Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is a dive into her experience of race, culture, and self-identity.
In this essay, Hurston, with a playful yet profound approach, dissects what it means to be an African American woman in early 20th-century America.
A Unique Perspective from Eatonville
Hurston’s story begins in Eatonville, Florida, a predominantly African American town. Here, she grew up blissfully unaware of racial divisions, a stark contrast to the world beyond her town’s borders.
Her early interactions with white people, mostly tourists from the North, were marked by innocence and curiosity. She welcomed them with open arms, a young ambassador of her state, and found it peculiar that they would pay her for singing and dancing, activities she did out of sheer joy.
The Shift in Jacksonville
Everything changed when Hurston moved to Jacksonville at 13. No longer “Zora of Orange County,” she became acutely aware of her identity as a “colored girl.” This shift marked a significant transformation in her perception of race and herself.
Rejecting Pity and Embracing Strength
Fast forward to her adult life, Hurston firmly rejects any notion of self-pity linked to her racial identity.
She sees strength, not sorrow, in the African American experience. For Hurston, dwelling on past struggles like slavery is less appealing than embracing the present and future. She views her life as an adventure, an opportunity to chase success and happiness.
The Complexity of Feeling “Colored”
Despite her strong sense of self, Hurston admits to moments when her race becomes a stark reality.
At Barnard College, among predominantly white peers, she feels like a distinct entity, momentarily covered by the wave of their culture. Yet, she remains steadfast, emerging as her unique self.
A vivid example of this is her experience at a Harlem jazz club with a white friend, where the music ignites in her a primal, exhilarating connection to her African roots, a feeling her friend seemingly does not share.
Unity in Diversity
Ultimately, Hurston doesn’t see her identity as African American in conflict with being American. She marvels at the idea of denying herself the pleasure of anyone’s company based on race. She likens individuals to sacks filled with a mix of valuable and trivial items. In a metaphorical merging of these sacks, Hurston suggests that, in essence, we are more alike than different – a colorful mosaic of humanity.
1. The Fluidity and Complexity of Racial Identity
The essay delves deeply into the intricacies of racial identity, portraying it as a fluid and multifaceted concept.
Hurston’s experiences, from her childhood in Eatonville to her adult life, highlight how one’s understanding and experience of race can change based on environment and social interactions.
In Eatonville, her racial identity was almost a non-issue, a part of life that rarely called attention to itself. However, upon moving to Jacksonville, her race suddenly became a defining characteristic.
This theme is further explored through Hurston’s interactions with people of other races, where she observes the contrasts and commonalities in their experiences and perceptions.
The narrative eloquently captures the complexity of racial identity, showing it as something that is both deeply personal and significantly shaped by external societal forces.
2. The Rejection of Victimhood and Embrace of Empowerment
Central to Hurston’s essay is the powerful rejection of the idea that her racial identity is a source of tragedy or sorrow. This theme is a bold statement against the prevailing narratives of her time, which often portrayed African Americans as inherently disadvantaged or downtrodden.
Hurston flips this narrative on its head, suggesting that strength, resilience, and joy are deeply woven into the fabric of her racial experience. She refuses to be pigeonholed into a singular, sorrowful narrative, instead celebrating the chaotic, vibrant struggle of her life as an African American woman.
Her perspective is not just about enduring adversity, but about actively shaping her destiny, “sharpening her oyster knife,” and embracing the fullness of her life’s journey.
3. The Universal Human Experience Amidst Diversity
Hurston’s work goes beyond the examination of racial identity to touch upon the universal aspects of the human experience. Through her metaphor of the sack filled with a mixture of items, she suggests that despite outward differences, there is a commonality that binds people together.
This theme is pivotal in understanding Hurston’s worldview – one where racial and cultural differences are acknowledged and celebrated, but not allowed to overshadow the shared human condition.
The essay becomes a platform for exploring how individual experiences, no matter how diverse, contribute to the tapestry of human life. Hurston challenges readers to see beyond superficial divisions, proposing a more inclusive understanding of humanity where diversity enriches rather than divides.
Hurston’s essay is more than just a narrative about race; it’s a celebration of individuality, a critique of societal norms, and a testament to the common threads that weave the human experience. Her witty, spirited voice invites readers to reconsider how they perceive race, identity, and the shared journey of life.