Zora Neale Hurston Poems

What is the purpose of Zora Neale Hurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Zora Neale Hurston in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” written in 1927 exerts a positive attitudes that belies someone who has found inner happiness. Despite facing many times when racism came to the forefront, Hurston looks to teach other girls to be themselves and not represented by their color.

Hurston denotes that she grew up in an all-black town in Florida.  She did not even realize that she was colored until she moved at thirteen to Jacksonville to attend school. It was then that she changed from “Zora from Orange County” to the little colored girl. That did not deter Hurston.  She was not bogged down in her “coloredness.” 

I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.

People often remind her that she is the granddaughter of slaves.  This is the past, and Hurston refuses to be depressed about something sixty years old. 

Using a surgical metaphor, Hurston cleverly writes that the operation [freedom from slavery] was a success and the patient [all colored people]is doing well. The struggle that her ancestors faced to find freedom to her the price has been paid.  Her life is now based on the chances that her ancestors opened up for her.

A white person faces a much harder task of motivation because there are no ghosts sitting beside him.  The white man already has what the colored person is just now getting.

Sometimes Hurston forgets that she is a colored person. She did feel colored when she was thrown in the midst of the whites; however, always, she is herself.  She is. 

On occasion, Hurston has experienced the reverse and has been present when a white person stands alone in an all colored place.  At a famous Harlem night club, the white man sits quietly listening to the orchestra playing wild jazz.  It is so enticing that Hurston dances wildly around almost as though she is living in the jungle.  The white man’s reaction is to say that the music was nice.  He has not allowed the music or emotions of the moment to touch him.  “He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.”

When she is in New York, Hurston often feels that she is not black but rather a member of the human race.  Her boundaries do not separate her from her country.  Even though she does feel discrimination, it does not make her angry.  It surprises her. She does not understand it.

Her last analogy is brilliant.  The comparison is to a brown paper bag and her own life and feelings.  Her brown paper bag sits next to all of the other bags of red, yellow, and white. If a person were to pour out the contents of her bag, there would be many different things: these items represent both her past and present.  If one were to dump all the bags in one big pile, how could a person tell what belonged to whom? 

Hurston gives advice that finds value for any person.  Her maturity and positive attitude are infectious.

zuzubird | Student

If you feel uncertain that Hurston is asserting her pride in her ethnicity, then you have gotten her message!  Throughout the essay she points to her feelings of being herself, an individual, much more than she feels a member of a specific race, or "granddaughter to slaves".  She does mention instances when she “feels colored”, but her strongest experiences of being fully alive are when she swings down the boulevard in Harlem, charged by the adventure of being young and strong and “the eternal feminine”, an inner-circle member of the family of humankind.  She even states that she doesn’t feel particularly American--nothing that specific, even though she was born here--but part of something much greater.  That ardor of belonging to the wider world, and being at home in it, is more central to who she is than the labels or culture of any one ethnicity.


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How It Feels to Be Colored Me

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