From the beginning of her essay, Zora Neale Hurston’s ideas about race are bound up in creative performance. Her earliest experiences with white people are of singing and dancing for a white audience. Just as she reconfigures ideas of race to her advantage, she uses the otherwise unwelcome scrutiny of white people as an opportunity for creative development. In this way, Hurston’s essay is as much a story of her journey as an artist as it is an essay about race. From her first shows for a white audience in Eatonville to her later, more self-aware performances in Manhattan, Hurston turns the intrusive white gaze into a spotlight. The production of culture for white audiences, whether singing for tourists or playing jazz for white intellectuals, gives Hurston and black artists in general some control over their destinies. Hurston inverts a dynamic wherein white people observe from a position of power while black people are seen and helpless—and in doing so she’s rewarded with money as well as a cautious respect.
Hurston recalls her early childhood to describe the ways in which white spectators objectify black performers, treating them as a something to ogle and applaud. This points to a more general power asymmetry between black and white people. For example, the white Northern tourists who drive through Eatonville freely gawk at the town’s black residents, while many of Eatonville’s residents don’t feel secure enough to observe the white visitors in return. Hurston writes that white people who came to Eatonville “were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid.” More “venturesome” residents would come out to the porch, thereby opening themselves up not only to a relationship of seeing and being seen, but also to the pleasure of watching the northerners. In her brazenness, the young Hurston even thinks of the northerners as being there for her amusement and is confident enough to show it: “Not only did I enjoy the show, but I didn't mind the actors knowing that I liked it.” Moreover, she’s also willing to return the favor of being a spectacle, singing and dancing for the northerners while seeing nothing sordid or weak in the act of performance. Hurston is aware that there is a certain amount of power that white audiences wield over black performers through their spectatorship, but as she comes into her own as an artist, she begins to view the ability to command the audience’s attention—to stand out and demand to be seen—as an equally powerful position.
The older Hurston also relishes being watched, even if her race is the reason. Describing herself against the “sharp white background” of Barnard College, she writes that, “among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself.” She finds power in being noticeable in these moments because it secures her sense of self. Hurston’s performative flair helps her project power as an object worthy of the attention she receives. When she walks down the street she “saunters” and is “as snooty as the lions.” Furthermore, her bearing is “aristocratic,” suggesting the privilege and power in attracting attention.
The pleasure Hurston takes in being seen awakens her identity as an artist. To hold the attention of others, whether tourists or her colleagues at the jazz club, she sings and dances, making a spectacle of herself. Instead of feeling degraded by the attention of a white audience, this helps point her towards creative fulfillment. The approval and money Hurston receives from white tourists is her first indication that art and performance could be a livelihood. The tourists “gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things”—things that Hurston would do anyway. Embedded in this is a realization that her small personal joys can be converted into a vocation when performed in front of an audience, specifically a white one. All the while, she’s aware that her white audiences are enraptured by her performances in part because, as a black woman, she is an exotic curiosity to them. But rather than allowing herself to feel objectified by their gaze, this just drives her to greater heights of achievement. She conceives of herself in history as an actor on a stage: “It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.” Notably, her language here is active rather than passive: she is not merely seen but holds center stage. In this way, she draws attention to her power as a performer in commanding the attention of her audience.
At a time when slavery was still a recent memory for many Americans and a new social order between races was slowly emerging, blacks and whites alike were intensely watchful of one another. Often it was white people who felt entitled to gaze at (and objectify) black bodies, while many black people, by contrast, remained fearful of what would happen if they tried assuming the position of the spectator themselves. Hurston, however, finds strength in being seen and watched. For her, being seen is not a sign of submission, but rather an indication of her power and her accomplishments—proof that her talent is too good to ignore.
Performance Quotes in How it Feels to be Colored Me
The front porch might seem a daring place for the rest of the town, but it was a gallery seat for me. My favorite place was atop the gatepost. Proscenium box for a born first-nighter. Not only did I enjoy the show, but I didn't mind the actors knowing that I liked it.
They liked to hear me "speak pieces" and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop, only they didn't know it. The colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless.
It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost. It is thrilling to think—to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.
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.