How it Feels to Be Colored Me by Zora Neal Hurston is Hurtson’s experience growing up as a “colored” woman in the early 1900s. Hurston unapologetically states in this essay that she is “colored”, and claims no distant Native-American ancestry, which other African Americans might use as proof to having inherent rights to this land, she does this without any “extenuating circumstances”. African Americans were facing widespread racial discrimination from numerous institutions from political and financial to educational. Hurston goes on to examine how African Americans have a tendency to minimize their racial identities, as a way to escape racial discrimination as well as an innuendo to force others into treating them as individuals.
Racial identity can be vague, seen by claiming different ancestry, and how common it is for people to do so. Despite all these common actions most African Americans chose to do them in order to run away from their identity, whereas Hurston chooses to run towards it. Hurston writes this personal essay for the general public, for anyone that wishes to read it, any person of any color. In it Hurston argues against the popular thought, which upholds that race is a biological characteristic of an individual that is essential to their identity. When Hurston states that she “became colored”, she is arguing that race is more of a matter of changing perspective. Hurston is stating that she was not colored until people made her feel as though she was. In her childhood the crucial factors that prompted Hurston’s understanding of race were geography and class. This depicts how race is not a completely stable concept; it is affected by various other factors of identity. White people owning a horse or a car marked them as being a member of a different region – North or South. White members of the south, being closer in regards to the socioeconomics of Eatonville can be freely ignored, but whites from the north, whose “whiteness” is amplified by geographic distance and more importantly, wealth, prove to be truly foreign.
Growing up in an all-black town, Hurston is protected from racism. Through her performances to the white tourists, she notices a difference in the white spectators, the main reason being that they have currency and will pay for entertainment. This strikes awareness in Hurston that the arts can be not only personally rewarding, but also financially. In contrast, the African American residents that form the population of Eatonville, they do not pay for her to sing, but they show admiration with true affection – this marks the difference between her community of Eatonville, and the audience of white spectators. The inauguration of Hurston’s colored life was her move to Jacksonville. This larger, whiter city not only recognizes, but enforces racial distinctions that her hometown of Eatonville didn’t. Hurston feels as though her identification as “Zora” is lost.
Zora is now a member of a larger category, which is unfortunately the price paid moving out of Eatonville. Racial awareness was never a part in Zora’s life until the age of thirteen, and by learning at this point leads Hurston to say that race is a function of society and place. It is now that Hurston, yet again, separates herself from a prevalent and current African American thought process. Instead of focusing upon the African American oppression via race, she substitutes this for one that focuses upon power. That is not to say that Hurston dismisses the prevalence of racism, or the horror that came along with slavery, but wants to still believe that the world is her oyster, and she as an African American can still succeed using her supreme talents. This clashes with the concept she refers to as the “sobbing school” of African American thought, leading her to a view of history which whether intentional or not, downplays the legacy of slavery and the true severity of racism. Hurston suggests, that people, who continue to emphasize the impact that slavery continues to have, may be hindering her by putting obstacles in her pathway. Hurston’s own history of race shows an evolution going towards empowerment and black freedom. This happened through immense sacrifice.
Hurston’s view of history is a sharp diversion from the view most African American embrace, it demonstrates self-confidence and her characteristic optimism. This is where the theme of performance is directly invoked as a way to understand the relations of race in the 1920s. White Americans have the privilege of being treated as individuals whose actions and behavior is not dependent on their racial group, an African American’s behavior WILL be a stand in for that of entire African American population in the eyes of white America. Generally, this is understood as discrimination that poses to be harmful, but Hurston considers this attention to be positive. This is given by the positive experience Hurston had as a child in Eatonville by her white audience, making her feel ready for this challenge. The trajectory of the progress of African Americans is just as important as the current position it holds, Hurston iterates. White Americans hold most of the power and wealth, but the “soul” of these, so to speak, is haunted in the roots of slavery, which will cause harm in its future progression.
“Coloredness” is merely a relative condition, produced in the majority of the white populated environments where others, either implicitly or explicitly, enforce the differences that lie among black and white people. This leads to an indication of why Zora does not feel “tragically colored”. Prior, she felt the “little colored girl” identity demolished her identity as Zora, but now her status as a strong black woman actually enforces her identity, where she uses images of perseverance and solidity to pose emphasis on that, using this as a method to keep a sense of self in a foreign community. Hurston uses an interesting metaphor to depict her mature understanding of race. The colors of the bags, correspond to the external appearance, including skin color, while the content of the inside of the bag represent memories, emotions, thoughts, and experiences unique to each individual.
According to Hurston, the contents are mundane and beautiful, but they all surpass the exterior of the bags in how specific the details are. Hurston concludes that internal content is far more important and much more interesting than a one-word description of the bag’s color. The objects in the different colored bags are similar, suggesting that absolutely nothing about skin color can mandate certain thoughts, talents, or emotions. People of non-white descent can acquire the same abilities, if allotted the personal freedom in order to do so.
Hurston’s final idea where God, the “Great Stuffer of Bags” parceled out these qualities in a random manner disregarding race, and approaches satire due to how she phrases it as if it is almost a incendiary suggestion. This is a completely reasonable idea that would pose to show controversy in Hurston’s time. Hurston is not someone who is limited by her black identity, as she also embraces her femininity. Hurston’s efforts to put down or pick up identities at will benefits from some sort of performance. Even when mentioning discrimination throughout her essay, she proves to be haughty as opposed to hurt. This performative mock arrogance is yet another identity of Zora Neal Hurston that helps raid the racism that existed during her time.