illustrated portrait of African American author Zora Neale Hurston

How It Feels to Be Colored Me

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Analysis and Interpretation of "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"


Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" explores her unapologetic identity and heritage. Growing up in the all-black town of Eatonville, she was unaware of racial discrimination until moving to Jacksonville. Hurston rejects the notion that being "colored" is a disadvantage, emphasizing personal strength and resilience. She views her heritage as a source of pride and a driving force for success, rather than a hindrance.

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What is the main idea of each paragraph in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

Paragraph 1: The one sentence paragraph also sets up the overall tone of Hurston's essay; she is unapologetic about both her identity and her heritage.  She will say later in the essay, in paragraph 6, that she is "not tragically colored."

2: Eatonville is a significant town in Florida because it was an all-black self-governing town.  The fact that Hurston does not realize she is colored is because of her childhood.  She really did not feel discrimination because she was surrounded by those who looked like her.  She only knew whites by those who traveled through her town on their way to, or from, Orlando.

3: This paragraph again shows Hurston's personality.  She uses words that are linked to the theater: the porch was a "gallery seat" for her to watch the drivers going through town; the "proscenium box" was a place closest to the front of the stage.  Hurston was a one-girl welcoming committee and asks that the "Miami Chamber of Commerce will please take notice."

4: Again, Hurston talks about the difference between herself as colored and the whites who drive through town.  She ends the paragraph with her sense of place in Eatonville: she states, "[Eatonville] deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless.  I belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the county—everybody's Zora."

5: Hurston does not elaborate on why she went to Jacksonville at thirteen, but at that time, her mother passed away and her father remarried.  It was then that Hurston was sent to a boarding school in Jacksonville. 

6: Hurston did not share the view of many African Americans at this time (the late 1920s and 1930s) that they were being held back because of their heritage.  (This sentiment would put her at odds with other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance.)  Instead, she says, "I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife"—this knife is a small, sharp tool used to pry open oyster shells—again, a view of her personality as sharp and aggressive.

7: Again, Hurston shares that being black is not something that will hold her back.  Instead of looking at slavery as something to dwell on and blame for her lot in life, she states: 

The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said "On the line!" The Reconstruction said "Get set!" and the generation before said "Go!" I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me.

8: Hurston also feels that her "coloredness" gives her more push to excel than whites would ever have.  In a way, she feels there is no other way to go but up.

9: Hurston also states that she feels more like the girl from Eatonville than the woman who is made aware of her skin color.

10: She uses a great metaphor in this paragraph about how she is "covered by the waters" when at Barnard College, and she exists; when the waters "ebb," she is herself again.

11: Jazz music was hitting mainstream culture in this time, and Hurston's description reveals her heritage to her African roots. She feels the primal tones of the music and hearkens back to the hunters in the jungles of Africa.  However, her white friend who is with her is simply "sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly."

12: No more to add here.

13: This paragraph continues to contrast Hurston and her friend.  For Hurston, she sees colors and feels emotions; for her friend, he is white in both what he feels and what he sees. He is just as pale as his complexion.

14: Hurston continues to make her feels more emotive.  She gives the audience imagery and absolute statements: "I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads."

15: This paragraph continues in much the same vein as the fourteenth.

16: Again, Hurston's confidence comes through: "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." She feels she is too great a character for anyone to not want to be in her company.

17: This last paragraph is one of her best metaphors.  It is interesting to note the objects she includes in the bags: 

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

All of these objects can symbolize something in life, but her point is that it does not matter the color of our skin; we all contain a jumble of "small things priceless and worthless." These are the objects that have significance to us.

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What is the main idea of each paragraph in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

Paragraph 1: Hurston describes herself as "colored" and doesn't pretend to have Native American heritage.

2: Hurston brings up the idea that there was a particular day that she realized she was "colored." She and her neighbors grew up in a small town, Eatonville, with other black people, and they would stare at travelers from the North as they drove through town.

3: Hurston, as a child, would watch the travelers from her front porch and call out friendly greetings to them.

4: Hurston "belongs" to the black people of her town, and the white visitors who pass through are different because they give her coins to talk, sing, and dance for them.

5: Hurston felt that she transformed into "a little colored girl" the day she arrived in Jacksonville at age 13 to attend school there. (This is the idea that she brought up back in Paragraph 2.)

