How it Feels to be Colored Me | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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How it Feels to be Colored Me | Quotes


I am colored but ... offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except ... [that my] grandfather ... was not an Indian chief.


In the opening of her essay, Zora Neale Hurston identifies her race clearly and proudly. Then she slyly refuses to offer "extenuating circumstances," as if her racial identity is a matter of guilt that she is expected to excuse. This passage does not suggest she feels guilt; rather, she is poking fun at readers who think she will feel bad about being African American.

At the end of this sentence, Hurston implies that most African Americans claim they have Native American blood. She does not make any such claim for herself. Instead, she mocks people who make claims that cannot all be true.

This sentence establishes a proud, empowered, and irreverent tone. Hurston signals to the reader that she likes herself as she is, and she does not need to apologize or make false claims to feel proud. She also suggests that she will not shy away from stating her opinion, even if some people object.


I remember the very day that I became colored.


Hurston implies that being colored is not intrinsic to any person. Although she has had dark skin since birth, this did not always affect her sense of identity. In one particular period in her childhood, she understood that some people thought of her as a lesser human being because of her skin color.

By making this statement before describing her idyllic childhood in Eatonville, Florida, Hurston creates a sense of tension around those memories. Readers know from the outset that the spunky girl in the passage will not always be so carefree and innocent.


White people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there.


As a girl, Hurston has no sense of racism, nor does she suspect that she will occupy a second-class place in society when she grows up. To her, the difference between black and white people is only a matter of practicality. One group lives in her hometown, and one just passes through.


I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.


Hurston leaves home fully centered in her own identity. She has a name, and she is rooted in a place. Her experiences with racism on the riverboat to Jacksonville strip that identity away. Hurston does not only gain an understanding of what it means to be a person of color in a white-dominated society, she loses her sense of herself. She shows this loss by identifying herself simply and impersonally as "a little colored girl," no longer rooted in that strong identity she has always known.


I found it out ... In my heart ... I became a fast brown—warranted not to rub nor run.


Hurston refuses to say what happened to make her understand her position in a racist society. Her restraint suggests that her experiences were very painful, but her syntax makes it sound as if she was in charge. By saying "I found it out," she makes it sound as if she conducted an investigation to learn certain truths. In other words, she does not frame herself as a victim who had something awful done to her. She does not let her persecutors, whoever they were, take over the action and gain the upper hand. She keeps the attention on herself, refusing to offer any of it to the people who hurt her.

Hurston speaks of her coloration as if it were applied to her skin with a very strong dye. She talks about it almost as if she were an advertiser, saying the dye is guaranteed not to rub off or wash out. This metaphor communicates the deep, painful change to her identity. But its quirky, ad-like language retains the lively spirit of her tone elsewhere in the essay. Even when she is describing a painful moment, Hurston refuses to sound meek.


But I am not tragically colored.


After describing her transformation from "Zora of Orange County" to "a little colored girl," Hurston reaffirms her unwillingness to discuss her race in a negative way. But unlike the little girl at the beginning of the essay, the adult Hurston must consciously choose to be positive. When she claims she is not "tragically colored," Hurston shows an awareness of the negative lens through which others view people like her.


I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature ... has given them a ... dirty deal.


Here, Hurston is openly contemptuous of African Americans who have negative feelings about their racial heritage. She refers to this group as "the sobbing school of Negrohood," as if complaining about being African American is an artistic or literary movement with many members. In her view, people of this group see themselves as victims of "nature," not society. This suggests that they somehow believe themselves to be naturally inferior to white people. Hurston vehemently rejects this assumption of inferiority.


No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.


Once again, Hurston emphasizes that she feels no regret that she has been born into difficult circumstances in a racist society. She uses a vibrant metaphor of sharpening an oyster knife to communicate that she actively pursues opportunity.

An oyster knife is a tool used to pry open oyster shells and extract the meat or a pearl. By depicting herself sharpening such a knife, Hurston makes herself sound bold. Because this type of knife is used to pluck morsels of delicious, high-quality food or gems from the source, this line also makes her seem ready to go out and get what she wants and needs from the world.


Slavery is the price I paid for civilization ... It is a bully adventure.


The relentless positivity of Hurston's attitude extends even to slavery, which she credits with giving her the opportunity to live the life she is living now. She calls this life a "bully adventure," using the word bully here in the sense of excellence or excitement. This passage shows Hurston's deep commitment to her focus on future happiness rather than past pain.

This sentence is also deeply self-centered. Hurston speaks as though slavery does not matter except in its effects on her. In the process she shrugs off the suffering of an enormous number of people.


This orchestra grows rambunctious ... and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury ... I follow those heathen—follow them exultingly.


This sentence personifies a jazz orchestra, speaking of it as a wild beast that can rear and attack. Although Hurston is literally sitting in a jazz club listening to music in this passage, she describes her emotions as following the music into a jungle. This helps convey the primal, visceral effect the music has on her.

This passage utilizes words that typically have negative connotations in English, but Hurston's exulting tone changes the feelings associated with these words. Fury is often associated with violence and suffering. The word primitive is often used in a demeaning way to contrast groups that are seen as less advanced with groups that are not. Heathen is another word that is usually used by people of a dominant group to refer to people they consider uncivilized or irreligious. In this passage, however, Hurston is so swept up in the music that she seems extremely fortunate to be a part of all this "primitive fury" and heathenness. In the process, she manages to disconnect the words from their negative connotations so that they exist outside society's normal patterns of judgment, in a realm of unfettered emotion.


Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him ... He is so pale with his whiteness then.


When Hurston notices the difference in the ways she and her white friend react to a jazz performance, she feels shocked by his lack of emotion. He calls it "music," when to her it is a profound multisensory, emotional experience. She attributes this to the racial difference between them. But, unlike the other parts of the essay in which she says she feels colored, the color difference here is expressed as her friend's inability to experience something she finds deeply important.


Sometimes, I feel discriminated against ... It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?


With characteristic positivity, Hurston dismisses discrimination as surprising and ridiculous. Rather than responding like a victim, she says the racists miss out when they exclude her.


I feel like a brown bag of miscellany ... Pour out the contents, and there is discovered ... small things priceless and worthless.


At the end of the essay Hurston develops an extended metaphor of people as bags of assorted objects. The bags have colors, but she does not examine the colors at all. Instead she focuses on the contents, only some of which have value and all of which are surprising and interesting. By placing her focus on the contents of the bags, she suggests the lack of importance of the exterior.


All might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly.


In her metaphor of people as bags of odds and ends, Hurston does not claim that each person is unique. In fact, she suggests the opposite: she says that if the contents of everyone's bags were dumped out into a big mixed-up pile, the bags could be refilled at random without any ill effects. People are all essentially the same, even in their quirks and variety.


Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place—who knows?


At the end of the essay Hurston calls God "the Great Stuffer of Bags." She suggests that God may have given people their unique traits at random, but she does not claim to know with certainty. This open-ended conclusion subtly suggests a limit to the author's self-centered point of view. She insists on viewing herself and telling her story in her own way, but she does not claim to know everything.

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