illustrated portrait of African American author Zora Neale Hurston

How It Feels to Be Colored Me

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Does Hurston's sense of self change in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"? If so, how? If not, why do you think that is?

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Hurston's external sense of self changes as she becomes aware of racial difference, but her core, internal sense of self, which tells her she shares a common humanity with all people, does not change.

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Hurston's external sense of self changes as she leaves her all Black home town to go to school in Jacksonville at age 13. At this point, she says:

I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.

In other words, she became aware...

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of her race as a category and external identity rather than as a curiosity or a twist of fate. She changes, too, when she moves to New York City and realizes she has a dual identity. She is the Black woman who say "I feel my race" when she takes classes at Barnard, then a white woman's college. She feels her race as apartness in that context, but feels it in a different way when she listens to jazz. At that point, she experiences herself as a Black woman:

I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue.

However, she defines her "me" as a person without race. She calls this the "cosmic Zora" and says that in this state "I belong to no race nor time."

This points to the core of the essay: the idea that race is simply an external identity or context. Zora has been taught she is Black, with all that means in American culture of the 1920s, but below that is a pre-racial identity that she formed in childhood, a positive sense of self, that brings her into a common cause with all of humanity. She doesn't, she says, belong to the "sobbing school of Negrohood" that bemoans her fate.

Instead, she feels that people's races are simply different colored bags into which an assortment of items that make up their souls are contained. As she puts it:

the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly.

In other words, skin color or racial construction is merely superficial: inside we humans are much the same.

This essay, with its blithe dismissal of the effects of racism, was criticized by other Black people of her time period, and it is best seen as aspirational. A Black woman of her period—or any in US history—could not escape the effects of racism, but Hurston is determined nevertheless, to assert the commonality of her humanity with all other humans at a time when people of color were not always seen as fully human.

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In "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," describe how race shapes Hurston's sense of identity.

When Zora turns thirteen, she leaves the comforts of her exclusively black town and travels to Jacksonville, where she attends school. The moment she arrives in Jacksonville, Hurston mentions that she went from being "Zora of Orange County" to a little colored girl. She is immediately confronted with the prejudiced perception of society for the first time, but it does not traumatically affect her personal identity. Hurston proceeds to say that she is not "tragically colored" and feels that she is "too busy sharpening [her] oyster knife." Hurston goes on to explain that she chooses to view the positive results of slavery and finds it thrilling that she will receive "twice as much praise or twice as much blame" for any venture she endeavors. In regards to race, Hurston feels relatively lucky that she does not have to deal with the white guilt associated with slavery and enjoys the challenge of succeeding in America as a black woman. Despite how white America chooses to perceive Zora, she feels that her race does not define her identity. Hurston says, "through it all, I remain myself." At different times she is aware of her race, yet society's perception does not affect her soul and confidence. There are also times when Zora feels like she belongs to no race as her spirit exudes strength, confidence, and authority. Zora values her internal character and chooses to view her race as simply an outer shell, which conceals significant treasures inside.

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In "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," describe how race shapes Hurston's sense of identity.

I think the point Hurston is trying to make is that race does not define her—her identity is independent of "race." There are numerous examples of this, beginning with the story of how she "became colored" when she was 13 and went away to Jacksonville for school. After that experience, "I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl." Her point is that being "colored" has more to do with how other people react to you than any internal state—for Hurston, even though she became colored, she was not "tragically so." In fact, Hurston believes that the weight of history (and of slavery's past) weighs more heavily on whites than on blacks. As she puts it, "the game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting." That phrase says a lot about Hurston's character. She comes across in this essay as someone who is supremely talented and self-confident; she sees her race (when she sees it at all) as an advantage. Even when she is discriminated against, Hurston is bemused: how can anyone "deny themselves the pleasure of my company." 

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In "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," describe how race shapes Hurston's sense of identity.

While race does help to shape Hurston's identity in "How It Feels to be Colored Me," the vision of self offered is not solely defined by it.

