Clash of Identities

Is a private identity a curse or a blessing? Is it necessary or valid to hide who you really are? According to “Aria: Memoir of a bilingual childhood” by Richard Rodriguez and “How it feels to be colored me” by Zora Hurston, creating a private identity and leaving your public identity behind, may be necessary, especially living, growing or entering an environment where it is not that accepting to cultural differences, there is probably not other culture during these times such as the exchange students from the Islam culture from the Azerbaijan State that can relate. “You need to study abroad! In the United States!” are two sentences many high school seniors, that do not live in the United States, hear from their mothers, fathers and counselors. There is a current obsession for children to get educated in the United States. The Azerbaijan State has gone as far as to allocate 55 million dollars for youth education abroad. Where the State sends children abroad, mostly to the United States, for a better education (Ismayilov). When students study abroad, they may seek the same sort of familiarity, congregating with other students from home. In these social circles, they can talk in their native language, tell jokes others won’t understand, play music others may not enjoy. Importantly, there is no need for anyone, in this small replica of home, to hide their private life. But many of the Islamic students from the Azerbaijan State who are studying abroad are not lucky enough to find familiarity due to their religion. Because Muslims are looked at as terrorist, they may have trouble fitting in with the new group of people and therefore may choose to present themselves as something they are not. They may choose to abandon their past cultures and societies and embrace the one they are currently in. Which in terms of identity means, that they may choose to leave their cultures, ancestors, societies and their private identities behind, and allow the creation of a new identity, a public identity, that is approved by the current society they live in. Considering all of this, is it really beneficial to leave your private identity behind? Or is it beneficial to protect your private identity in a foreign country? For the Islamic culture, in another country that has high tolerance fort racism. With that said, in this essay, it will focus on how private identity was a blessing for Zora Hurston and a curse for Richard Rodriguez.

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What are Public and Private Identity?

So, what is the difference between the public identity and a private identity? The public identity is known as the cover up and some would probably go so far to say the fake identity because you have to lose who you are to become who you are not, which is to fit in. The private identity is who the person really is supposed to be especially when it comes down to race and culture. In this case it is the Muslim exchange students that feel as though they have to hide their private identity because of the racism, bigotry and hate crimes against their culture.

In many social contexts having a private identity, being different from everyone else, is advantageous. This is especially true in societies that encourage embracing diversity. The official “policy” is that everyone is encouraged to celebrate his or her heritage and to respect and value those of others. In that respect, private identity is a positive thing that allows people to maintain a connection to their ancestors and to their heritage. However, a private identity can also be a curse in other circumstances, for example, when we are not fortunate enough to live in a society in which cultural, ethnic, racial, and national heritages are all equally valuable and equally deserving of respect, dignity, and equal treatment in society. A private identity is not something we choose; it is something we are born to. A private identity that denies the members of that minority to the same rights and privileges and benefits as those enjoyed by the members of the majority is more of a curse than a blessing.

Rodriguez world…Blessing or curse?

It appears that Rodriguez did not take too kindly to his private identity and in his eyes, it was more of a jinx than a godsend. Rodriguez offers a firsthand account of another painful aspect of private identity in the lives of minority members of the American society. In his essay “Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood,” he provides views of private identity in an entirely different contexts in which Rodriguez’s private identity comes from his ethnicity whereas Hurston’s private identity came from her race. Hurston talks about the racism and the limitations she came across and how she overcame them without losing her private identity, Rodriguez recounts an entirely different type of experience, one in which he was explains to the reader that even though the process of allowing the formation of a public identity is hard it is something that is necessary to have success in the future.

Specifically, Rodriguez describes the two very different worlds he lived in as a child: one was the outside world where he spoke English; the other was the private inside world of his family home where he and his family spoke Spanish. Much like Hurston, Rodriguez never actually chose his private identity; rather, he was born into it. He was from a Mexican family with limited command of the English language, and that was it.

Rodriguez does not choose to embrace his private identity and in result is “assimilated into public society.”(508) In Rodriguez’s case it is not a matter of whether or not he is willing to give up his private identity, because he is forced to give up his private identity toward the long-term goal of gaining a more valuable public identity. He writes that his family was also forced to learn the English language and therefore started to lose their individuality. He states that his “family gathered together to practice English” (505). The practice of English meant the slow demise of their private identities that had, until then, linked them firmly to their Mexican roots. His family was terrified, uncomfortable even, when challenged with the English language and the loud “gringos” who were speaking in it well.

