Zora Neale Hurston states that she is “colored” and does so without any apology or “extenuating circumstances.” She won’t claim any distant Native-American ancestry to complicate her race, as other African-Americans might.
At the time Hurston was writing, African-Americans faced widespread racial discrimination from both individuals and educational, financial, and political institutions. Hurston describes a tendency for African-Americans to minimize or exoticize their racial identities to escape such discrimination or force others to treat them as individuals. The fact that claiming different ancestry is common and sometimes effective illustrates how vague and malleable racial identity can be. Nevertheless, Hurston chooses to run towards rather than away from her African-American identity.
Hurston claims she remembers the first day she “became colored,” which occurred when she was thirteen.
Popular thought holds that race is an essential or biological characteristic of an individual. By stating that she “became colored,” Hurston argues that race can be more a matter of social reinforcement and changing perspective. In short, she was not colored until people made her feel that way.
Hurston describes her childhood growing up in Eatonville, Florida, a successful all-black community. The only time she saw white people was when they were traveling through their town on their way to or from Orlando. The people of the town were indifferent to southern whites on their horses, but northern whites who drove through in cars were a spectacle, and many ventured out to the porch to gawk at them.
Hurston introduces class and geography as crucial factors in her childhood understanding of race. This illustrates that the concept of race isn’t completely stable, as it’s affected by other factors of identity. Whether white people own horses or cars marks them as lower or upper class respectively. Southern whites, being closer socioeconomically to the black residents of Eatonville, can be freely be ignored, but northern whites, whose whiteness is amplified by wealth and geographic distance, are truly foreign and merit observation.
Although some shied away from watching the tourists, Hurston loved to watch them and didn’t mind that the tourists noticed. She would speak and wave to them, sometimes walking alongside them as they passed through. She even jokes that the Chamber of Commerce should have taken notice of her efforts. But if her family noticed her welcoming the white travelers, she would have to stop.
Hurston distinguishes between Eatonville residents confident enough to observe the white tourists and those who aren’t. The fact that the northern whites are tourists gives them the power to observe their surroundings, but young Zora reverses this power dynamic by acting like the tourists are there for her entertainment.
When she was a child, Hurston believed the only difference between white and black people was that white people would pass through town but never stay. Even so, she would perform for the white tourists, singing and dancing, which they would sometimes reward with a dime. This surprised her because performing was something she would do anyway. The black locals would never pay her for a song, but she knew they cared about her nonetheless.
As a child Hurston is protected from the worst indignities of racism, as she lives in an all-black town. But through her performance for the white tourists, she starts to detect a difference in the white visitors, namely that they have money and will pay for art and entertainment. This begins to stoke her awareness that art can be financially as well as personally rewarding. In contrast, the black residents of Eatonville won’t pay her to sing, but they treat her with true affection—marking the difference between a community and an audience.
After Hurston turns thirteen, her family moves to Jacksonville, Florida, where the makeup of the community is very different. Here, she says, she stopped being “Zora” and turned into a “little colored girl.” Along with this recognition of her race comes a new sense of scrutiny and control from the community.
Hurston’s move to Jacksonville inaugurates her “colored” life, as this presumably larger and whiter city recognizes and enforces racial distinctions that Eatonville doesn’t. Crucially, she feels that she loses her identity as “Zora” and her former charmed childhood. Instead, she’s stamped as one example of a larger category, which comes with a loss of the privileges she had in Eatonville. By postponing a racial awareness until a move in her thirteenth year, Hurston seems to say that race is a function of place and society.
Hurston rejects the notion of being “tragically colored,” which she explains as nurturing a sense of grievance or victimhood for historical wrongs. She contrasts herself with other African-Americans, who she says feel victimized by their oppression. Instead, she claims the powerful work their will regardless of race, and she can’t be bothered to ruminate over the sins of the past when she’s so busy getting the most out of life.
Hurston again separates herself from a prevalent current of African-American thought. In place of a history of African-American oppression that pivots on race, she substitutes one that focuses on power. She doesn’t dismiss the horror of slavery or the prevalence of racism, but still wants to think that the world is open to her, and that an African-American woman of supreme talents can still succeed. Her ambition clashes with what she calls the “sobbing school” of African-American thought, which leads her to a view of history that (intentionally or not) downplays the severity of racism and the legacy of slavery.
Instead of a backward-looking worldview that focuses on past wrongs, Hurston looks to the future and the possibility of greater freedom and achievement. Hurston specifically complains about the tendency to overemphasize the legacy of slavery, which she dismisses by placing it “sixty years in the past.” She describes the centuries of slavery as a sacrifice so that African-Americans could gain freedom and opportunity, “the price paid for civilization.”
Elaborating on her view of history, Hurston suggests that people who emphasize the continuing impact of slavery may be hindering her by putting obstacles in her path. Her own history of race describes it as a steady evolution towards black freedom and empowerment. She acknowledges that this happened only through tremendous sacrifice. This transactional view of history diverges sharply from the views of many black thinkers, then and now, demonstrating a diversity of thought for African-American historians and anthropologists as well as a characteristic optimism and self-confidence.
Hurston describes her experience now as an adventure and a grand opportunity for glory. As an African-American, she’s viewed by whites as a representative of her race, which raises the stakes for her conduct and achievement. The scrutiny of white America creates a “national” stage on which Hurston can hold her performance.