6: Being "colored" doesn't make Hurston feel sorrowful or unlucky at all. She believes that life requires personal strength.

7: Although Hurston's ancestors were slaves, she doesn't dwell on this fact. She believes that the world is watching her as she works toward her own goals, and that the world is too ready to praise or her criticize her simply because her ancestors were slaves.

8: Hurston feels that white people have an easier but less exciting experience in life.

9: Hurston often only feels "colored" in some situations. In others, she's simply herself.

10: For example, she felt "colored" while attending college at Barnard, where most everyone was white, but she still maintained her own identity.

11: She also sometimes feels "colored" when there's just one white person near her in a crowd. At the jazz club, she feels deeply affected by the music while the white person sits calmly.

12: This friend simply states that the music is good as he taps his fingers.

13: Hurston feels extremely far away from this friend. (Again, it's because the music has affected her and not him.)

14: Sometimes Hurston feels proud and somehow timeless, with no race at all.

15: She feels more connected to all humans or perhaps to God ("the Great Soul") than to her particular country.

16: Discrimination doesn't upset Hurston. Instead she feels surprised that people are denying themselves the joy she would have brought to them.

17: Mostly, Hurston feels like a brown bag filled with all kinds of random objects. If everybody were a bag like this, you could dump out all the bags and restuff them randomly with the objects, and everybody would pretty much stay the same. (She probably means that people of different races share most everything else in common.)

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What is the main idea of "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

In this essay, Hurston uses herself as an example to demonstrate that a vibrant, can-do, optimistic attitude on life and a willingness to fight to get ahead can bring success and fulfillment, even for Black people in 1920s American society. The essay does not deny discrimination against Black people or downplay their tragic experiences with racism and oppression; however, Hurston chooses to focus not on these ideas, but on the prospect of moving forward and taking advantage of opportunities ahead of her. "No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory," she writes.

Hurston differentiates herself from what she calls the "sobbing school of Negrohood," which dwells on all the negative aspects of Black life in American culture. She describes these people as people who

hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it.

Additionally, she writes,

Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves.

Despite these people, who would remind her of the tragic past and present experiences of Black people, Hurston focuses on the positive, saying that she sharpens her "oyster knife." Whether she uses this image to imply that she is ready to fight for success or to insist that the world is her oyster and is thus hers for the taking, she focuses on what is ahead of her—on the idea that her ancestors' experiences have set her up for the opportunity she has today.

Near the end of the essay, Hurston also uses an extended metaphor to make another important point. She envisions people of all races as colored bags that hold a mix of trash and treasure. The contents of the bags could all be dumped together and replaced in the individual bags without it making much difference what ended up where. With this image, Hurston argues that all people are inherently alike, regardless of race.

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What is the structure of "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" contains seventeen paragraphs, some of them no longer than a couple of lines. The essential structure of the essay is as follows:

Paragraphs 1–4: This is the introduction and childhood anecdotes. The author introduces herself, establishes the light-hearted tone of the essay, and tells stories of her childhood, in which she enjoyed performing for white people and saw no differences based on skin color. The thesis of the essay, that skin color is unimportant, is introduced here.

Paragraphs 5–13: this is the main body of the essay, with examples and anecdotes from adolescence and adulthood. The author introduces conflict, which she says is always external and never internal. She herself has never seen her color as a matter of any importance, but other people insist that the legacy of slavery and the prevalence of racism should scar her for life. This section also abounds in anecdotes and examples.

Paragraphs 14-17: this is the conclusion with an extended simile. The author concludes by restating her own position that race is a trivial matter, and that if other people choose to discriminate against her, this is their problem. Her remarks to this effect occupy three short paragraphs (14, 15, and 16). The essay then ends with a longer paragraph devoted to a simile, in which Hurston compares people to bags filled with various pieces of junk and treasure, which give no indication of the contents when viewed from the outside.

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What is the historical context of "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

I assume that you are asking about the period in which the personal essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" was written. The story was published in 1928, in the midst of both Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.

However, in the essay, Hurston chronicles what Black life meant to her from her childhood in Florida in the 1900s to her womanhood in the 1920s.