They effectively disassociated themselves from the culture they had forced their family into. Yes, Rodriguez had a lot of incentive lose faith in his private identity, but so did Hurston. As she puts it “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of a slave” (160). Unlike Rodriguez, Hurston did not give in to the pressure for her to embrace to a public identity, instead; she stood by her African-American roots. Hurston’s contradictory experience to Rodriguez’s raises the thought that maybe the choosing of a public or a private identity is not because of pressure, but maybe because of something else.

Zora gets her Blessing

When it comes to private identity, it can be a blessing if the person can overcome the obstacles such as in the case of, Zora Neal Hurston illustrates exactly that point in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Hurston remembers what she referred to as “the very day that I became colored”(159), revealing that she had never previously really even thought about her racial identity or considered herself to be different from other little girls. She describes herself as having been just “a Zora” until she arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, where she discovered that Zora was “no more”(160); instead, Hurston had discovered that she was “now a little colored girl,”(160) based purely on the identity that other people forced on her without any opportunity for her to show them her private identity. She writes that she “found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown — warranted not to rub nor run.”(160) This is the realization by Hurston that she would now always be perceived and defined by others as an African-American and that nothing she could do or achieve of any merit or value could change the fundamental way she was defined by society. But even though Hurston was under pressure, and could have easily chosen to accept a public identity that would have been approved by the society she lived in, she choose not to. In Hurston’s words “No I do not weep at the world- I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”(160) this is the representation of how strongly and aggressively Hurston fought to preserve her private identity, and a representation of why she ended up with a victory in this fight.

Hurston writes in disappointment about the fact that other African-Americans, of the time, typically accepted the negative assumptions about their race by doing whatever they could to deny it as much as possible. “I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief,”(159) an obvious sarcastic reference to the fact that many African-Americans sought to escape from their private identity and gain a public, non-black, identity by finding common ground with everyone else. Unlike the majority of the African-American race Hurston did not trying to run away from her private identity, instead she embraced it. She embraced and protected the town she grew up in and the people she grew up with, with in her private identity. After all she did “belong to them, to the nearby hotels, to the country” (159-160). By preserving her private identity Hurston was able to be unique. She was different from everyone else. This absolutely meant a hard life for her and she knew this. Hurston says, “I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame” (160). This is the realization by Hurston that this hard life might help her have future success.

Maybe the decision of choosing to embrace a public or a private identity changes from person to person. Is this true? Looking at Hurston and Rodriguez neither of them were old enough to have made an informed choice considering their identities. After all Rodriguez and Hurston were just little kids, they couldn’t have known that the choices they made with their identity would impact their future success. Rodriguez says that the diminishment of a private identity is necessary because it “makes possible the achievement of a public individuality” (508). Allowing the formation of a public individuality is the same thing as allowing the formation of a public identity. This is the realization by Rodriguez that he is better off by allowing the formation of a public identity. His family learning the language English meant that Rodriguez had lost all connection to his Mexican roots and had suffered a diminishment of his private identity. This diminishment of his private identity allowed room for the formation of a public identity.

Unlike Rodriguez, Hurston does not allow the formation of a public identity. “I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself.”(160) She does not let the pressure get to her and does not allow the formation of a public identity. The assimilation that Rodriguez went through ended up with him learning the English language fluently. This made Rodriguez a writer and he wrote pieces that would be studied for many years. The fight that Hurston gave ended with her holding on to her private identity. This made her unique. It made her different in a way that brought her success. Such success that even after 54 years, people are studying her work. So maybe both Rodriguez and Hurston have it wrong. Maybe the choosing of a public or private identity is not about the pressure that is put on you, or the circumstance you are in. Maybe it’s just faith. Faith meaning that, maybe, you have no control over the choice and it’s just a matter of making the best of this choice. Maybe it’s just faith that leads Hurston to hold on to her private identity, “the choice was not with me” (160), and maybe it’s faith that lead Rodriguez embraces a public identity, “But I would have delayed- postponed for how long?”(504). Because after all they both ended up as being people whose works are being studied many years after they were written.

