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“How It Feels to Be Colored Me” by Zora Neale Hurston is a first-person account of her journey in discovering her individuality and identity along with her exceptionally difficult relationship with race. This essay covers Hurston’s insights on how it feels to be a young, colored girl during the Harlem Renaissance and the awakening she experiences when she moves from the exclusively black neighborhood of Eatonville to Jacksonville a predominantly white town. The huge theme of race is propelled by the different settings throughout the essay and, through these settings, Hurston emphasizes the vital role that race plays in her self-discovering journey.
The geographical setting at the beginning of the essay, Hurston’s hometown, portrays her naïve understanding of race as a child and shows just how sheltered she initially is from the brutally real world of racism. While living in Eatonville, Hurston explains that “white people differed from colored to her only in that they rode through town and never lived there” (1090). Hurston’s outlook on race at this point is extremely naïve as most children are and, while it is endearing, it will not prepare her for the harsh reality that is the real world. Because Eatonville is an “exclusively colored town”, Hurston does not have many interactions with white people other than the white people who “passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando”. Hurston describes how these white tourists would pay her to perform and entertain them which she enjoyed doing, but also found very strange because none of the black people in her community ever did such a thing. This reveals to Hurston that these white tourists have the money to spend on entertainment, unlike the people in her colored community and these interactions she experiences in her hometown are what being to fuel Hurston’s realization that there are more differences between white and black people than she realized.
When Hurston is thirteen years old, she moves to Jacksonville, a predominantly white town, and this change in setting plays a huge role in Hurston’s journey in discovering and experiencing racism as well as shaping her into the independent individual she becomes. Unlike Eatonville, this larger, whiter town has no issue with acknowledging racial differences and treating colored people like they are inferior to them. Before moving, Hurston was simply “everybody’s Zora”, someone whose identity and value were not defined by the color of her skin. However, while on her way to Jacksonville, Hurston begins to register that this was no longer the case and she writes, “I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl. I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown warranted not to rub nor run”. This is the first time in her life that Hurston feels colored and, while she wishes people did not see skin color, she quickly begins to realize that her race is now ingrained in how the people of this new town will perceive her.
Hurston’s time at Barnard College and in the New World Cabaret not only further display the difficulty with being colored in a primarily white environment, but it also displays how far she has come from being that “little colored girl”. Hurston explains that she does not “always feel colored”, however, when she is somewhere like Barnard, surrounded by white people who cognize differences between races, she again feels colored. Hurston writes that “Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am: and the ebb but reveals me again”. While Hurston accepts the fact that she will be treated differently due to her race, she refuses to only be that “little colored girl” or to compromise who truly is as a person past the color of her skin. In contrast, Hurston feels her race in a different way when she writes about taking a white friend to a black jazz club called the New World Cabaret. While conversing with her friend, it is clear that they have an impossible time relating to each other. The jazz band begins to play a song which leads to Hurston dancing and falling into a trance-like state where she is transported to the jungle with her face and body covered in paint and she gains the desire “to slaughter something give pain, give death to what, she does not know”. Once the song ends and Hurston comes back to reality, she notices her friend is “sitting motionless in his seat”. To describe what she is feeling when she sees this, Hurston writes, “He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored”. Even though Hurston is only in the presence of one white person and not hundreds like at Bernard, she still feels colored; but this time in a positive way. She feels proud to be black and have the ability to connect with music on such an intense level, whereas, her friend lacks the passion and ability to do so.
Hurston’s view on race is extremely controversial and enlightened for not only her time, but just as a whole and even now. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” was written in 1928 during the Harlem Renaissance a time when racism was prevalent throughout America. Although slavery was “sixty years in the past”, racism was still very much alive. Hurston does not believe emphasizing slavery is productive and wishes to distance herself from what she calls the “sobbing school of Negrohood”. Hurston refuses to be limited by the color of her skin or feel victimized by the history of African American oppression. She truly believes that the color of her skin should not and will not keep her from achieving what she wants to achieve. Hurston writes, “But I am not tragically colored. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Instead of dwelling on the past, Hurston focuses her energy on using the freedom made possible by her ancestors to achieve and succeed in the world that is hers for taking; the world that is her oyster.
Throughout this essay, Hurston uses several different settings and moments in her life to exhibit her tumultuous exploration with being colored in a racist world. From taking place during a time when racism dominated all over the United States to experiencing a rude awakening when going out into the real world, Hurston emphasizes the important part race played in her finding her identity. On this self-discovering journey, Hurston refuses to solely be defined by the color of her skin and becomes a unique individual whose identity is partly made up of her race and culture but is so much more than that.
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