Here, the theme of performance is directly invoked as a way to understand race relations in the American 1920s. Whereas white people get the privilege of being treated as individuals whose conduct doesn’t bear on their larger racial group, a single African-American’s behavior will necessarily stand in for that of all African-Americans in the eyes of white America. Although this is generally understood as harmful discrimination, Hurston considers the attention positive and the wild swings of fortune exciting. Given her fruitful experience with a white audience as a child in Eatonville, she feels ready for the challenge.
On the other hand, her “white neighbor,” and white America as a whole, must bear the historical guilt of slavery. “Brown specters” and “dark ghosts” trouble the white neighbor as he tries to go about his life. His future task is to try to keep as much as he can of what he already has. Hurston’s task is to win it for herself.
Hurston makes a provocative point: the trajectory of African-American progress is just as important as its current position. Here, as elsewhere, she approaches black racial progress as a gladiator, hoping to win glory and spoils for herself. She’s also unorthodox in evaluating the psychological and material condition of different social groups. Although white America holds most of the wealth and power, its “soul” is haunted by slavery, which will harm its future progress.
That said, Hurston notes that she doesn’t always feel “colored.” She feels it most in white places like Barnard College in Manhattan, where she studies. There, she feels like a dark rock which the white sea breaks upon, but as the waves recede the rock still stands.
Hurston echoes the idea that “coloredness” is a relative condition—that it’s produced in majority-white environments where others, either explicitly or implicitly, enforce differences between white and black people. She also gives an indication of why she doesn’t feel “tragically colored.” Before, she felt as if her new identity “little colored girl” erased her identity as Zora. Now, her status as a black woman reinforces her identity, and she uses an image of solidity and perseverance to emphasize that. It’s a way she can keep a sense of self in a foreign community.
To illustrate this, Hurston tells a story about taking a white friend to a black jazz club. As the band plays, she experiences a sort of trance where she returns to a more primitive time, seeing a jungle and finding herself in tribal paint shaking a spear. She wants to “slaughter” something, to kill and give pain. Then the song ends, and she returns to “civilization.”
In the form of this anecdote, Hurston grapples with the persistent and vile stereotype that African-Americans are somehow more primitive and less civilized than other ethnicities. She recalls a tribal, warlike past, but she does so in writing that’s poetic and thrilling. As a result, the less “civilized” life feels more vital than a modern one. By embracing the insult, Hurston removes some of its sting. This also implies a closer relationship to art, which Hurston views as one of the talents that allows her passage and privilege in white environments.
While Hurston was in a trance, her friend had been smoking calmly. He seems untouched by the music, giving a bland compliment. Hurston sees him as if “across a continent” and describes him as “pale with his whiteness” in a way that lacks passion and vitality.
While turning a racist trope into an asset, Hurston also inverts the supposed benefits of civilization that white people of her time were quick to claim. She places herself “across a continent” from her companion, the difference between Africa and Europe or America. But the composure and stoicism that are hallmarks of civilization look very different in the light of the jazz club. Civilization only gets in the way of a primal and direct experience with art. Here, “white” could be synonymous with cold and lifeless rather than the positive qualities that white America claimed for itself.
At other times, Hurston feels like she has no race. She feels like the expression of an eternal femininity or just one fragment of a “Great Soul.” When she walks the streets, she feels “snooty” and “aristocratic.” Of course, she experiences racism, but she only pities the racist for depriving themselves of her company.
Hurston isn’t limited by her black identity, as she also embraces her female identity, or, at times, simply disavows identity altogether to be a piece of the “Great Soul.” Her efforts to pick up or put down identities at will benefits from a sort of performance. She describes walking down the street in Manhattan as an American aristocrat. Even when she mentions experiencing discrimination, she’s haughty rather than hurt. This mock-arrogance too is performative, another identity that helps Hurston circumvent the racism of her time.
Hurston describes herself as a brown bag among white, yellow, and red bags. Each bag has a jumble of contents both marvelous and ordinary, such as a “first-water diamond” or a “dried flower or two still a little fragrant.”
The differently colored bags are Hurston’s central metaphor for her mature understanding of race. The colors of the bag correspond to skin color and external appearance, and the varied contents represent thoughts, memories, emotions, and experiences particular to each individual. The contents Hurston describes are both beautiful and mundane, but they all surpass the exterior of the bags in specificity of detail. Hurston seems to say that this internal content is much more important and also much more interesting than a flat, one-word description of skin color.
Although each bag has its own assortment of objects, they’re often similar to the objects in differently colored bags. Hurston supposes that all the bags could be emptied and replaced at random without altering the contents of each to fit the bag. She even speculates that the “Great Stuffer of Bags,” might have originally filled the bags randomly.
By stating that the objects in different-colored bags are similar, Hurston suggests that there’s nothing about skin color that mandates certain thoughts, emotions, or talents. Non-white people can acquire the same experiences and abilities if allowed the personal freedom to do so. Hurston’s final idea that the “Great Stuffer of Bags,” or god, distributed these qualities randomly regardless of race approaches satire because she phrases it as if it’s an inflammatory suggestion. It’s a completely reasonable idea that nevertheless would be controversial in Hurston’s time.