Unavoidable Conflict

Both Rodriguez and Hurston came across a conflict between their private and public identities in their lives. The choices they made shaped the rest of their lives and shaped their careers: Rodriguez’s as an author and Hurston’s as an artist. But how can we know that Hurston made the right choice by preserving her private identity or that Rodriguez made the right choice by embracing his public identity? In his article, “A dual identity: Fully Canadian, And an Immigrant” Andrew Cohen talks about the how Canada, as a county, embraces and accepts people for who they are and encourages them to preserve their private identities. Cohen says, “The pressure on immigrants to put aside their ethnicity and become part of mainstream society is not pronounced in Canada.” According to this statement made by Cohen one must choose the path that Hurston did and embrace his or her private identity. Yes this might be correct; after all, Hurston did become a successful artist; but if so, how did Rodriguez become a successful author. How do we reconcile those two outcomes?

Children that grow up in foreign countries have the tendency of holding on to things that remind them of their home country, something that reminds them of their cultures and heritage. In Rodriguez’s case this something was his house, where only Spanish was spoken. His house connected Rodriguez to his Mexican roots. With every member in the house learning English the house that connected Rodriguez to his heritage was no longer there and was replaced by a house that only connected him to the American society. In her article “Dutch Shame: The Netherlands Debates the Deportation of a Child” Abigail R. Esman talks about an 18-year-old boy named Mauro Manuel. His mother sent Mauro to the Netherlands to keep him away from the war that was in Angola.

Mauro, who came to the Netherlands at a very young age, had not much to hold on to that connected him to Angola and eventually he started to abandon “the cultural mores of his homeland,” he started to get assimilated in to the Netherland society, just like Rodriquez got assimilated into the American society. So in other words, he started to give up on his private identity and adapted a public identity that was approved by the society he now lived in. Even though he is now being sent back to Angola, Mauro was able to fit in with the Netherland society. In fact “entire communities have stood up in his defense” for him. Considering Mauro’s situation, the correct path is to embracing a public identity and abandoning a private one, just like Rodriguez did. If so how did Hurston be a successful artist?

Different Decisions

In both Richard Rodriguez’s ” Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” and Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” they write about the differences they come across that has shaped their opinions and beliefs in regards to their private identity as they got older. For Hurston hers was in regards to being different race than her surroundings, in the meantime Rodriguez’s was about being dissimilar by speaking a language that was different. Both felt the effect of their private it had on their lives and point-of-view as they started to grow up. It is clear that each writer thought of themselves in some way as being handicapped in life, of either not understanding being of a different race or not understanding the language. But both authors have discovered a way to conquer their “adversity” and then be able to turn them into experiences that provided them with knowledge utilized to create an opinion and go on with life. Both Rodriguez and Hurston use the stories of their growing up to drive their main points of their essay.


In their lives both Hurston and Rodriguez, chose between their private identities and their public identities. Even though they both became effective people, one chose to embrace their natural born identity and the other sort of fought against it. These choices lead both of them to success: Rodriguez as an author and Hurston as an artist. Even though Rodriguez found it trying, he eventually integrated into public society. Efficiently, he likewise felt that he lost who he was as a private individual or his private identity — recognized only to his family — for the reason that the American culture does not really permit for separate sectors of life to continue to be alone. So it might be hard to tell which path is more beneficial. But the reason for their success is not necessarily the path they chose; rather, it is the experiences they had and the ways that those experiences shaped their determination to succeed. The experiences that Rodriguez and Hurston had, lead them to learn things others did not and lead their works to stand out from others’. It is entirely possible that we might have known nothing about Richard Rodriguez if he had embraced his private identity; and we might have known nothing about Zora Hurston if she had embraced her public identity.

Work Cited

Cohen, A. (2012, November 16). A dual identity: Fully Canadian, and an immigrant. New York, NY: The New York Times. Web. 24 Feb. 2014

Esman, A.R. (2011, October 27). Dutch Shame: The Netherlands Debates the Deportation of a Child. Forbes. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Hurston, Zora. “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” Occasions for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay. Eds. Robert DiYanni & Pat C. Hoy II. Boston, MA: Thomson Heinle, 2007. 159-161. Print.

Ismayilov, E. “Azerbaijani State Oil Fund Allocates $55mn for Youth Education Abroad.” McClatchy – Tribune Business News Nov. 27, 2012. ProQuest. Web. 19 Feb. 2014 .

Rodriguez, Richard “Aria: A Memoir Of A Bilingual Childhood.” Occasions for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay. Eds. Robert DiYanni & Pat C. Hoy II. Boston, MA: Thomson Heinle, 2007. 501-508. Print.

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