How it Feels to be Colored Me | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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How it Feels to be Colored Me | Summary



Title and Opening

The title "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" is ambiguous. If the word colored is an adjective, then the title refers to how it feels to be a person of color. However, colored could also be part of a passive verb phrase. If so, the title refers to how the author feels when other people color her identity.

In the opening line Zora Neale Hurston describes herself as colored and says she does not make any excuses or justifications regarding her racial status. She claims she is unique among African Americans because her "grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief."

Childhood and Transformation

Hurston remembers when she "became colored." She describes her childhood in Eatonville, Florida. Everyone in her town had dark skin, so the only white people Hurston encountered were the ones she saw on their way to or from the nearby city of Orlando. Local residents rode horses, whereas tourists from the North often drove cars. The residents of Eatonville, Hurston writes, did not bother to stop "cane chewing" when white Southerners came to the town. But the residents were interested in the Northerners who passed through. Though some stayed inside when the tourists arrived, bold people went out to their porches to enjoy watching the tourists.

Only the young Hurston went farther than the porch. She sat on a gatepost and often spoke to the passing visitors, saying "Howdy-do-well-I-thank-you-where-you-goin'?" If the passersby stopped, Hurston spoke to them and traveled up the road with them a bit. Hurston notes that if any of her family noticed what she was doing, she was "of course" stopped. But she always greeted the next white person passing through in the same way, and she calls herself "the first 'welcome-to-our-state' Floridian."

Hurston says that during this period, the only differences she noticed between black people and white people were that white people did not live in town and they paid her to recite, sing, and dance. She found this last bit strange because she would gladly have performed without pay, and she definitely did not get paid for such activities by the people in her town. Her family and neighbors disliked her performances but still regarded her as "their Zora ... everybody's Zora."

Young Hurston's uncomplicated views on race changed dramatically when she was 13. Because of "changes ... in the family," she was sent away to boarding school. She left town as herself, but at the end of a riverboat journey to Jacksonville, Florida, she "was not Zora of Orange County any more, [she] was now a little colored girl." From that point on, the color of her skin affected how she saw and felt about herself.

Rejection of Negative Views on Race

Jumping to the present, Hurston says, "But I am not tragically colored." She states emphatically that she does not view her race negatively, and she rejects "the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal." Hurston's life has been a chaotic struggle at times, but she believes that strong people can make their way in the world, and that skin color does not matter much. Instead of getting upset, she spends her time "sharpening [her] oyster knife."

Hurston complains that everyone always reminds her about slavery. But to her, slavery is in the past, and African Americans collectively are like a medical patient recovering after the surgery that freed them. She would rather run forward into the future than lament the past. She notes that she did not get to choose the history of slavery, and that modern life is "a bully adventure and worth all that [she has] paid through [her] ancestors for it." She loves that she has everything to gain and that she gets plenty of attention as she chases after success.

To Hurston, it is the white people who are to be pitied. They are busy trying to hold on to what they have, which is both harder and less fun than getting it in the first place.

Feeling Colored

Hurston often feels just like the little girl she used to be in Eatonville. However, she sometimes notices her color, especially when she finds herself "thrown against a sharp white background."

At Barnard, where Hurston attends college among many white people, she notices how unlike them she is. She compares herself to a rock being covered by a sea surge. She is still there while the surge covers her, and eventually the water retreats and lets her be seen.

Hurston also senses the social importance of her skin color when a white person accompanies her to a place where black skin is more common. As an example, she describes going with a white friend to The New World Cabaret, a music club in Harlem. When Hurston and her friend listen to a jazz band, the music affects Hurston's whole body, sweeping her away, like an animal leading her into a jungle. Her emotions follow the music into the wilderness, and she feels like she's shouting and shaking a spear, her body covered in tribal paints. She is joyfully wild: "I want to slaughter something—give pain, give death to what, I do not know." But the song ends, and the feeling slowly leaves her as she becomes aware of herself as a spectator at a show again.

In this moment she looks at her white friend, who comments casually on the "good music," seemingly untouched by the vivid emotions that have gripped Hurston so fiercely. She feels a huge gulf between them: "He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored."

Embrace of Common Humanity

Hurston does not recognize a conflict between her American identity and her dark skin. She sees herself as a part of the whole, and she accepts her country as it is.

She notices discrimination, but with surprise rather than rancor. "How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?" she asks.

