How does Zora Neale Hurston's experience with jazz music differ from her "white friends'" experience in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston talks about what it feels like for her to be colored. Unlike some of her fellow black citizens, Hurston does not always feel black and she does not ever regret being black. Even more, sometimes she feels white, or at least just the same as everyone else. In one section of her essay, however, Hurston explains one instance in which her "color comes."

When she goes to a jazz club with some of her white friends, Hurston loses herself in the music. To her the musicians are acrobatics and heathens, wildly playing their instruments and creating music which moves her.

I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue, My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something--give pain, give death to what, I do not know.

This is how Hurston experiences jazz music; this is how it makes her feel inside. Of course she assumes the music has the same effect on everyone else who listens, regardless of their color; however, the music eventually ends and she discovers that is not the case. As she slowly works her way back to a more civilized world, she discovers her

white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.

The friend's comment which follows is simple but is a powerful testimony that she and her white friend did not have the same experience while listening to the jazz music.

"Good music they have here," he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.

Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.

It is interesting that someone who does not really see the world in terms of skin color does see this one great difference between the races--or at least between this one white friend and her. Notice, too, that this is not a condemnation of his insipid enjoyment of the music as much as it is a comment on the difference between them and her need to express how the music makes her feel. 

Read the study guide:
How It Feels to Be Colored Me

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