Hurston is open about how race has shaped her identity. It is the reason she has gone from "everybody’s Zora" to "colored me." Hurston acknowledges it as a social marker that makes her "the outsider" to the dominant cultural majority. However, she argues that race is not the only element that defines her sense of self. Hurston speaks of a personal pride in her identity that can transcend racial definition:

At certain times I have no race. I am me.  When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance... Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company. It's beyond me.

Hurston sees her sense of self moving past being solely racial. While being African-American has helped to define her identity because she knows what it feels like to experience discrimination, Hurston feels that she is more than this. She speaks of an identity that does not capitulate only to racial elements. When she articulates ideas like "the pleasure of my company" or that her pride in self makes her feel as if she "has no race" and is simply "me," it is clear that race is not the only formative piece of her identity.

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What does Hurston say about identity in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"? How does she use the term "colored" and for what purpose?

Hurston uses the term "colored" in her essay to mean "not white." She says she first became "colored" when, at age 13, she went to school in Jackson and was defined by others as the "little colored girl."

She asserts, however, that as an adult, there are times that she doesn't remember she is colored at all. She states she feels most colored when she is placed against a "sharp white background," such as when she attended Barnard College. She therefore defines colored as being "othered." She uses it to show that her color isn't who she is but how others define her.

Her attitude toward being colored is one of defiance. She says:

But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all.

Hurston tries to put the best possible spin on what it was to be black in a racist country in the 1920s. She says her racial identity will not keep her down.

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What does Hurston say about identity in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"? How does she use the term "colored" and for what purpose?

In "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Hurston uses the term "colored" to refer to an aspect of her identity as a person of color.  But she uses the term to signify the moments in which she is made to feel different from others, particularly different from white people.  At the beginning of the essay, Hurston says that she did not identify as a person of color while she lived in Eatonville because most of the other people who lived there were also of color, and even the local whites did not make her feel negatively different.  She was "everybody's Zora."  However, when she moved to Jacksonville at the age of 13, she begin to experience racism and discrimination, and suddenly her identity became that of a person of color.  Later in the essay, Hurston says that there is a part of her that has no race--that is the essential part of her and the part that is her truest identity.  However, she says that she cannot dwell in this identity exclusively given the state of race relations in America.

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According to "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," in what ways does race shape Hurston's sense of identity?

In "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Hurston relays to the reader the ways in which race has shaped her sense of identity.  Hurston says that up until she was 13-years-old, race played no factor in her sense of identity.  She grew up in a predominantly black town, Eatonville, and there she was "everybody's Zora."  However, her move to Jacksonville made her begin to feel her color because she was made to feel negatively different.  She says that in her life, she is always reminded of her racial heritage, and her connection to slavery.  But Hurston says that she is still able to achieve a sense of feeling "uncolored" like she did as a child, but that when she is "thrown against a sharp white background" she feels most colored.  So race shapes Hurston's identity when others perceive her as different and oppress her because she is black.

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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.

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In what ways does race shape Hurston's sense of identity? 

In her 1928 essay, How it Feels to be Colored Me, Zora Neale Hurston describes her relationship with her racial identity, with special consideration for the changes that occurred after her mother's death. As a child in the post-Emancipation, pre-Civil Rights South, Hurston lived a relatively protected and happy life. She grew up in an all-Black town in Florida and so was spared the kind of oppression and violence which was commonplace in other parts of the country. After her mother's death, Hurston was sent to a boarding school where for the first time, she was keenly aware of the oppression of Black Americans and what this meant as a lived reality. 

Though Hurston came to understand that others saw her as "Colored" and that this had societal connotations, she wrote in her essay that she does not always feel Colored. Hurston did not feel that she embodied the sort of tragic, sorrowful reality Colored people were associated with. It was only in the context of other people seeing her as Colored that race played a part in her identity. In fact, Hurston was quite defiant of the idea that her skin color somehow demanded a tragic existence. 

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