Above all, Hurston says she feels like a sack filled with odds and ends, and she sees herself as just one sack among many sacks of different colors. If you dump her sack out, you can find many "small things priceless and worthless," from diamonds to empty spools to bits of broken glass. Hurston says that all the bags could be dumped out into one big pile and then refilled by scooping things back in at random, and nobody would know the difference. "Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place," she muses. "Who knows?" she asks rhetorically.


Authorial Attitude and Assumptions

In this essay about race, Zora Neale Hurston establishes a positive tone to discuss her identity as an African American. However, the essay also contains many unstated assumptions about race, some of which complicate Hurston's explicit claims about the experience of being African American.

The title of this essay is inherently ambiguous in an important but easily overlooked way. If the title refers to how it feels to be a person of color, readers can expect a straightforward discussion of the author's feelings associated with her racial background. However, if readers assume that colored is a part of the passive verb phrase, then the title describes being colored by others. This latter reading conjures an image of the author being painted, dyed, or otherwise changed through other people's perceptions in ways she cannot control. The ambiguity in the title creates a tension that exists throughout the essay. On the one hand, the author is a strong, even exuberant, individual who takes pride in her identity. However, she is also the target of discrimination and stereotypes. In spite of her conscious decision to take ownership over her identity, a racist society has, in fact, contributed to this identity.

In the opening line the author takes immediate ownership over her racial status. The clause "I am colored" uses simple, direct language, and it identifies the author's race using a word that was considered respectful in her time. But after those first three words, the opening sentence gets far more complicated. Hurston refuses to offer "extenuating circumstances," a strange choice of words that suggests she might be expected to apologize for her race. This odd diction shows that Hurston thinks other people expect her to think her race is a bad thing.

Within the first sentence Hurston implies that many other African Americans claim an association with Native American ancestry. She makes no such claim herself, and she seems to poke fun at African Americans who, in her view, make claims about their ancestry in an attempt to establish an original and important connection to the Americas in contrast to the white European colonists. While some African Americans may have Native American blood, not all can be descended from chiefs. This comment establishes Hurston's sharp wit and unconventional attitude in that she is willing to criticize her own race.

Although Hurston describes her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, as a sort of biblical Eden where an African American child can grow up away from the burdens of racism, a few details play into commonly held stereotypes regarding rural African Americans. Using the metaphor of an audience attending a theatrical performance, she describes herself in the proscenium box (seating close to the stage) on opening night in contrast to the people of Eatonville who are timid, afraid to approach or speak to white passersby. She suggests that people were constantly chewing on peeled stalks of sugarcane. Although this "cane chewing" has historically been a common activity in areas where sugarcane grows, it is also an image many white readers of her era would have associated with impoverished, uneducated African Americans. Hurston was sometimes criticized for this type of portrayal of rural African Americans in her writing; some of her contemporaries felt she was reinforcing stereotypes instead of challenging them.

Hurston's willingness to offend readers is most apparent in the passage about slavery. "Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves," she writes, as if this concern is unreasonable and annoying. She refuses to be bothered by the history of slavery, comparing the 1863 emancipation of the slaves (as a result of the "terrible struggle" or American Civil War (1861–65) and the Reconstruction period (1865–77) that followed to a metaphorical surgery that has left the patient—by which she means most of the African American population of the United States—"doing well, thank you." In other words, she does not have any interest in worrying over the scars and sadness of her ancestors. She wants to focus on the present and future for herself: "Slavery is the price I paid for civilization ... It is a bully adventure and worth all I have paid through my ancestors for it." Here, Hurston shrugs off the suffering of others and focuses entirely on herself and her immediate desires.

In the passage about slavery and also later in the essay, Hurston makes references to civilization. She associates this concept with contemporary American society, and she later contrasts it with primitive cultures in the Africa of her imagination. Near the end of the essay, when Hurston describes her emotional response to jazz music, she treats readers to vivid descriptive imagery regarding the spear-waving, body-painted life of the wild. Unusually for her time, Hurston presents this "primitive fury" as positive and desirable in many ways, in spite of its violence. Hurston defines her identity partly through her ability to live in civilization but also through her ability to tap into feelings of wild abandon while listening to jazz music—an ability she senses as lacking among her white friends.

