illustrated portrait of African American author Zora Neale Hurston

How It Feels to Be Colored Me

by Zora Neale Hurston

Start Free Trial

What does the metaphor in the final paragraph of Zora Neale Hurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" suggest?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his best-known speech, Martin Luther King expressed the hope that his children would live to see a world in which they would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Several decades earlier, Zora Neale Hurston made a similar point in her 1928 essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." The essay ends with an image of various differently-colored bags propped against a wall. Hurston says that the color of each bag is completely unrelated to its contents. Inside each bag is "a jumble of small things priceless and worthless." If you were to empty out all the bags in a single heap, it would be impossible to tell which contents had come from which bag.

Like Martin Luther King, Hurston is pointing out that the color of one's skin has nothing to do with the content of one's character. You cannot discern anything of value by observing the color of a person or a bag. There is a subsidiary point that all people, whatever their skin color, are "mixed bags", containing combinations of gems and junk in similar proportions to each other. This means that the metaphor not only suggests that we should pay no attention to skin color, but also advocates tolerance in a more general sense, since no one is much more virtuous or much more vicious than average.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the final paragraph of this essay, Zora Neale Hurston says she feels like "a brown bag of miscellany" set against a wall. Within this bag, which is positioned with other bags of different colors, is a set of objects. Some of these objects are priceless, such as the "first-water diamond," while others are not valuable, such as the empty spool, broken glass, keys to a door that no longer exists, and so on. She states that all these objects could be piled up in a jumbled heap and then the bags refilled without changing the contents of each that much. The metaphor suggests that despite outward appearances, most people are very much the same on the inside. They are mixtures of the good and the bad and of the priceless and the worthless. Therefore, the color of a person makes very little difference with regard to his or her inner being.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Zora Neal Hurston spends most of "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" talking about the ways in which she does and does not feel her color. She does not, for example, feel like so many other African Americans she knows; they whine and complain all the time about being black and disadvantaged. In fact, for many years she did not even realize she was different than anyone else. Hurston does not wallow in the past or hold a grudge against anyone for the slavery which held her ancestors in bondage, unlike so many other African Americans. 

Sometimes, though, Hurstan feels every bit of her color, as when she is caught up in the throes of a jazz number. She has learned that white people do not feel music in the same way she does, but that does not diminish either of them. In short, Hurston is well aware that skin color is just one element of a person, and being black or white is not something that matters very much.

In the last paragraph of her essay, Hurston uses a wonderful metaphor to summarize these conclusions based on her own life experiences and attitudes. She begins by saying she feels as if she is just a "brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall." Next to her are many other bags, and they are "white, red and yellow." She explains her idea this way:

Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant.... On the ground before you is the jumble it held--so much like the jumble in 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. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place--who knows?

This metaphor suggests that we are all the same (in this case, we are all bags); though we may have a different color on the outside, the "stuff" in our bags that makes up who we are is not really all that different than the "stuff" that is found in anyone else's bag. This metaphor gives us a wonderful picture of how little skin color matters and how human beings are all essentially the same, not different. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team