“How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is a widely anthologized descriptive essay in which Zora Neale Hurston explores the discovery of her identity and self-pride. Following the conventions of description, Hurston employs colorful diction, imagery, and figurative language to take the reader on this journey. Using a conversational tone and multiple colloquialisms, Hurston at the beginning of the essay delves into her childhood in Eatonville, Florida, through anecdotes describing moments when she greeted neighbors, sang and danced in the streets, and viewed her surroundings from a comfortable spot on her front porch. Back then, she was “everybody’s Zora,” free from the alienating feeling of difference. However, when she was thirteen her mother passed away, and she left home to attend a boarding school in Jacksonville where she immediately became "colored."
Hurston says she does not consider herself “tragically colored” and begins weaving together extended metaphors that suggest her self-pride. She is too busy “sharpening her oyster knife” to stop to think about the pain that discrimination may cause, and as a “dark rock surged upon” she emerges all the stronger for any hardships that she has had to endure. Hurston does, however, acknowledge moments when she feels her (or others’) racial difference, and her experience with a friend at a jazz club marks the distance between their lives.
At the end of the essay, Hurston develops an extended metaphor in which she compares herself to a brown bag stuffed with random bits and bobs. She likens all people to different colored bags that, if emptied into a large pile and re-stuffed, would not be much altered, suggesting that people of varying races are essentially of the same human character. Hurston concludes by asserting that “the Great Stuffer of Bags,” the Creator, may have fashioned people in this way from the very beginning. Thus, Hurston fosters a perspective that looks beyond pride in one’s race to pride in one’s self.
Originally published in the May 1928 edition of The World Tomorrow, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” was a contentious essay that obviously did not fit with the ideologies of racial segregation, nor did it completely mesh with the flowering of black pride associated with the Harlem Renaissance. In the essay, Hurston divorces herself from “the sobbing school of Negrohood” that requires her to continually lay claim to past and present injustices. She can sleep at night knowing that she has lived a righteous life, never fearing that some “dark ghost” might end up next to her in bed. Through her witty words, Hurston delivers a powerful message to challenge the mind-sets of her, and our, time.