Welty and Hughes
The protagonists of both Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” and Langston Hughes “The Negro Woman” are elderly African-American woman who sacrifice themselves in order that their offspring will have better lives. Welty writes a touching story about a woman who everyone rebuffs because of how she looks and dresses, but who is so much stronger than all those who would ridicule her. Even with all the odds stacked against her, Phoenix Jackson holds out hope that her efforts will eventually pay off and her grandson will be well again. Hughes’s narrator, on the other hand, is angry at her suffering and warning those who live freely now not to forget her and her misery. On the surface, the stories are about an old woman making a very long journey on foot through the south in order to get medicine for her ailing grandson and one reflecting on how much misery she had to endure that the present generation would not have to suffer. One a deeper level, “A Worn Path” and “The Negro Woman” are about the journey each person makes through life, the sacrifices we have to endure for the people we love, and the eventual demise that awaits us all.
When “A Worn Path” begins, the reader does not yet know what it is that sends Phoenix on her lengthy journey. Despite the adjectives that would depict her as old and frail, the words spoken by Phoenix show how strong she is. She says, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons, and wild animals!…Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whitesâ€¦Keep the big hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way” (Welty 1). She is unafraid of the wild animals in her path. Instead of quivering at the potential danger, she warns the animals to stay clear of her because she has a long trek in front of her. The fear of the unknown is nothing when compared to her sense of purpose. She had to go through dirt and fences of barbed wire, never fearing for her safety. Instead, what concerned her was the chance of ruining her dress which could garner a negative opinion from the people she was going to see.
Similarly, Hughes’ narrator went on a miserable back-breaking journey for the spiritual and physical well-being of her children and grandchildren. However, in the poem, the narrator’s journey is over and freedom has been won. Her labors are over so her tone is not the same determination of Phoenix. Instead it is a tone of bitterness at the past suffering and an admonishing of the present for not being more grateful. She says, “All you dark children in the world out there, / Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair” (Hughes line 31-32). Phoenix is in the middle of her long journey and so does not have time to think about her suffering, only her goal.
When Phoenix Jackson finally reaches the doctor’s office to retrieve medicine for her ailing grandson, she is met with disregard by the white staff. The first person she encounters assumes by the old woman’s clothing that hers is a charity case. The staff, even those that know Phoenix’s story are rude and abrupt. One says to her, “You mustn’t take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix,’ the nurse said. ‘Tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over. He isn’t dead, is he?” The nurse can only see Phoenix’s appearance and her race. This prejudicial attitude prevents her from being sympathetic to a woman who has been sacrificing everything she has to keep her only remaining relative alive. The way the nurse questions Phoenix about her grandson is harsh and cruel. She asks whether or not the child is still alive like one would ask if it were still raining. The fact is that she really does not care one way or the other and is unable to hide this emotion from the woman in front of her.
This prejudicial attitude is a major theme in Hughes’ work also. Of the slavery years, he writes: “I am the one who labored as a slave, / Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave – / Children sold away from me, I’m husband sold, too. / No safety, no love, no respect was I due” (lines 11-14). Even after the years of slavery have been ended by legislation, the African-Americans of the United States are treated by marginalization and prejudice. The majority community has little interest in the troubles of the minority, as is indicated in both of these narratives.
In “The Negro Mother,” his narrator’s primary concern is in making sure the present understands exactly how fortunate they have it in comparison with those who lived in the past. Those who live freely owe all their good fortune to the suffering of their ancestors. This is an idea that is easy to forget in the wake of modern luxury and happiness. The only way to achieve true equality in a world of prejudices is to continue to use strength and force of will to demand that equality. Hughes writes:
Believe in the right, let none push you back.
Remember the whip and the slaver’s track.
Remember how the strong in struggle and strife
Still bar you the way, and deny you life
But march ever forward, breaking down bars (lines 39-44).
This strength is a part of the Negro heritage. Those who leaved in the past and were made to suffer on a daily basis had to build up strength in order to survive in the harsh universe. Their descendents, on the other hand, do not have to deal with daily beatings and the threat of being separated from their loved ones by their white oppressors. Consequently, without being reminded constantly about the blood debt they owe their ancestors, present African-Americans could grow complacent and stop fighting.
“A Worn Path” is not only about what people are willing to do for those we care about, but what we are willing to suffer ourselves in order to ease their pain. In the case of Phoenix Jackson, not only must she endure a long and difficult trek to the doctor’s, she must also put up with the glares and the patronizing of the white people around her. Her little boy will never truly understand the kind of misery that she was forced to endure that he might have a chance for survival. Though physically frail, Phoenix teaches that internal strength is far more important than muscle or youth or the color of your skin.
Both stories reflect on the difficulties of the African-American woman living in a nation where the white men are the people who have all the power. With this power comes the ability to force the racial minority into slavery, which is exactly what transpired. Only through sacrifice, determination, and internal strength can the present generation hope to continue the path to equality and to honor the suffering of the loving and determined women who came before them.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Mother.” Print.
Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” The Atlantic Monthly. 1941. Print.
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