Though Hurston loved black people, she often saw herself as apart from some of its concerns and agendas, a sensibility that is evident in this essay. She writes of how she would come out onto her front porch to watch white Northerners go by. For the rest of the town, the front porch may have been "a daring place," but for her "it was a gallery seat." Hurston contrasts the fear other black people had toward whites with her curiosity, even her willingness to greet and speak to them.

She goes on to write that she "is not tragically colored" and does "not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood." This places her in slight contrast, at least in tone, with other writers from the period, including W.E.B. DuBois who argued in The Souls of Black Folk that the condition of black people is like that of someone born covered in a "veil," an instrument that both obscures the identity of the person wearing it and allows them to see others in a distinct way.

Hurston also knows what a gift Blackness is, for it gives her an ability to appreciate black art forms in ways that she thinks eludes whites, such as when she notices the difference between her white companion's reaction to the music and her own: "He has only heard what I felt."

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What is the historical context of "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

Zora Neale Hurston wrote her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” in 1928. In the piece, she speaks of her early life in Eatonville, Florida, her hometown. Since Hurston was born in 1891, the setting for this part of the essay is the late 1800s and early 1900s. When Hurston was thirteen, she went to school in Jacksonville. This would have been about 1904. At this time, Hurston first became aware that she was “colored.” Before, at her home, her only contact with white people was with travelers passing through. The only difference she experienced between white and Black people was that white people left and Black people stayed.

As the essay continues, Hurston mentions her time at Barnard College, where she studied beginning in 1925. There, as the only Black student, she felt “a dark rock surged upon” amid a “thousand white persons.” But she remained herself.

The essay also speaks of the author’s contemporary life. Hurston describes a scene in a jazz club where her Blackness is emphasized both by her reaction to the jazz music and by her white companion, who does not feel the same intense emotion from that music. She also speaks of walking down Seventh Avenue in Harlem just continuing to be herself and even “feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library.” She is proud of who she is and always has been, no matter what time of her life she is recalling.

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What is the author's purpose in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

In her famous short essay "How To Feels to Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston makes a powerful statement about identity, particularly African American identity, in the early decades of 20th century America. Through personal anecdotes and vivid imagery, Hurston illustrates that she confidently embraces who she is and feels that others should do the same.

Hurston's essay acknowledges the challenges she has faced ever since she "became colored" (paragraph 2). However, her attitude toward her race is very positive, so she does not dwell on oppression or racism. Instead, she celebrates herself. Hurston was a naturally outgoing girl who liked to sit on the porch and greet passersby. When she was young, Hurston admits that she didn't feel different from white people, only that she knew they did not live in her town (4). Hurston recognizes that once she moves out of the all-black town in which she grew up (Eatonville, also the town in which she sets her famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God), she stands out more from those around her. She "became a fast brown" (5), but she quickly follows that statement with the claim "But I am not tragically colored" (6). Hurston did not and does not wallow in misery at her position but instead uses it as a starting point for an argument about individuality. Hurston says that even in situations where she "feels [her] race," she maintains a strong sense of identity. Hurston insists, "through it all, I remain myself" (10).

Hurston's purpose becomes most clear near the end of the essay when she introduces an extended simile: the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. 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. In your hand is the brown bag. 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. (17)

Hurston says she is "like a brown bag" full of various contents which represent the different aspects of an individual's identity or experiences. She gives some examples, like "an empty spool" and "old shoes." The items listed are symbolic because they can also represent abstract concepts beyond the items themselves. Those "old shoes" are "saved for a road that never was and ever will be." This symbol taps into common human experiences of disappointments or dashed dreams. If the bags were all emtpied and refilled with a random jumble of these objects, she thinks they would not be that different than they were before. Hurston's point becomes most explicit when she says "A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter." The subtext here is that race does not matter. Hurston believes that there is a similar human spirit, that what unites us, and what we share is more important than those small, arbitrary distinctions between us. She goes as far as to say that this is probably what God ("the Great Stuffer of Bags") intended anyway.

Hurston confidently asserts that people are more alike than they are different, but she also celebrates the individuality of herself, and, by extension, suggests that others should be proud of who they are and not dwell on what separates them from other people.