Childhood and the True Self

Throughout the essay Hurston suggests that before she left Eatonville, she was the person she was meant to be. The child she describes in this passage is a lively, sassy show-off with uncontrollable curiosity. Hurston calls herself "the first 'welcome-to-our-state' Floridian," suggesting she personally invented the custom of being friendly to out-of-state-visitors. This humorous statement suggests that the adult Hurston still has the lively, playful personality she describes in her child self.

Hurston regards her childhood self as her true self, the real Zora Neale Hurston. She clearly takes pride in the depictions of her boldness in stepping out to meet people others were afraid to approach and in her friendly and welcoming nature. However, she is not guilty of perfection. She says she was so eager to perform for admiring spectators that she "needed bribing to stop." This admission of fault establishes Hurston's reliability as a speaker and creates the sense that she likes and accepts herself, flaws and all.

Even as Hurston portrays her childhood as untroubled by racism, Eatonville, Florida, is not entirely free of racism's influences. Before age 13, however, Hurston may have been too innocent to recognize the signs. The town was founded by formerly enslaved people who would have had every reason to feel suspicious of white visitors. Although young Hurston was unaffected by this general atmosphere of caution, it is clear that the people of Eatonville tried to protect their children from mistreatment at the hands of white people, a fact Hurston deftly communicates when she notes that her family members "of course" stopped her from associating with white people if they ever caught her in the act.

According to Hurston, the people of Eatonville disapproved of her childhood tendency to perform for others. They refused to pay for Hurston's performances as the white people did, and they "deplored any joyful tendencies in [her]." Although Hurston does not say so outright, this disapproval may stem from the fact that slaves were often forced to perform for their masters.

Becoming Colored

Zora Neale Hurston was African American, but she claims she was not always "colored." Before she begins describing her childhood, she says she remembers "the very day that [she] became colored." This assertion introduces the idea that being colored is not the same thing as being born with dark skin; instead, it is a result of social training. By acknowledging from the beginning that she eventually became colored, Hurston suggests something upsetting is going to happen to the innocent, lively girl she describes in the introduction. This tension infuses the whole passage about her childhood.

The passage about Hurston's transformation from "Zora" to "a little colored girl" is just one paragraph, and much of its power comes from Hurston's choices about what information to leave out. In fact, Hurston's mother died when she was 13, but she says only that she was sent away from home because "changes came in [her] family" at that time. She explains that she got onto a riverboat as herself and she got off as someone else—specifically, as someone who understood herself to be a second-class citizen because of her race.

Hurston does not give details about what happened on the riverboat to Jacksonville; she makes clear only that the change in her was profound. The reader must imagine what happened. Hurston's experiences may have involved racial slurs, physical attacks, abuse by authority figures, sexual assault, or any combination of these. By leaving the details to the reader's imagination, Hurston deftly and succinctly makes the point that there were a thousand possible horrors a young African American girl could have experienced while traveling alone.

Hurston's reserve also helps her take ownership of her story. Referring to how she came to see herself as colored, she says, "I found it out in certain ways." Although readers must imagine Hurston as the victim of abuse, her grammar empowers her as the speaker, as if she went out collecting clues in order to make a discovery. This active construction, combined with Hurston's choice to leave out details she does not care to share, adds another level of power to the passage. Although Hurston had no control over whatever was done to her, she does control how she tells the story.

Nevertheless, the pain of Hurston's transformation is clear. She depicts the experience of becoming colored as both dehumanizing and unmooring. She writes, "I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl." In other words, racism strips her of her identity and her knowledge of her place in the world, and it leaves her with only one identifying feature: her race.

The final metaphor of this passage equates Hurston's skin color with dyed fabric: "In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown—warranted not to rub nor run." When she refers to her skin color, she uses the word fast in the sense of something stable or fixed. She describes this coloring the way an advertisement for clothes dye might, with a guarantee that the color cannot rub off or rinse (run) out in the wash.

Adulthood and the Colored Self

Hurston insists repeatedly that she does not see her skin color as a bad thing. "I am not tragically colored," she writes. "There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul ... I do not mind at all." She repeats the same idea in different ways, as if she senses that society expects her to see herself in a negative way or perhaps in order to convince herself it is true.

In any case, Hurston has nothing but contempt for members of "the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature has somehow given them a lowdown dirty deal." Interestingly, she makes it sound like many African Americans blame nature, not society, for their plight. She, on the other hand, is unwilling to accept any sense of natural inferiority. Even later in the essay, when she assumes an association between her race and primitive cultures, she suggests that being primitive is desirable.

