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?

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 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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