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What is the author's purpose in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

One of the main points that Hurston emphasizes in this piece is that race is a societal construct, not an inherent and distinguishable component of a person's identity. Indeed, she recalls that when she was young, she never identified as belonging to a particular race. Living in an "exclusively colored town," she only saw whites when they passed through in their automobiles. Hurston enjoyed performing for them, particularly when they gave her generous "silver" for singing and dancing, which she enjoyed anyway. As a child, she didn't attach the concept of race to these interactions.

Hurston has found that she most feels her race by the contrasts that society sometimes establishes. When she is the lone Black woman in a sea of white faces, she feels like "a dark rock surged upon, and overswept." Despite this, Hurston always "remains [her]self." Sometimes the situation is reversed, and she notices a white person alone in a crowd of Black people. She narrates one such evening when she and a white friend attended a jazz concert together. Hurston "dances wildly" inside herself, yelling and whooping. The music makes her feel the depth of her heritage, and her pulse pounds "like a war drum." At the performance's conclusion, her white friend simply comments that the place has "good music," and Hurston realizes that there is an "ocean and [a] continent" between them.

In the end, Hurston uses the metaphor of bags to again emphasize her feelings about racial differences. The purpose of the bag is to carry things, and it really doesn't matter what color those bags are. If those objects found in the bag are metaphors for various personalities, it is easily conceivable that a "first-water diamond" could just as easily be found inside any given bag as "bits of broken glass." The color of each bag is irrelevant.

Hurston thus emphasizes that the concepts that people have about race are socially constructed based on environment and circumstance. Hurston embraces the power of her heritage while refusing to become bitter about the historical implications of being a Black woman. Instead, she embraces an outlook that "no one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory."

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What is the main idea of paragraph 3 in 'How It Feels to Be Colored Me'?

In “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston offers her account on what her life was like as an African American woman in the early 1900s. In the third paragraph, Hurston compares the passing of visitors through her town of Eatonville, Florida, to having a front row seat at the theater. She says of the passers-by, “Not only did I enjoy the show, but I didn't mind the actors knowing that I liked it.” Hurston would wave or speak to the visitors, and they would usually speak back to her. She says that often, her talking to them would lead to horses or automobiles stopping, and she would "go a piece of the way" with them. Although her visitations with the white people passing through would be cut short if her family saw her, Hurston says she was the first "welcome-to-our-state Floridian."

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What multicultural considerations are presented in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

In "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston offers a highly personal model for multiculturalism. Hurston describes how she grew up in a monocultural environment. When she first saw white people as a child, she was curious about them, and welcomed them to the town and the state, relishing the opportunity to talk to people from a different cultural background. She also enjoyed performing for them, dancing and reciting poetry, for which they "gave me generously of their small silver."

This ideal of multiculturalism as mutual appreciation and discovery pervades the essay. Although Hurston encountered racism as she grew up, her exuberant attitude did not change. She did not come to see her color as separating her from other Americans, but says that she always felt herself to be "a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries." When others discriminated against her on the basis of race, she felt that they were harming themselves. "How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?"

Almost a hundred years later, it may surprise readers that "the granddaughter of slaves" could write such an optimistic essay about multiculturalism in America in 1928. The tone of the essay is largely attributable to Hurston's irrepressible personality, but the model of mutually respectful multiculturalism and multiracialism she embraces remains attractive, however difficult it is to attain.

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What is the point of view in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"?

Hurston writes "How it Feels to Be Colored Me" from the first-person perspective. Specifically, she is writing from her point of view as an exceptionally talented young Black woman experiencing the freedom and possibility that life offered in New York City in the 1920s during what was known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston was fortunate to arrive in Harlem in a boom period, when a white society awash in capital had turned its eyes toward supporting the flourishing arts scene in Harlem. Wealthy patrons, such as Charlotte Osgood Mason, believed that what they called "primitive" cultures were superior to white culture. Mason was taken by Hurston, who would perform "primitive" dances for her, and set her up with a generous stipend so that she could write and do an ethnographic study of Black folk culture. Hurston also had the opportunity, as she mentions in the essay, to attend the white Barnard College, now part of Columbia University.

Hurston, though from humble roots, found herself with a level of privilege that most people, whether Black or white, don't experience. This fueled her optimism and her individualism: it was easy for her to believe that other Black people could also transcend racism if they developed a positive attitude and threw themselves actively and headlong into life with their "oyster knives" sharpened.

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