According to Hurston in How It Feels to Be Colored Me, how important is race to a person's identity?
In Hurston's story, she attributes the importance of race, or its lack of importance, to context.
She opens the story cheekily:
I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on my mother's side was not an Indian chief.
Here, she is poking fun at a common tendency in African-American communities, even up to present day, to claim Native American ancestry. Arguably, the desire to do this may stem from the desire to attribute one's color to something else, something that is not blackness. By saying that she is "the only Negro in the United States" who does not claim this ancestry, she is embraces black identity. In just this one paragraph, Hurston is juxtaposing her embrace of blackness against the tendency to distance oneself from it.
She goes on: "I remember the very day that I became colored." Her childhood in Eatonville, a black Florida village, was blithely "race-free." When your identity is the default in your community, you may not consider your race as a matter to be discussed (I am excluding the possibility that colorism was an issue in Eatonville). There were white people in the village, but their presence was transitory ("they rode through town and never lived there"). The fact that white people never established a presence in her community means that they never established dominance through Jim Crow, as was the case in other Southern towns.
A shift occurs when Hurston is thirteen and goes to school in Jacksonville: "I left Eatonville . . . as Zora. When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more." In Jacksonville, she loses her identity and simply becomes one among many black people; one among many members of an undesirable servant class, according to the white people who dominated life in Jacksonville.
However, this, for Hurston, is not tragic. She is determined to live and to put the pain of the past behind her. Instead, she feels sorry for white people who have been taught to fear black people—to perceive mortal danger or threat of theft every time they see a brown face.
When listening to jazz, she is able to tap into the music in a way in which a white friend cannot. She finds her African self in its throbbing beat, but then she can "creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization" and sit back beside her white friend who responds tepidly to the music by "drumming the table with his fingertips." In this instance, race is no longer a class marker, but a distinct difference in heritage—even in one's being.
When she walks down the streets of New York, she feels that she belongs. Race does not mar her. If someone discriminates against her, she is astonished; she does not expect it. Unlike other black writers, Hurston feels both colored and American. They need not be distinct; she is both.
For Hurston, race is important because some people make it important. Black identity and heritage are gifts. Blackness for her was never a condition of sorrow.