white privilege just as much as the founding fathers did, except media outlets are a modern invention! Explain to me, Zora, how the passing on of colonial ideologies through modern technology counts as forward progress? To me, it seems that no matter what decade it is, there will continue to be a racial double-standard in this country, as black men are called “thugs” for protesting racism and white men are called “rowdy celebrators” when they commit the same crime. Hurston: Ah, but you have stumbled upon one of the founding principles of this country that I believe to be a positive one: freedom of speech. I do not see the media necessarily as an outlet through which the perpetrators of white privilege may spread their message, but rather as a medium for all to express their opinion. Media bias does exist, but along with the bias of more close-minded men, the clear, loud voice of our people and our community can be heard as well. I believe that though the messages of those racists that still exist in our country can be unpleasant, we must allow them to speak to preserve the right to freedom of speech for all. I believe “that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (Hurston 104). 5
Delany: I concede the importance of freedom of speech to you, Zora. I find that police brutality and racism too prevalent for anyone to insinuate that white people are not more privileged than blacks as a result of their skin color. Once again, white privilege rears its ugly head in the face of a complicated issue, giving people who perpetuate the problem a rose-colored lens through which to view the situation and grapple with their moral issues. “This is America,” they’ll tell themselves, “Racism is nonexistent! The Civil War ended hundreds of years ago!” Then they’ll sit on their couches with their children, smiling and nodding as Bill O’Reilly simpers at them from their 40 inch plasma screen that white privilege is not real, racism does not exist, and that anyone who is living in poverty could get out of it if they just worked a little harder. Parents smile as they teach the next generation of privileged white people the colonial values of their ancestors, and meanwhile, black people will continue to be targeted and wrongfully portrayed due to the color of their skin. Hurston: I suppose we will have to agree to disagree then, Martin. As much as it disgusts me, I believe that those like Bill O’Reilly should be allowed to participate in the national discussion around this topic just as anyone else. Though their ideas and moral value system may be wrong, they are not then exempted from their right to freedom of speech as promised by the Constitution. It is perfectly acceptable for you to not share the same beliefs as some of the citizens of the United States today, but the existence of these beliefs is not an indication that no progress was made: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural” (Hurston).