How it Feels to be Colored Me | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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How it Feels to be Colored Me | Symbols


Bags of Miscellany

At the end of her essay Zora Neale Hurston uses the symbol of bags to develop an extended metaphor of people as "bag[s] of miscellany." She calls her own bag brown, which would literally refer to a grocery, lunch, or liquor bag, and notes briefly that there are bags of other colors as well. These colors correspond to race, and on a literal level they might refer to a white bag used for laundry, documents, or drugs, or to a body bag; a red bag used to dispose of biohazardous waste; or a yellow bag for waste or bodily fluids. But after acknowledging these colors, Hurston gives the bags no attention. Instead, she places her focus on the contents of the bags, clearly indicating that what is inside people matters much more than skin color or external appearance. The color of their "bag" and its connotation cannot correctly define people. Hurston's list of objects inside her own bag includes objects that are useful, useless, beautiful, ugly, mundane, and whimsical. The implication is that she is a varied person, full of contradictions and always surprising.

Hurston's list of the contents of her bag of miscellany contains beautiful images, such as "a key to a door long since crumbled away" and "a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail." Although these images are fresh and unusual, she does not claim uniqueness. On the contrary, she says that everyone's bags are full of odds and ends, and that if they were all dumped out into a big pile and refilled, nothing would really change. In this way, Hurston uses the symbol of bags to suggest that under the surface, people are all essentially the same.

The Oyster Knife

After acknowledging that a painful experience made her understand racism, Hurston claims she is "too busy sharpening [her] oyster knife" to cry. This brief, vivid metaphor cites an unusual object—an oyster knife—to communicate the author's self-sufficiency and ambition. An oyster knife is used to pry open the shell of an oyster and pluck the meat (or a precious pearl) from inside. This object is dangerous but also utilitarian. It can gain access to small bites of a luxury food or to a precious luxury item. If Hurston had chosen a less specific image, such as just a knife, the metaphor may have conveyed anger or threat. If she had chosen a more mundane tool, such as a file, the passage would have lacked the ambition it conveys. The use of "oyster knife" conveys without explanation that the tastiest meals or objects are hard to get and that Hurston is willing to do whatever it takes to extract them.

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