Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 autobiographical essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me offers a complex expression of racial identity in the United States. Samira Kawash described Hurston’s challenge to ‘the fixity and boundedness of such categories as race and nation’. Colored Me presents this challenge in the intricate interplay of the cultural community and the individual. Much of Hurston’s work celebrated the distinct cultural history of African-Americans, and explored groups largely ignored or obscured by misrepresentation in the white media. However, Colored Me works to some extent to blur racial distinction in the United States, and Hurston bases this on an exploration of being ‘colored’. While Hurston expresses cultural and racial pride, she views the ideas of ‘white’ and ‘colored’ as a distinct opposition which seeks to define society fundamentally along a racial line. Hurston deconstructs and dismisses this all-consuming racial definition and celebrates herself as a unique individual whose identity draws from her race and culture amongst a ‘miscellany’ of aspects.
The notion of being ‘colored’ is established as Hurston contrasts her childhood with her adult life. Of key importance is the idea that she ‘became colored’ on a specific day during her thirteenth year. This sentence clarifies Hurston’s conception of ‘colored’ as something that does not truly equate with her racial identity, but as a term imposed on her by American society. Hurston grew up in the Florida town of Eatonville, which was ‘exclusively a colored town’. She describes revelling in the uniqueness of her race to the passing guests, particularly the Northerners who ‘peered cautiously from behind curtains’. She perceived little difference between herself and the white community except that ‘they rode through the town and never lived there’. However, upon leaving Eatonville, Hurston’s race became the fundamental aspect of her perceived identity. This is most apparent in her transformation from ‘everybody’s Zora’ to the ‘little colored girl’- a shift from a term which encompasses her individuality and value, to one which replaces all individual identity simply with the vast impersonal concepts of race and gender.
Throughout the latter half of the essay Hurston presents a tension between her ‘color’ and her individuality as she fluctuates between identifying with, and distancing herself from, her race. The vivid description of the Cabaret where her ‘color comes’, or the image ‘beside the waters of the Hudson’ where she is ‘a dark rock surged upon’, are powerful depictions of a sense of racial unity against the ‘sharp white background’. However, this is intertwined the assertion that she is not ‘tragically colored’; here forming a barrier between herself and what she calls the ‘sobbing school of Negrohood’ – a reference to the voices of social protest, and thus indicative of Hurston’s alienation of many of those involved in the Harlem Renaissance. She occasionally separates herself entirely from the notion of racial identity stating ‘at certain times, I have no race’, instead being replaced by the ‘cosmic Zora’ who belongs to no race or time. This builds on the transformation from ‘everybody’s Zora’ to the ‘little colored girl’, now Hurston transforms herself into an absolute spiritual version who exists beyond the limitations of human society.
Colored Me is deeply engaged with the discourse of the Harlem Renaissance on race in the U.S. and on the African-American artist’s representation of racial identity. Firstly, Hurston’s fluctuating relationship with her race and her primary desire to express herself as an individual may prove problematic in regards to Langston Hughes’s argument in the essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. Here Hughes criticizes the ‘black poet who says “I want to be a poet, not a negro poet”’, suggesting that the denial of race is an ‘urge […] towards whiteness’. However, Hurston’s essay suggests that the choice between ‘poet’ or ‘negro poet’ is too simplistic. She suggests that racial identity is important, but if it is made the single defining characteristic of an individual it is damagingly reductive. This is a contentious issue which continues into the modern day.
Hurston’s controversial discussion of slavery allows for further examination of artistic representations of race and identity. She dismissively states that ‘slavery is 60 years in the past’ and it does not depress her. In fact, she concludes, the present situation of the white population is more ‘difficult’ stating ‘the game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting’. In omitting a tragic representation of slavery, and replacing it with a satirical comment on modern society, Hurston seeks to remove herself from a history of oppression and an artistic tradition of tragic narrative styles. She presents herself as a modern individual who will not be defined by the past. Instead she sharpens her ‘oyster knife’ preparing to actively take what she wants from the world. Hurston’s distinct lack of discussion of her feminine identity – excluding the mention of it in ‘cosmic’ form as the ‘eternal feminine’ (where it has become something God-like and powerful) – may also be a conscious effort to remove herself from a position lacking power and agency.
Finally, the New World Cabaret passage has been under particular academic scrutiny due to Hurston’s identification of her racial identity with the primitivist stereotype. In the Cabaret Hurston is taken over by her ‘color’, she describes herself as ‘in the jungle and living in the jungle way’. Brian Carr and Tova Cooper dismiss criticism of this as ‘a failure to read Hurston as contingently and ironically as she deserves’. They cite the passage as an ‘engagement with white stereotypes’ rather than an expression of these stereotypes; as ‘skin paint, rather than skin complexion’. Hurston’s deliberate term ‘primitive fury’ indicates she is aware of the stereotype she addresses, and ‘fury’ connects it immediately to anger and danger. In the passage, she transforms the simplistic primitivist stereotype, as something innocuous and exotic, into something dangerous and resentful. Zora’s description of the Cabaret maintains a powerful connection between the spirit of jazz music and its African roots; however it mocks the simplicity of the white stereotype which has appropriated this idea for entertainment.
In Colored Me Hurston presents a valuable exploration of her strained relationship with race and identity. Hurston conveys ideas of the ‘New Negro’ in her deconstruction of old stereotypes and her assertion of a new, powerful and confrontational African-American voice. However, she refuses to be defined fundamentally by this idea. Hurston’s celebration of herself as a complex and ever- changing individual expresses her refusal to be defined by any single aspect of her identity.
Lori Jirousek, ‘”That Commonality of Feeling”: Hurston, Hybridity, and Ethnography’ in African American Review, 38 (2004), p.417.
For example, her folklore anthropological works such as Mules and Men in the U.S. and Tell My Horse in the Caribbean.
Zora Neale Hurston, ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’ in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1914- 1945 ed. by Julia Reidhead (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), p.541
Hurston, p.539; Lovalerie King, The Cambridge Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.106.
Langston Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926) <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm> [Accessed on 4th March 2014].
Brian Carr and Tova Cooper, ‘Zora Neale Hurston and Modernism At The Critical Limit’ in Modern Fiction Studies, 48 (2002), p.293.
Alain Locke, Enter The New Negro (1925), <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/migrations/text8/lockenewnegro.pdf> [Accessed on 4th March 2014]