When Hurston says strong people succeed, regardless of their skin color, she makes clear that she sees herself as strong. She writes, "No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife." This vibrant metaphor conjures an image of the author as dangerous and ready for action. An oyster knife is used to pry open the shells of mollusks and slice out the meat or pearls. By portraying herself as being ready to use such a tool, Hurston suggests she is ready to do the work to get what is valuable from the world.

Hurston seems thrilled with the prospect of going out and getting what she can from the world. Rather than being upset by the fact that she was born with less than some others, she puts a positive spin on her circumstances: "No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost." In other words, those who have nothing but opportunity have all the fun of chasing their dreams and trying to make something of themselves. She even speaks of white people with pity, noting that they must live in fear of losing what they have.

Hurston suggests that she is always trying to get back to the true self of her childhood. She says she can sometimes "achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira." The word choice here creates tension. The verb achieve suggests that she has to strive actively and consciously to be the person she wants to be, whereas the adjective unconscious acknowledges that ignorance or a lack of knowing about racial differences protected this version of Zora—in other words, she has to consciously strive for unconsciousness. She also refers to the time "before the Hegira," or departure, a word that is typically used to refer to the flight of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632) from the city of Mecca in 622 CE. This allusion to a transformative historical event emphasizes the enormity of the change her departure from Eatonville made in her life.

When Hurston describes the moments in which she feels colored, she focuses on her association with white people. She describes herself at Barnard, her women's liberal arts college in New York City, where she becomes a metaphoric rock that is constantly covered by the sea surge of white faces. By making herself the rock, Hurston emphasizes her strength, suggesting that she does not fundamentally change even if she sometimes feels overwhelmed.

Hurston's description of feeling colored in The New World Cabaret, a Harlem jazz club, is even more detailed and poetic. She describes entering with a white friend and then being sucked into music that "constricts the thorax and splits the heart with its tempo and narcotic harmonies." From these uncomfortable but exhilarating physical descriptions, she moves to an extended, personified metaphor of jazz music as an element of the jungle. The orchestra "rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury," and Hurston follows, wildly waving a spear and wanting "to slaughter something—give pain, give death to what, I do not know." The actions Hurston describes in this sequence are all metaphoric, not literal; she is really sitting at a table listening to music. But the metaphor expresses a visceral reaction to the music, an intoxicating connection to wild purity. Hurston sets up this description of her feelings as a contrast to her white friend's reaction: "Good music they have here," he says, and Hurston is astounded that he has not experienced the same thing she has. She thinks race makes the difference between their reactions: "He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored." In keeping with her generally positive attitude toward her race, Hurston makes whiteness here seem to be lacking an important quality. She feels that she, as an African American, has access to an important set of feelings her white friend cannot reach.

Cosmic Humanity

Although Hurston recognizes that race affects her life, she ends her essay on the point that there is a Zora without race, a "cosmic Zora" who is cocky, proud, and eager to see what the world has in store. She extends this idea to her nationality, saying, "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." In this passage, she alludes to the ideas of the African American writer W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote at length of the tension he experienced as a member of a subordinated group in an oppressive culture. Du Bois coined the term double-consciousness to express the feeling of being himself but simultaneously judging himself from the outside through a racist perspective. Hurston rejects this conflicted perspective, declaring herself psychologically whole and able to accept the good and the bad of society together. She admits that she notices discrimination, but with her characteristic spunk, she says it only shocks her: "How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?" she asks, suggesting that she does not mind being excluded because she knows the people who reject her are the ones losing out.

At the end of her essay, Hurston describes herself as a "brown bag of miscellany." Notably, she does not ignore color in this metaphor. She is brown, and there are bags of other colors as well. But they are all essentially the same in their contents, which have varied colors, being full of "small things priceless and worthless." Tellingly, the list of contents of her bag contains valuable objects, trash, useful tools, pretty things, and fanciful objects like "old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be." With this list, Hurston suggests that she is as valuable, worthless, useful, pretty, and fanciful as the jumble of things in her metaphoric bag. She goes on to suggest that everyone else is just like her, and that if all the bags were dumped out and refilled at random, nothing would really change. She ends her essay by suggesting that "the Great Stuffer of Bags," or God, may have put people together in this random way from the very beginning. This final metaphor drives home the point that everyone is essentially the same, and that differences between people are far less important than society suggests.

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