In her 1928 essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston argues that race isn’t an essential feature that a person is born with, but instead emerges in specific social contexts. Hurston introduces this theme by describing her childhood in the majority black town of Eatonville, Florida, where, until the age of thirteen, she was not yet “colored.” It was only when she moved to the more diverse Jacksonville and later to New York City that she became aware of her race. Crucially, she also drifts away from this awareness at times, when “the cosmic Zora emerges” and she assumes a more universal identity. In detailing a personal journey towards and then away from a racialized conception of her own identity, Hurston opposes the conventional wisdom of the time that race is an inherent characteristic that determines the personality, ability, and destiny of the individual. With time, she also gains the confidence to think of her race, which has so often been used as a weapon against African-Americans, as an asset.
Hurston becomes aware of her own status as “colored” through recognizing her difference from white people. The moments when Hurston says she can most keenly “feel [her] race” occur when she moves from a black to a white community, or when a member of a white community visits her own. This suggests that race is a social phenomenon—that is, something that originates in one’s relationships to others rather than something that is essential to a person or group of people. Until the age of 13, Hurston doesn’t consider herself “colored” because no one has given her cause to think of herself in those terms. For Hurston, “white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there.” Thus, young Hurston conceived of race as more of a socioeconomic distinction, a matter of differing circumstances, than an essential difference between people. Nevertheless, race as a category begins to feel real when Hurston moves to Jacksonville, where there are more white people: “I was now a little colored girl. I found it out in certain ways,” she writes. Hurston goes from not identifying with a racial category to identifying with one completely, showing that race is no less “real” just because it is based in social perception.
Even as she considers her identity as a black woman, with time, Hurston gains the power to minimize or refuse the concept of race. She frames this using the metaphor of the bag, the most crucial aspect of which is not its appearance but what it carries. She analogizes the varied contents of a bag to aspects of a personality, both positive and negative: “A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass.” Hurston’s point is that the exterior of a bag doesn’t affect what it contains, and in this way she uses the metaphor to combat popular conceptions of race as something that determines one’s intelligence, talent, or identity.
Later in her life, Hurston also learns to lean into her African-American identity, even when this identity is maligned or mocked by both black and white acquaintances. As a child, the forced awareness of herself as “colored,” a little girl “warranted not to rub or run,” makes her visible as a target of racial discrimination and control. As an adult, she begins to view this racial visibility as a distinction. That Hurston feels she can control not only whether to identify as African-American but whether that identity is positive or negative, in defiance of wider culture, illustrates the importance of perspective rather than biology when thinking through race. She opens her essay by invoking a stereotype about African-Americans: “I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief.” In a tongue-in-cheek way, she’s pointing to what she sees as a tendency on the part of African-Americans to minimize or dilute their blackness by inventing a different ancestry for themselves, thereby claiming a different cultural and ethnic heritage. To “extenuate” something is to make it seem less offensive—more forgivable—but Hurston argues that African descent needs no such apology. She undercuts the idea that her race should be a source of shame and pointedly shows that she embraces it fully.
Furthermore, rather than shying away from the persistent stereotype that people of African descent are somehow more “primitive” than people of European descent, Hurston embraces the stereotype. Describing a scene in which she listens to a jazz band with a white friend, she falls into an ecstatic trance marked by animalistic and tribal language and writes that the orchestra “rears on its hind legs,” “clawing” at the “tonal veil.” She shakes her “assegai,” a type of African spear. Afterward, her white friend meekly calls the performance “good music.” While satirizing the idea that black Americans are in touch with such primitive spiritual forces, Hurston also makes even this stereotyped identity seem powerful and vital. Her primitive fugue reveals her experience to be much richer and more passionate than that of her companion, who is “so pale with whiteness.”
Hurston’s essay uses the framing of her childhood to illustrate that race is a concept rooted in social context, contingent on environment and cultural reinforcement. This frees her to reimagine race for her own purposes, emphasizing her own subjectivity and self-worth by twisting the language of oppression into a language of empowerment.
Race and Difference ThemeTracker
Race and Difference Quotes in How it Feels to be Colored Me
I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief.
I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town.
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.
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 but about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
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.
I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. For instance at Barnard. "Beside the waters of the Hudson" I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.
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.
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.